HL Deb 02 July 1844 vol 76 cc159-64
The Earl of Radnor

rose to present a Petition from the Parish of Lyneham, for a repeal of the Corn Laws. He believed that Petitions of a contrary nature had very frequently been got up by means that appeared to him to be altogether unfair, and that signatures to such Petitions had been procured in an improper and oppressive manner. No such objection could be urged against the Petition which he was about to present. One of those tracts that were sent forth by the Association with which the noble Duke on the cross-bench was connected had been disseminated for some time through the district from which this Petition came. He did not know whether it was the same tract to which he had referred on a former occasion, and which he still considered to be a most dishonest production, but it came from the same source. It did not, however, produce the effect that was expected from it, but directly the reverse. A meeting took place of farmers and agricultural labourers, at which a resolution was passed condemnatory of the Corn Laws, and a Petition, founded on it, and praying for their Repeal, was agreed to. That Petition he now presented. The meeting, which he understood was numerously attended, was conducted in the most regular manner. Everything was conducted with propriety, and no violent or irritating language had been used. [The noble Earl also moved for a return of the quantities of wheat sold in each week of the year 1843.]

Lord Methuen

thought it only right to state, that his noble Friend was only doing justice to the conduct of the people who had attended this meeting when he described it as having been decorous and proper. The parties who assembled on that occasion did not indulge in any angry, violent, or vituperative language.

The Duke of Richmond

, having been alluded to by his noble Friend, could not allow that opportunity to pass without making some observations. His noble Friend had stated that Petitions in favour of Agricultural Protection were frequently got up in an oppressive manner. He (the Duke of Richmond) need scarcely state, that he was not aware of any such proceeding, and he should very much regret if any improper means were resorted to for the purpose of procuring Petitions. It appeared to him, that the best way of procuring Petitions in favour of agriculture was to let the people read and duly consider the pamphlets to which his noble Friend had referred, and to the reasoning of which he so strongly objected. No one could mark what was going forward on this subject, and not observe that the only object to the Anti-Corn-Law League, however they might attempt to conceal it, was to lower wages—to lower the wages of the people at large; agricultural labourers as well as others. He confessed that he had a great respect for the agricultural labourers; and he was very glad to hear that their language at the meeting to which his noble Friend had referred was not directed against the landlord. They had, in taking this moderate course, shown a good example to the Anti-Corn-Law League; and he hoped that those who were at the head of that body would follow it: but hitherto their meetings had exhibited no exceptions of that kind. With respect to Mr. Cayley's pamphlet, which continued to excite so much of his noble Friend's indignation, he must say, that his noble Friend had done more than any one else towards its general dissemination; for, in consequence of the speech which, on a former occasion, his noble Friend had made against it, that production had acquired an immense sale. Until his noble Friend had made that speech, denouncing the pamphlet, its existence was but little known, but, since that, it had sold amazingly—it had been distributed through all parts of the country, and had gained many converts. It was not necessary for him, at the present moment, to say much on the subject of the Corn-Laws. When that question was regularly brought forward he would be ready to state his opinions at length. His noble Friend had thought proper to advert to the Agricultural Protection Society. Now, it should be well observed, that that body never would have existed but for the proceedings of the Anti-Corn-Law League. It was the mischievous declamations indulged in by their paid lectures and agents—it was the conduct pursued by demagogues employed by them throughout the country, that gave rise to the Agricultural Association. Men went about inflaming the passions of the people, and declaring that this was not a tenant's question, but a landlord's question, and falsely asserting that the tenants of England were in favour of no protection being extended to agriculture. What was the consequence? Why, the consequence was that the tenants, that most respectable and intelligent body, came forward and gave a most decided denial to these assertions; and Agricultural Associations sprang up in every part of the country. He hoped they would continue to do so, he hoped they would never relax their efforts until the Anti-Corn Law League was entirely put down. He believed that they were, even now, nearly put down. They had found that interfering with elections was a very expensive and by no means a very profitable employment. There was another thing that made them quiet just now: demagogues were always quiet when Parliament met, because they were afraid of having their fallacies exposed; but he had no doubt we should have an autumn campaign, and he hoped the Protection Societies would continue what they were doing, and in a fair fight between them, he did not fear the result. His noble Friend would be the last man in the world to get persons to sign Petitions against their inclination, but the truth was, that his noble Friend was kind to the labourers in his neighbourhood, as he was to every one, and they hearing that he had a strong impression on this subject, naturally came forward and petitioned in his way, without deeply examining the subject, and he had no doubt if his noble Friend would send them the pamphlet he had referred to, he would next year have to present a Petition stating that they had changed their mind when they were once convinced that what the Anti-Corn Law League meant by a free-trade in corn was only another mode of expressing low wages.

The Earl of Radnor

said, that instead of being sorry that the Protection Societies had put forth tracts, he was, on the contrary, glad that they had, because he was of opinion that when a measure of importance was brought under consideration, canvassing by the means of fair argument was the only way of arriving at the truth—and if the Protection Societies had published fair pamphlets he should be the last man to complain. He repeated now what he had stated on a former occasion, that the pamphlet which his noble Friend had now adopted was the most discreditable book that he (the Earl of Radnor) had ever read, inasmuch as it falsified facts, misquoted authorities, and perverted the arguments which the author professed to be quoted had laid down.

The Duke of Cleveland

said, that the noble Earl had called this pamphlet a very discreditable production. He (the Duke of Cleveland) must say, that before he was acquainted with its contents he had no hesitation in allowing his name to be affixed to it, from his confidence in the author, whose opinions on the subject, he knew, were the same as his own. He should say that sending a begging-box to every market-town to collect money, which was afterwards spent in unlawful practices, was quite as discreditable as anything which the noble Earl could find in that pamphlet. If the noble Earl wished to bring forward a discussion on this subject, let him do so manfully at once. The noble Earl was a thorough free-trader; let him bring the subject before the House and take the sense of their Lordships upon it. He (the Duke of Cleveland) would only say that whenever the noble Earl did so, his noble Friend near him (the Duke of Richmond) would be ready to meet him, and he (the Duke of Cleveland) would also be ready with all his humble ability to assist him. He only wished that the noble Earl would give them a fair fight, and a speedy opportunity.

The Earl of Stradbroke

said, that the noble Earl had told the House that Petitions had been presented signed by labourers, whose signatures had been affixed in consequence of the exercise of some arbitrary authority. He thought that the noble Earl should inform the House when these Petitions were presented, and where they came from. He often heard charges made in Parliament against the agricultural interest, which, when they came to be sifted, were discovered to have no foundation whatever. It was well known that when the labourer was well paid the price of corn was high. For the last thirty years, the amount of wages had always been regulated by the price of corn. It was impossible for any man with a regard to truth to deny that position. With regard to the fires which had recently taken place, he certainly regarded them as a disgrace to the country. These fires were very prevalent in the year 1822, which was a year of distress throughout the country, in consequence of the low price of corn; and he thought that the late fires had been occasioned by the deficient harvest of last year, and the consequent want of employment which it had produced.

The Duke of Beaufort

said, that from what he had heard, he concurred with the noble Lord (Lord Methuen) as to the orderly manner in which the proceedings at this meeting had been conducted.

Lord Ashburton

said, that he hoped the House would permit him to say a word or two on this theory of his noble Friend, that the price of wages followed the price of food. The principle was perfectly true that the price of wages was dependent on the demand for labour—but if that demand for labour was so redundant as it was in this country, the labourer would be reduced to that amount of wages which would keep him alive, and then undoubtedly the price of labour would fall with the price of corn. This was a misfortune that none of them could avoid. That was, unfortunately, the condition of this country, and of the greater part of Europe. That was the condition of Northern Germany, of many parts of France, of Switzerland, and of Italy, still more. It was the condition of almost every part of the civilised world, excepting the Russian empire and the United States. If on the other hand there were scarcity of labour, the noble Earl's rule, that wages did not depend upon the price of food, would apply.

The Earl of Radnor

maintained that the price of labour was entirely dependent upon the price of food until the condition of the labourer was so bad that that amount of remuneration could not be obtained without which he must die. Until that point was reached, the wages of labour only depended upon the demand.

Lord Ashburton

said, that the noble Earl, by his principle of allowing the farmer to procure labour for as low a rate of wages as he could, would be justified in seeing the labourer all but starved before he interfered to raise the price of corn. That was not the case of the agricultural labourers of this country, not because there was not a redundancy of labour sufficient to produce that result, but because the farmers and country gentlemen, from motives of consideration and charity, gave higher wages than they could otherwise procure labour for.

The Earl of Radnor

said, the noble Lord had in the latter part of his speech answered the former. Wages were the price of labour, and if you gave more you might call it wages, but the surplus was, in reality, charity. His noble Friend might choose to pay a servant 60l. a-year, although he could get one for 40l. So, if a farmer choose to pay eight or nine shillings a-week, although he could get labour for six shillings, that was not eight or nine shillings wages, but six shillings wages and two or three shillings charity.

Lord Beaumont

said, the history of wages was simply this, undoubtedly amongst agricultural labourers the wages of labour depended entirely upon the demand for labour—the demand for labour depended upon the quantity of land in cultivation—that quantity of land in cultivation depended upon the remuneration obtained by the farmer; and the remuneration of the farmer was, in other words, the price of corn; and thus, in fact, the price of corn did regulate the amount of wages. It must be admitted that the demand for labour depended upon the quantity of land in cultivation [Cries of "No, no"] If noble Lords denied this, they introduced a totally new theory, altogether different from anything he heard before.

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