HL Deb 11 May 1843 vol 69 cc175-86
Earl Stanhope

said, that in presenting, in pursuance of the notice which he had given, the petition from the county meeting recently held at Aylesbury, it was not his intention to trouble their Lordships at any length; but he trusted that he might be permitted to make a few observations, in justice, not only to the petitioners, but also to the subject, which was of extreme and paramount importance. This petition was the more justly entitled to be considered, as the real, genuine, unbiassed expression of the opinion of the farmers of that county, in consequence of a circumstance which, in all other respects, he must lament, namely, that the meeting from which this petition proceeded, was not suggested, or supported, or presided over, by any of the great landed proprietors of Buckinghamshire. It had, therefore, been shown by this memorable example that the farmers of Buckinghamshire would not act with that servile submission to their landlords which had so frequently, but so unjustly, been charged against them, and that they did not consider the Corn-law to be what it was constantly, but falsely, represented to be, a landlord's question, in which the tenants had no interest whatever. The Corn-law was primarily a labourer's question. It had immediate, and direct, and most important influence, both in the employment and the remuneration of labour. One of the first as well as the most calamitous effects which arose from a depression of agriculture was a diminution in the means of employing labourers, and a decrease in the amount of wages, and this had recently been the case in different counties in which the labourers received a scanty pittance of 9s. a week, but which pittance, scanty as it was, had now been reduced to 7s. a week. He held that the labouring classes whether employed in agriculture or in any other occupation, had an undoubted right to demand full and effectual protection of their interests, and that it was not only their right, but their bounden duty to oppose, by all legal and constitutional means, any measure which would tend either to deprive them of employment or to diminish their wages. This was also a farmer's question, for those who employed their capital, their skill, and industry, in the cultivation of the soil, had as good a right to some return for their capital as if they had embarked it in cotton mills, or any other manufacture. He said, that they had a better right, inasmuch as they contributed—which the manufacturers did not, in any fair or just proportion—to the support of those workmen who might be deprived of employment, whether through the introduction of new machinery or from depression of trade, and because their distresses could not be attributed, as was the case in manufactures, to over speculation and over production, which naturally tended to glut the market. But were it solely or exclusively a landlord's question, he should wish to know whether a landlord who invested money in land and farm buildings had not as much claim for a return for his capital as if he had invested it in the public funds; and their Lordships must be aware that if rents were not paid the dividends would cease to be paid also. Notwithstanding this community of interests in the agricultural classes, this petition was not adopted unanimously nor without free discussion, nor without having heard the arguments of a noble Earl who was an advocate for free trade and of an hon. Baronet who was in favour of protection. That meeting- exhibited a striking contrast to those held by the advocates of free trade in corn, where no freedom of discussion existed and where no speech could be delivered in opposition to the views there entertained, without the speaker either being silenced or ejected by the chairman. But this objection was taken, ft was said, this meeting ought to have take n place last year, when the Corn Bill and the new tariff were still in progress. He would fully admit that such might be the case, but he doubted whether, at the time those measures were in progress, the agricultural classes in general were sufficiently enlightened on the subject. Now, he (Earl Stanhope) said, that at no period ought they to be so active and so energetic in their own defence as at the present moment. If the meeting had been held last year, the opinion then expressed would have been founded on a just and reasonable anticipation of the results which the measures now before Parliament were calculated to produce; but in the present case they had proceeded on the bitter experience of destructive and disastrous effects of those measures. Another assertion was, that the meeting was premature. Could it be premature to hold a county meeting in defence of agriculture when they knew that a depression of from 20 to 30 per cent, had taken place in all articles of agricultural produce, and when they knew in many instances that no rent for land could be paid except from the capital of the tenant? They knew, too, that tenants who had left their farms were unwilling to take others at any rent, and that with a maximum duty of 20s. foreign wheat was now sold at Liverpool at a profit of 3s. But this was not all—they were threatened with the introduction of a Canada Corn bill, which, as far as regarded the whole continent of North America, would entirely abrogate the Corn-law of last Session and establish in its place a low fixed duty. It was said that the last harvest was an abundant one. He denied that it was so in the large corn growing counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and that part of Kent in which he resided. If the harvest had been abundant could there have been such an importation as three millions of foreign corn. In 1834 the price of corn was as low as at present, but then, for the three preceding years the harvests had been deficient. The present depression of price was solely attributable to the new Corn-law. Those who recommended delay and procrastination, and who thought that county meetings were pre- ings should be too long delayed. Amongst the various evils and grievances which now afflicted and alarmed the country, there was not one which might not be remedied by legislative interference, and such being the case, redress could not be refused without the most flagrant injustice, and could not be delayed without imminent danger to all classes of the community; and it required not the gift of prophecy to see if these evils should be left unremedied, and county meetings should then be held, that those meetings would not content themselves with demanding as was done in the county of Bucks, the restoration of the former protection to native industry, but that they would require that organic change in the constitution which whatever dangers might attend it, would still appear to be preferable to the continuance of the present system. It had been said at the Anti Corn-law League, that the speakers at this meeting were the advocates of monopoly. Those who made that assertion were ignorant of the signification of the word monopoly. If any degree of protection, however, moderate, was to be called monopoly, he would wish to know what trade, what occupation in this country did not deserve to be called a monopoly? The two principles on which this petition was founded, were protection to native industry against the competition of foreigners, who paid a much less amount of taxation than we did, and that it was the paramount duty of the Government to provide profitable employment for the people. He had no doubt that these principles, founded as they were in truth all the flimsy theories of the present age-and that they would be reasserted and resumed in all their original strength, but he believed that could not be accomplished until the evils of the present system should be further demonstrated to the country— and until the country had passed through a series of sufferings greater than those by which any other nation had ever been visited. The noble Earl concluded by moving that the petition do lie on the Table.

The Duke of Buckingham,

begged to give the petition his warmest support. He entertained a firm conviction that the measure of the Government last year had been in the highest degree prejudicial to the agricultural interest, and he was there- fore not at all surprised at the demand made by the farmers for that protection to which they justly considered themselves entitled. When he looked back to that measure he remembered perfectly well that he had warned his noble Friends that their measure would be altogether unsatisfactory to all parties; that while it would in no degree satisfy the opponents of the Corn-law of that period, it would inflict upon the farming interest extreme loss and suffering. He had since found no reason to alter the opinion he then expressed; on the contrary, he had become more and more convinced of the accuracy of that opinion, namely, that the alteration of the law, while it satisfied no party, would be greatly prejudicial to the agriculturists. He wished the noble Duke, who represented the Government in that House, would adopt, in reference to the existing Anti-Corn-law agitation, the same firm language which the other night he had, at so timely a period, made use of with respect to another species of agitation which was disturbing the sister country. He greatly wished that the noble Duke, or some Member of the Government would come forward, and at once and distinctly state what were their intentions as to the present Corn-law; and state whether or no it was their purpose to abide by that law as it now stood, and not to suffer any further alteration. Bad as that law in its altered shape was, yet it was better than the free trade which was so loudly advocated; and, at all events, it was in the highest degree desirable that the Government should definitively and explicitly let the agriculturists and the country know what their real intentions were. Before he sat down, he must add one word; the noble Earl had stated that the meeting in question had not been attended by the leading landed proprietors of the county; the fault that it had not been so attended lay with the noble Earl himself, if the noble Earl bad communicated his intentions to the gentry of the county, no doubt he would have been supported by the presence of the landed proprietors on that occasion. When a county meeting was called, the noble Earl must be aware that it was usual to communicate with the gentlemen of the county upon the subject previously; but he had reason to believe that, except in one or two cases, his noble Friend had not adopted this course on the occasion in question. The only intelli gence which reached the gentry of the county as to the intentions of the noble Earl was through the medium of the newspapers; and the noble Earl must, therefore, lay the blame of the omission he had pointed out, not upon the landowners of Buckinghamshire, but upon the want of courtesy of which, though of course, with no discourteous motives, he was himself chargeable in reference to them. On the occasion referred to, he would add, there was no sort of influence made use of, but every farmer present expressed his opinions boldly and freely. He gave his full adhesion to the honesty of purpose which pervaded that meeting, and he only regretted that, in consequence of the mismanagement of the noble Earl himself, there had not been thousands present, instead of hundreds.

Earl Stanhope

was delighted at the sentiments expressed upon the subject by the noble Duke. The only reason why he had not applied upon the occasion referred to for the inestimable assistance of the noble Duke was, that he considered he stood no chance of being favoured with his assistance any more on that than on certain other occasions in which he had solicited the co-operation of the noble Duke, in reference, for instance, to the Society for the Protection of British Industry, to which he had unsuccessfully endeavoured to induce the noble Duke to lend the sanction of his influential name. If the coble Duke had not been indisposed to support his (Earl Stanhope's) well-known views, why had he not come to support him at that meeting? For himself he must say, that he did not anticipate the support of either of the great contending parties, until their pockets were thoroughly emptied, which he had reason to believe would very soon be the case.

The Duke of Buckingham

readily admitted that he had declined the honour of becoming a Member of the society of which the noble Earl was president; but he had done so because he did not think it was likely to be a useful society; and he was not aware that it had yet effected any good; but that was no reason why the noble Earl should suppose if he had invited him in the usual way that he would not have attended and given him his support at the county meeting. No communication had been made, except in a few cases, with the gentlemen of Buckingham- shire. That being the case, as the noble Earl admitted, he must repeat that the county had not been treated very courteously by the noble Earl, He did not mean to charge the noble Earl with discourtesy, bat be considered that he had acted a mistaken part on the occasion. If be had called the meeting in the usual way he would readily have attended it.

Earl Fitzwilliam

asked whether the noble Baron opposite, the President of the Council (who bad risen in advance to the Table), were going to speak. [Lord Wharncliffe: " No."] What not speak ! He must confess himself altogether surprised. What I when the noble Duke opposite, himself once connected with the Government, by whose influence and the influence of whose principles the Government at the late election bad been enabled to take such a position had been enabled to return to Parliament a House of Commons, which might be considered, par excellence, the landlords' House of Commons, when this noble Duke put to the Government, his quondam associates and protogés, a distinct question as to what were their intentions with respect to a matter in which he and his Friends in the landlords' House of Commons were so in-terested—considering, too, that it was a question upon a subject now actually before Parliament for consideration, it was really most surprising, most extraordinary, that neither the noble Baron, nor the noble Duke, nor the noble Earl, nor any of the seven or eight Members of the Government who were then sitting on the opposite Benches, would condescend to make the noble Duke who asked them whether they meant to make any further alteration in the Corn-laws, the slightest answer. The noble Earl told them, that in some districts the farmers were quitting their farms in every direction, and would not take other farms, even though they might have them without paying rent. He told them that the miserable pittance lately received by the agricultural labourers of 9s. a-week, was being very generally reduced to the far more miserable pittance of 7s. a-week. Now, this was surely a frightful state of things. And here he would beg to suggest to the consideration of noble Lords, whether the distress of the manufacturing districts was not one of the causes which had led to the fall of wages in the agricultural districts. If the noble Earl opposite had taken the advice which he gave him some time ago, and had taken the chair at the board of guardians at Sevenoaks union, in one day the noble Earl would have discovered one source of the agricultural distress in the number of labourers who, having formerly left the agricultural for the manufacturing districts, were returning now to the agricultural districts, in consequence of the want of employment in the manufacturing districts. The noble Earl seemed very sure that Parliament had in its own hands the remedy for all the evils which now afflicted the country. If so, the noble Earl was, in all probability, prepared with some sketches of the legislative measures upon the various parts of this complicated subject, which the noble Earl thought would answer that end, and would really impart them to the House. For his own part, he was very glad that the Canada Corn Bill was to be introduced, against which the noble Earl protested; he regarded it as a very clear and satisfactory indication of what were the intentions of the Government as to the Corn-laws. He agreed in an observation that fell from the noble Duke, that nothing could be more injurious to the agricultural interest, both landlords and tenants, than the silence of her Majesty's Government as to their future conduct with respect to the Corn-laws.

Lord Wharncliffe

had previously risen to move the adjournment of the House, as he was not aware that any question had been put to him, or to any other Member of her Majesty's Government, by his noble Friend. If the noble Duke did ask any question, he should be most sorry to have shown any apparent want of respect in not answering; but having acted so recently together in the same Cabinet, he was sure that his noble Friend would acquit him of intending to show his noble Friend any want of respect. With respect to the question itself, which was repeated by the noble Earl, he could only say that he did not think that there was any necessity to give a further answer than had been given at the commencement of this Session, on the motion of the noble Lord opposite, and a similar answer had been given in the House of Commons, that the Government did not intend to propose any further alteration in the Corn-law during the present Session. There was a debate at the present moment going on in the House of Commons on the subject, when the Government would give fresh assur- ance on the subject, if necessary. He did not see what further answer could be given than that already given, that they did not intend to propose any alteration of the present law. He denied that the Canada Corn Bill was any alteration in the Corn-law of last year. He said this distinctly, for the measure was distinctly announced last year as a portion of the Government plan, and when the bill came to be discussed, he would undertake to show that, so far from this measure being likely to prove injurious to the farmer it would be advantageous to him.

Lord Beaumont

perfectly agreed with the noble Earl that the silence of the Government as to their future conduct with respect to the Corn-laws had been productive of great evil to the agricultural interest.

The Duke of Wellington

would remind the House that about a fortnight or three weeks ago he had stated that he had given notice himself last Session respecting the introduction of the Canada Corn Bill, but he now found that his noble Friend the President of the Board of Trade had done so. Indeed, the noble Baron (Lord Monteagle) opposite admitted at the commencement of the Session that such notice had been given.

The Earl of Radnor

believed that such notice had been given, but still the agriculturists might be taken by surprise by the extent of the measure; but he had no wish to canvass the Canada Corn Bill at present. They had been told that the Corn-law of last year was only an experiment, and that it had not yet had a fair trial. Now he wished to know when it would be considered to have had a fair trial, so that they might deal with it accordingly. For his part he was perfectly satisfied that it was altogether a failure. He was convinced that a great change was rapidly taking place in the minds of the agricultural class, as to the effect of the Corn-laws, and that the opinion was daily gaining ground among them that it was for their interest that there should be a change in the whole system.

Lord Monteagle

said that, in reference to what had fallen from the noble Duke, he recollected incidentally to have stated, in the early part of the Session, that he distinctly understood that the Government had declared last year that they intended during the present year to introduce a measure relative to the importation of com from Canada; but he confessed that he did not believe that either the Parliament or the public could then at all anticipate its extent. He was not then acquainted with the nature of it, but now that he was, it should have his consent and entire support. While he was on his legs he would suggest to the noble Duke (the Duke of Buckingham), and other noble Lords who were such strenuous advocates of protection to the agriculturists, that if they considered the subject fully, they would at last be satisfied, that as long as they asked for protection under a sliding-scale, that the operation would be the same, and that the speculators in corn would keep it back from the market until the duties were at the lowest point, when they would bring a much greater supply into the market than was immediately called for, or than the exigency of the case required; when the result would be, that in consequence of this large quantity being swept into the market, their prices would most seriously and rapidly fall, and that at a period when the farmer felt it necessary to bring his new crop to market. This, he believed, would be found to be the inevitable result of all sliding-scales. He believed that within a very short period a serious and extensive change of opinion had taken place in the minds of agriculturists on the subject of the Corn-laws. He was glad to learn that at the meeting at Aylesbury, when this petition was adopted, both parties had been listened to with the greatest attention, and that the opinions on both sides were fairly and candidly expressed, and that the matter was fully discussed; and alt that he asked for, as a friend of a free-trade in corn, was that opportunities should be afforded for discussing the subject, and he had no fear as to the result. When he used the expression free-trade in corn, he begged it to be distinctly understood that he included in it the imposition of any countervailing duties as an equivalent for any taxes that might be found to fall exclusively on any particular class, and still less did he except the imposition of a duty for the purposes of revenue.

Earl Stanhope

observed, that that was not the meaning the Anti Corn-law League attached to the term " a free trade in corn."

Lord Monteagle

said, that he had nothing to do with the opinions entertained by that body, but such as he had stated were the principles to which he adhered.

Lord Ashburton

said, there was one admission of the noble Lord who had last spoken in which he concurred, and it was most important that it should be noted by the country, and especially by the farmers: namely, that the present depression of the value of agricultural produce had no connexion whatever with the Corn-law of last year. That admission was very important, and he fully concurred in the opinion that, if the old Corn-law had remained in existence, the same depreciation would have taken place; it was not owing to any alteration of the Corn-law, or to the Tariff, or to the importation of cattle. There was another part of the noble Lord's statement in which he concurred, and he had stated the same opinion to their Lordships before the alteration of the Corn-law—that it was difficult to keep up a sliding scale in the face of a constant deficiency of supply in corn. If they established the scale on the principle that the produce of the country was as ten, and the consumption as twelve or thirteen, it was clear that the speculator had only to wait his time, and he would be sure to come in at the low duty. That was the difficulty. What he maintained was, that the farmers of this country were entitled, in some shape or other, to protection, and to a protection about that given by the scale now existing; he thought it protected, perhaps, a little too high, and he should oppose any alteration for the extension of protection. But as to the power of protection persons might differ, and he should always be ready (without caring one straw about being reproached with changing his opinion) to make a concession for the benefit of the country. He had no hesitation in saying, that if any noble Lord could convince him that even the abolition of these laws, would be productive of benefit to the community, he would support the proposition. With regard to the alteration which was said to be coming, and which had been announced as part of the scheme of last year, if he could make up his mind that it was dealing unfairly as to the amount of protection to which the agricultural interest was entitled, he should not vote for it in any shape; but whilst it would, in his opinion, be of very slight operation, as far as he could make out, the measure would be rather beneficial to the landed interest. The principle on which he argued, was the difficulty of maintaining the sliding-scale if there were a real deficiency of supply. Suppose it were to turn out that we did not produce sufficient for our own consumption, a small amount of grain from Canada would fill up the deficiency, and prevent our markets from being opened to the great and overwhelming supply from the Baltic. His impression was, that the probable tendency of the Canada Corn-bill would be to protect the landed interest of this country against the corn that would otherwise come from the Baltic.

Lord Brougham

said, as noble Lords had stated that they retained their former opinion upon this subject, he rose merely to say, that there had not been any change in his opinion. At the same time, as his noble Friend had observed, if he found his opinion to be wrong, he should feel no shame in abandoning it. He thought that corn was an unfit subject for taxation, and that if a tax was levied upon it at all, for a revenue, it should be taken at the mill, or on the farm, and not on importation, which raised the price of the whole, whilst the revenue was levied only on a part. He differed, however, from some who objected to the Corn-law. He did not agree with those who held that it was a religious question, except in the sense in which other similar questions might be called religious; and he did not consider that the question of " cheap bread for the people" wag involved in the Corn-law at all. He did not think that the abolition of the law would materially diminish the price of bread, though he thought it had a material tendency to enable the manufacturers to lower wages, and thereby indirectly it had a tendency to diminish the means of subsistence of the labouring classes. He differed, however, from another class of persons, who went about the country and told the agriculturists that the Corn-law lowered the price of food, and the manufacturers that it raised it; whereas, they should, in good faith and in common sense, hold the same doctrine to both.

Petition to lie on the Table.