HL Deb 28 June 1844 vol 76 cc87-93
The Earl of Winchilsea

, after presenting some petitions in favour of protection to agriculture, said he would throw himself upon the indulgence of their Lordships for a short time, while he endeavoured to show, pursuant to the notice he had given, the expediency and sound policy of establishing National Granaries in this country, under the authority and control of the Government. In doing so, he should studiously refrain from offering any observations on the Corn Laws; because, however widely the three parties—those who advocated the present system of a sliding-scale, those who were for a fixed duty, and those who were opposed to all protection to agriculture, differed upon the question of the Corn Laws, he believed they must all agree that the establishment of National Granaries would be a great public benefit. Their Lordships were doubtless aware that the Corn Trade of this country was in the hands of a very small body of wealthy individuals; he believed he might fairly state that there was a larger amount of floating capital engaged in that branch of trade than in any other. It was a notorious fact, that from about the middle of March, when the corn was out of the hands of the grower, up to the harvest, the wheat market was under the sole control of this body, who, by a combination, and by arrangements amongst themselves, could effect a great rise in the price of wheat between those two periods, gaining thereby not only considerable profit individually, but also obtaining still further advantages by immediately employing their capital in refreshing their granaries with foreign corn at a low rate of duty. If their Lordships could secure a fixed price of corn, a fixed low price, they would secure an immense benefit to the country; and he thought the establishment of National Granaries would go far to secure that benefit. It was not good policy, but the worst policy of all, for the Government of any country, more particularly of this country, where such an artificial state of things existed, to have an enormous population, engaged in great and extensive manufactures throughout the land, dependant for their supply of food, in any degree, or for however short a period, upon a few individuals. He had often reflected with horror upon the consequences of a total failure of the harvest. What man was there either in that House or out of it, who would deny that such an event was possible? who could say whether an approaching harvest would be productive or whether we might not be wholly deprived of so great a blessing! For the produce of the land was from the Lord, and the seasons were entirely in His hands! And might not the same event happen with respect to other countries to which we looked for supplies? The results of such a state of things in this country were too frightful to contemplate. The plan which he would suggest—for he could only throw it out as a suggestion, for he had not the power, however strong might be his inclination, to propose it in form—that could only be effectually done by Her Majesty's Government—the plan which he submitted to the consideration of their Lordships and of the country, and which he had entertained in his own mind for the last five or six years, but had never before publicly propounded, because of the diffidence he felt with regard to his own judgment and power—the plan was this, to establish National Granaries, five or six in different parts of the country, say Manchester, Hull, Liverpool, Bristol, and London, to contain from 300,000 to 500,000 quarters of wheat each, which would amount to about 3,000,000 in the aggregate. The Legislature could then say to the agricultural interest of England—"If you can supply the market with wheat at such a price, say from 50s. to 55s. per quarter, you may do so." He would propose then, that the Government should have the power to open granaries, and pour into the market that quantity of wheat which would be sufficient to keep it at that price at which it was always desirous the country should have it. He could assure their Lordships that in making this suggestion he was not influenced by any interested feeling, but by two reasons — first, that it was the sound policy of every state to give encouragement to home industry; and, secondly, that upon an average of years the country would produce wheat cheaper than if it was dependent upon foreign countries for supplies. In 1835 the very best brown wheat was sold in England at 35s. He did not say that those granaries should be solely supplied with home-grown corn, but that the Government should take the opportunity of obtaining wheat at as cheap a rate as they could get it. But it might be said that if we had seven successive good harvests, where would be the use of hoarding it up?—it would not keep so long. The fact was, that wheat when kept long would ferment and form a crust on the outer surface of the heap which preserved it, and by good management it could be kept for fifty years, and be sound and good at the end. A friend of his had told him that he had seen heaps of corn in that condition. The object he contemplated was, to give to the labouring classes of this country wheat at the lowest possible price at which it could be grown in this country. Our manufacturing population was increasing every year, and he was anxious to see them so supplied with wheat. But not the manufacturing population alone would benefit by the plan. No interest suffered so much from fluctuations in the price of wheat as the agricultural interest. That arose from the influx of corn in the beginning of the year, when the agriculturists were compelled to send it to market, not getting, however, those high prices which the speculators did from March down to the following harvest again, during which interval they used all their wisdom, ingenuity, and talent in withholding and managing the supply. The plan would be a great benefit to agriculture, then, because it would establish fixity of price, and it would affect wages in an equal degree, and therefore be a benefit to the labouring population. The price of labour depended much upon the price of wheat, and varied along with it. In 1835, for instance, when the price of wheat was so low, wages sank from 16s. to 10s. or 9s., but the men did not complain. Another great advantage which would arise would be the putting an end to the present agitation upon the Corn Laws, which was so ruinous to all interests, that agitation which arrayed one great interest against another, to their mutual detriment; that agitation which represented the gentry and aristocracy of this country as wishing to live for themselves alone without caring anything for the mass of the people, and which, therefore, must produce bad effects upon the minds of the population. The plan would also increase the means of employment, and cause the land to be made more productive. He left these observations for the consideration of their Lordships, and hoped that some day he should see the plan he advocated, carried into effect.

Lord Monteagle

wished to say a few words with respect to the very important speech which they had just heard from the noble Earl. In many of the statements made by the noble Earl, he agreed, and above all, as to the inconveniences and evils which resulted to the whole community from the present state of the law, and he especially agreed that these evils were more especially experienced by the agriculturists. The noble Earl said, that the present mode of carrying on the corn-trade, might be productive of great evil to the agriculturists. He (Lord Monteagle) agreed in this, and also that the corn-trade was thrown into comparatively few hands. The noble Earl said, these persons were generally great capitalists; no doubt they sometimes were so, but at other times operations of the utmost importance in the corn-market, were carried on by persons who had no capital of their own, but traded on speculation with capital of other persons. The noble Earl, on the part of the public, complained of the fluctuations which took place in the price of corn, and also said, that the agriculturists suffered more than any other class from this. He also stated that this great rise of price chiefly took place between the month of March and the ensuing harvest, and a rise of price at that time was of no advantage to the produce of corn in the country. But why was it that the corn-trade had fallen into the hands of so few persons? There was no monopoly in connection with it; there was nothing in the trade to prevent any person embarking in it. The reason, however, of this was, that by our legislation in connection with it, the trade in corn had become of such an extremely speculative character, that it drove from it men who were of sober minds, and who did not wish to embark in such uncertain matters, and therefore the trade was left in the hands of persons of a different character. The truth was, that the present state of the law, held out an inducement to get a rise of price by withholding com from the market, when the public most required it. The state of the land also at the periods which he alluded to, not only led to this fall in prices, but it also led to such a diminution of the duty, that immense quantities of corn were taken out of bond at the lowest duty, and thrown upon the markets, thus producing the greatest fluctuations in prices. If, however, the authority of the noble Earl was to be taken—and it was notorious that he was a great practical agriculturist—it appeared that in the average number of years in this country wheat could be produced as cheap or cheaper than in other countries. Now, if this was the case, it took away the great argument which was urged by the majority of those who were opposed to a repeal of the Corn Laws. He now came to the remedy which was suggested by the noble Earl. He thought that the noble Earl had acted logically in making his proposition, for he did not think that any improvement could take place as long as the House supported such an extravagant system as the sliding-scale. Under a free state of trade, or with a small fixed duty for revenue on corn, no such evils could be produced as were alluded to by the noble Earl. He should therefore say, that although the noble Earl was logically right, he would be practically wrong. The noble Earl must be aware that, not only in ancient but in modern times, the erection of public granaries, to guard against seasons of scarcity had been much discussed. This question had been most ably handled by one of the most distinguished political writers that this or any other country ever produced: he alluded to Mr. Burke, who, in his pamphlet on Scarcity, which it was generally understood had been prepared at the request of Mr. Pitt, distinctly pointed out many of the evils which would result from such establishments, and showed that so far from tending to obviate or prevent the evils complained of, that they would tend to increase and aggravate them. The following was the passage to which he referred:— A report has gone abroad, that intentions are entertained of erecting public granaries. I hear that such a measure has been proposed—that is, for Government to set up a granary in every market town at the expense of the State, in order to extinguish the dealer, and to subject the farmer to the consumer, by securing to the latter corn at a certain and steady price. If such a scheme be adopted, I should not like to answer for the safety of the granary, of the agents, or of the town itself. The foul storm of popular phrenzy, would fall on that granary. In an economical light I must observe, that the construction of such granaries would be an expense beyond all calculation. The keeping them up would be at an immense charge. The management and attendance would require an army of agents, store-keepers, clerks, and servants. The capital required would be enormous. The waste would be a dreadful drawback on the whole dealing. The moment the Government appears in the market, all the principles of market will be subverted. I do not know whether the farmers will suffer from it as long as there is a tolerable market of competition; but I am sure that in the first place a trading Government will speedily become bankrupt, and the consumer in the end will suffer. And subsequently he said:— There is no way of preventing this evil (fluctuations produced by errors of legislation) which goes to the destruction of all our agriculture, and of that part of our internal commerce which touches our agriculture the most nearly, as well as the safety, and very being of our Government, but successfully to resist the very first idea, speculative or practical, that it is within the competence of Government, or even of the rich, as rich, to supply to the poor those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence to withhold from them for a while. We, the people, ought to be made sensible that it is not in breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God, that we are to place our hope for softening the divine displeasure to remove any calamity under which we suffer, or which hangs over us. He conceived that the statement of the noble Earl was the strongest possible argument against the sliding-scale.

The Duke of Richmond

said, that he did not agree with his noble Friend in thinking that any advantages would arise from the establishment of public granaries. One speech this week, in the other House, had done more good than would follow from the erection of a hundred granaries—for backed as that speech was by such an increasing majority, it would tend, more than any thing else, to produce something like certainty with respect to agricultural pursuits, and thus ultimately produce cheapness and certainty of price. The noble Lord had alluded to the fluctuations in the corn-trade, He denied that the present law produced these great fluctuations in price, for that was attributable to quite a different cause, namely, the seasons. He denied that there was the prospect of a bad harvest this year. He thought that his noble Friend who spoke last was led away merely by feelings of enthusiasm, when he spoke so strongly of the alleged evils of the sliding-scale, the best way to prevent a scarcity, was to continue to get majorities of 204 against alterations in the Corn Laws in another place.

The Earl of Winchilsea

agreed with his noble Friend who spoke last, as to the importance of producing something like a feeling of certainty in the minds of those engaged in agricultural pursuits. For his own part, he would rather see no duty at all than a fixed duty. He confessed that he was surprised at hearing such observations as he had quoted from Mr. Burke, respecting public granaries. With the opinions of that eminent man he could not agree, although he entertained the highest respect for him.

Subject dropped.