HL Deb 11 March 1844 vol 73 cc781-95
The Earl of Radnor

rose to present a petition from the county of Somerset, praying for the removal of all duties on the necessaries of life, and that the whole system of the taxation of the country should be placed on a more equable and equitable basis. He had given notice of his intention to present this petition, because he wished to have an opportunity of stating certain circumstances connected with it which he thought were worthy of observation. The petition was agreed to at a meeting presided over by the High Sheriff, and which had been called for by a requisition very numerously signed by freeholders. The meeting, was called for a very different object than that which was the result of it. It was called for the purpose of passing resolutions in favour of what was called protection. That was the avowed object of the meeting. A motion was made in support of legislative protection, considerable discussion took place upon it, and an amendment, embodying Free Trade principles, was submitted. This was put to the meeting, and, as decided by the High Sheriff, it was lost; the original resolution in favour of protection being declared by him to be carried. [Lord Brougham:" The High Sheriff had no doubt of it."] On this, parties became dissatisfied, and much altercation ensued. The Sheriff was requested to put the resolution a second time, but he refused to do so. But in consequence of this, when a petition to Parliament, embodying the resolution was brought forward, a petition, embodying Free Trade principles, was also brought forward by way of amendment. This amended petition was carried by a very large majority, and a vote of thanks passed to the Anti-Corn-Law League, and other resolutions, in a similar sense, passed with successively increasing majorities. These were the circumstances, as represented to him. In general, it happened unfortunately that the protectionist party objected to discussion. Their meetings were select and exclusive. This he could speak to from personal experience; for only the other day he went to a meeting called (as the notice said) to discuss this question; but when he got there he received an intimation that it was of a private character, and he consequently withdrew at once. The Anti-Corn-Law League had been accused of sending their emissaries through the country for the purpose of creating discord disunion, and incendiarism. Now, he denied distinctly and emphatically that the Anti-Corn-Law League was at all capable of any such act as that of forming any society that would have such a tendency and he defied any one to show that they had ever, by word or deed, merited such an accusation. [The Duke of Richmond: "They denounced the landlords."] At the protection meetings very gross abuse had been uttered against the members of the Anti-Corn-Law League, but they need not mind that, for hard words broke no bones, and he did not know that much harm was done except to those who used them; but he thought the attention of the Government ought to be directed to the language used by some Gentlemen which went beyond the limits of ordinary abuse. Mr. Newdigate, a Member of the House of Commons, had made statements at a meeting in Warwickshire, and had repeated them at a meeting in Uxbridge, to which he thought it necessary to direct such notice. He said, I take this opportunity of repeating what I said in the House of Commons, that, by the conduct of the Anti Corn Law League, that body is extensively implicated in the disturbances which have taken place in the northern part of the county, I said that as a magistrate, and from the knowledge which I obtained as such, and every one who knows me must be aware that I should not have stated it unless I knew it. The Anti Corn Law League is mixed up with the most seditious characters, and their object is to create confusion and discord throughout the land. That was what was said by the Member for North Warwickshire. Either this was literally and truly a fact, or it was an exaggeration. If it was an exaggeration, it was in his opinion most unjustifiable to be thus holding up people to blame in this sort of way; but if it was a fact, then he should like to know whether this Gentleman had communicated it to the Government, because it would not be measuring out equal justice to punish the poor artizan and operative, and to let the rich go scot free if they were guilty. He knew not whether the object was, as had been hinted, to let them go on, as in Ireland, that they might be tried for conspiracy. If that were the policy he did not much admire it. At a late meeting at Uxbridge, Mr. Newdigate repeated the language he had quoted.

The Duke of Richmond

He had used it in the House of Commons, in the presence of the Government and the leaders of the Anti-Corn-Law League, who might have denied it if it was not true.

The Earl of Radnor

said he did not know whether it had been stated in the presence of the Government, but if it had been in the presence of the leaders of the League, he was confident they would have been able to contradict it. Accusations of a similar kind had been made by a noble Lord, a Member of that House (the Earl of Harewood) at a meeting in Yorkshire. He had informed that noble Lord of his intention to bring this subject forward, and had his acknowledgment of the receipt of his letter; so that if the noble Lord was not now present he (Lord Radnor) was not to be blamed for his absence. The noble Lord accused the Anti-Corn-Law League of incendiarism. He said, There are other views in the Anti-Corn-Law Agitation than meet the public eye. What happened the other day to a farmer in Lin- colnshire or Norfolk, I forget which. He attended a meeting and openly stated his opinions against the Anti-Corn-Law League, which every man has a right to do, when his stacks and his crops were burnt that night. No man in his senses can doubt the intention of the Anti-Corn-Law League. Thus, although he did not state it in direct terms, the noble Lord raised an inference that the Anti-Corn-Law League had instigated an act of incendiarism. Was it right that such serious accusations as these should be lightly made? A clergyman, at a meeting at Stamford, and another at Northampton, made similar accusations. Now, he repeated, that although there might be foolish persons on both sides, the leaders of the Anti-Corn-Law League were as incapable as the noble Lord and the Gentleman to whom he had referred of inciting to the commission of crime, and he ventured to say that all the arguments used by the protection Gentlemen were much more likely to excite the burning of stacks than any used by the Anti-Corn-Law League. That body endeavoured to make corn plentiful and cheap, but the protectionists told the people that they would be better for corn being dear, and the labourers were thus encouraged to diminish the quantity of corn in order to produce that dearness which they were told was beneficial to them. They had quite acuteness enough and sufficient knowledge of political economy to know, that to make corn scarce was to make it dear; and this is what they were told was good for them. He thought it was lamentable that it should be propounded at pro-Corn-Law meetings that Free Trade was a delusion, and that a noble Duke opposite, a Member of the Government should have become a member or a subscriber to that association. [The Duke of Buccleuch: You are quite mistaken.] He was glad to hear that. It had been stated that the noble Duke had subscribed 100l. to one of those institutions: and he was now glad to hear that it was not true. However, it was lamentable that persons of high rank should go about the country stating that Free Trade was a delusion; and persuading unfortunate artizans, such as those from whom a memorial would be presented on a future occasion, that their sufferings arose from Free Trade. It appeared to him that the Government ought to pronounce distinctly its opinion on Free Trade, and to follow out its own principles truly and honestly. The noble Lord concluded by presenting the petition.

Lord Portman

begged leave, as con- netted with the county of Somerset, to make a few remarks on this petition. He thought there would be no difference between his noble Friend and himself as to the fact that the petition was carried by a majority of the persons present at the time when the question was put, nor would there be any dispute between them as to the resolution directly contradictory having been carried subsequently, and that the petition was then agreed to which had now been presented by the noble Earl. He was quite sure the noble Earl's brother, the High Sheriff, had exercised Ids judgment in the purest manner, and was convinced that in each case he was right in his decision, and he had not since stated that he was shaken in his decision as to the first resolution. But the noble Earl asked how, then, was it that the first petition was carried by a large majority, and that the subsequent petition had also been carried? The fact was, the party of the Anti-Corn-Law League were better organized than the opposite party. The farmers had conceived they had done all that was required of them by holding up their hands for the original Motion, and they found it by no means convenient to stand the hustling and jostling—he wished to use no stronger terms—which it was found desirable to practise in order to get those in from of the High Sheriff who had not been there before, and many retired, conceiving, as they had every reason to do, that there would be no further proceedings taken. The petition might certainly be received as the petition of the High Sheriff presiding at a meeting of 3,000 persons out of a population of half a million; and such a petition, coining from a great county like Somerset, could only be considered as the petition of the majority of those present at the time, but by no means as conveying the sense of that great county, containing, as it did nearly half a million of inhabitants, and 80,000 houses, and more than a million of acres of land. It was clear that the opinions expressed in the petition were not the opinions of the farmers, because they had formed themselves into societies in various parts of the counties, and were about to express their opinions, as the inhabitants of the towns did, in their own way. It was true the meeting was an open meeting, that it was open to the whole world, and that the whole country might have been there if they had chosen; but he dared say that the same reason had kept others away as had deterred him from attending it, namely, that they were not satisfied that the landed interest was in the hands of those who were most likely to protect it; or, on the other hand, that the cause of free-trade was intrusted to those who were best calculated to promote its success. He (Lord Portman) still adhered to a fixed duty, and therefore, he had all along abstained from taking part in the proceedings of either the Anti-Corn-League or the Anti-League Associations. For, on the one hand, he thought it dangerous to carry, by a legislative enactment, the total, immediate, and unconditional repeal of the Corn Laws; and, on the other hand, he thought it equally dangerous to affirm that the present sliding scale should not be interfered with, because it was at one end a system of prohibition. Under these circumstances, he was a sort of amphibious animal, between the two parties, and could take part with neither, and perhaps would not be respected by either. He hoped, however yet to see the day when both would be disposed to meet upon his view of the question.

Lord Brougham

begged to say a few words in explanation of the grounds upon which he had said, that the noble Earl's brother, the High Sheriff of Somersetshire, had no doubt that the first resolution had been carried. He (Lord Brougham) had been waited upon last Friday by a respectable farmer of that county, bringing him a letter from an hon. Baronet who had taken part in the proceedings of the meeting, and who was very anxious that he should state what had actually taken place, because very inaccurate accounts had gone forth. It was very well known that he (Lord Brougham) was against the Corn Law, and that if he had been at the meeting in question he should have voted against protection; but there was a wish that he should state what had passed, and a paper was put in his hand which was stated to be an accurate account of what had taken place. Here, then, was the accurate version of the whole proceedings:—"The High Sheriff in the first instance decided in favour of the League, and against those who had called the meeting; on the question, whether the Amendment should be put first, he most properly decided in favour of the Amendment being first put. He then called for a show of hands, upon which he declared the original resolution carried. This decision was objected to by some, saying that the resolution was not carried, whereupon the hon. Mr. Bouverie, the High Sheriff, said, he had endeavoured to act justly and impartially" (and those who knew him so long and so intimately as he (Lord Brougham) had done, knew that no man was more likely to act justly and impartially); "he had carried his eye over the whole of the assemblage, and observed that double hands were held up for the Amendment; he had decided to the best of his judgment, and he would not alter his decision." Nor would any reasonable man doubt that the High Sheriff had no hesitation in his mind as to the show of hands having been in favour of the original resolution, because if he had entertained any doubt he would have called for a second division to clear up the point. Now a number of the people went away, and then this petition was carried by a majority of those who remained. This was a mode of proceeding, he believed, peculiar to the county of Somerset, and certainly it would be a very inconvenient practice to adopt in Parliament, because the result would be, that his noble Friend behind him would move an Address to the Crown, and then his noble Friend on the cross Bench would move a resolution negativing that proposition, and then his noble Friend on the Woolsack would declare the original Motion to be carried, and then his noble Friends behind him would leave the House and go to their dinner, and other noble Lords would have the matter in their own hands, and would carry their Amendment; so that both the opposite Motions would alike be carried. But this was what had been done in Somersetshire. At one and the same meeting, held on one and the same day—indeed, immediately after the former Resolution—another resolution was adopted directly contradictory of it. If this was the result of conviction, its operation must have been very rapid. The force of truth was very great; indeed, it was said, that it always would prevail; but if it had prevailed in this case, it must have acted with greater rapidity than he should have expected. No speeches were made to induce the assembly to alter their opinions; but, notwithstanding, there was a greater majority in favour of the Amendment than that which had carried the original resolution. Whether this was owing to conviction or absenteeism he did not undertake to say. He was sure nothing could be more untrue than what was said by an old Sergeant-at-law upon the Western Circuit—"that the further he went to the west the more he was convinced the more that the wise men came from the east." His noble Friend near him (Lord Portman), if he had been at the meeting, could have told the House whether the meeting was a respectable one or not. He (Lord Brougham) knew nothing about it, but he differed from his noble Friend as to the value he set upon the number of persons attending a meeting. He had been at meetings in Yorkshire and Cumberland, and other counties, at which he could rely upon 3,000 or 4,000 persons, out of a population of 200,000 or 300,000, representing the opinions of the inhabitants more correctly than if an unwieldy number were present. 3,000 or 4,000 people could discuss a question; but an assemblage of 30,000 or 40,000 was incapable of discussion. His noble Friend said, that he should receive the esteem of no one because he held amphibious opinions. From that remark, he (Lord Brougham) must be excepted. He thought his noble Friend had acted very wisely in not going to the meeting, if he thought it would not be well ordered. His noble Friend had said, that very reprehensible abuse had been uttered against the Anti-Corn-Law League, and had given samples of it, which certainly were deserving of severe reprehension. He could not help feeling—he would not say disgust—but concern, when he found persons using language charging any portion of their fellow-subjects with exciting others to capital crimes, such as incendiarism, and representing the advocacy of that great question of Free Trade, (which was now advancing more rapidly the more it was considered) as calculated to produce every species of misery in the country. He very much regretted these exaggerations, but unfortunately they were not confined to one side. When people were in controversy, they would indulge in such violence. He would refer to language used not by a farmer, not by a tradesman or an artizan, but by a lecturer—one who had gone about lecturing in favour of the League, and who asked his auditory how they could expect anything from the "Iron Duke" (meaning his noble Friend opposite—the Duke of Wellington), who had gone on butchering men, women, and children for two or three days together at the siege of Sala- manca. Now, it would be seen that no such thing could by any possibility have taken place, seeing that there had been no such thing as a siege of Salamanca, even if the politic as well as humane nature of his noble Friend could have sanctioned such a thing. He differed from the opinions of those who suffered a continuance of the Corn Laws; but God forbid that, because he did, he was to look upon the landowners who supported them as murderers; yet he constantly saw murder charged against them; nor did he think they were guilty of blasphemy, although that also had been charged against them. It had been said that they were guilty of blasphemy every time they uttered that petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread;" and, indeed, a charge of that nature had been made in the House of Commons, for it was not by any means confined to the vulgar. There had been gross exaggeration and misstatement at both sides; and whilst he regretted it, he should say he particularly regretted that they should have been found on the right side, for he should much rather have seen them brought to the assistance of the wrong side of the question. He was opposed to the use of such detestable exaggerations, and he believed that nothing could be more ruinous to any cause than to have it supported by such means.

The Earl of Radnor

explained. He did not say, that the High Sheriff had no doubt about the Motion at the meeting to which he alluded.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that, in consequence of what had fallen from the noble Earl and his noble and learned Friend, he felt it necessary to address a few observations to their Lordships. A number of respectable gentlemen in Somersetshire, a county with which he had some relations, had written to him a statement which corroborated the account that had been given with respect to what had taken place at the conclusion of the meeting. At the meeting, the Resolution, as originally proposed, was declared to have been carried, and at a subsequent period an amendment and a petition were also moved, both having been carried by a considerable majority on a division. The gentleman who had communicated with him (the Duke of Wellington), stated in the strongest manner that the majority which carried that amendment and petition were composed not of the same persons who had composed the meeting in the first instance, but of persons who were brought in subsequently —persons who did not belong to the class who ought to have decided such a question. The letter to which he alluded was signed by gentlemen of the highest respectability, and one of them was recently one of the Members for the county, and he thought it his duty to make that statement to their Lordships. With respect to the question which had been put by the noble Earl in reference to a speech made by an hon. Member of the House of Commons in Warwickshire, he could assure him that he had never heard of it till that moment. If the noble Earl had been kind enough to announce his intention of putting a question on that or any other subject, he would have been prepared to have given him all the information in his power. With respect to the abuse which had been directed at these meetings towards those who belonged to the Anti-Corn Law League, and by these towards their opponents, which language his noble and learned Friend had deservedly reprobated, he would remind the noble Earl opposite that they were all subject to such abuse—they had all been abused, it was their fate, they could not avoid it, and they must bear it as well as they could. He could only recommend the noble Earl to bear that abuse with the same tranquillity which those who sat opposite him (the Earl of Radnor) had displayed, in bearing what had been said of them. He had not changed the opinions which he entertained on the question which was the subject of the petition brought under consideration that night. He voted for the existing Law, and he earnestly recommended to their Lordships to leave that Corn Law as it was, and to continue to maintain the system which it was the object of the Corn Law to carry into effect.

The Duke of Richmond

said, the Anti-Corn-Law League had, for the last two or three years, been going about the country abusing everybody who did not agree with them in opinion; and although he would not impute motives to those who composed that League, who were not here to defend themselves, yet he had a right to remark on the effects which their proceedings had led to; and he had a right to remark, when they stated things which had since proved not to be true; they declared over and over again that the farmers were in favour of free-trade, and that they looked upon the question of free-trade in corn not to be a tenant's question, but a question which only affected the landlords. The tenant farmers were independent men, and they were not disposed to lie passive under the charges which were made against them by the Anti-Corn-Law League, and accordingly they aroused themselves, as they had an undoubted right to do, they called meetings in every part of the country for their own protection, and to petition Parliament: they formed societies for their own protection; societies not got up for the purpose of offending against the law, but solely for their own defence; the noble Earl complained that a Member of Parliament had attended one of those meetings and made a speech, to which the noble Earl objected. How liberal his noble Friend was in that respect! Would he seek to prevent a Member of Parliament from expressing his opinions on a public question in the House of Commons, and from repeating those opinions afterwards to his constituents or others at a public meeting? If that hon. Gentleman made the statement the noble Earl had alluded to, he had no doubt he believed it to be true; for he knew him to be a most honourable man. Let it not be supposed by any of those who advocated free-trade, that the farmers of England would allow themselves longer to be treated as they had been. They had aroused themselves—and rigthly aroused themselves—to the necessity of uniting in their own defence. He would not say that the object of the Anti-Corn-Law League was to excite the people to those acts which had been described; but he would say that the members of that body made speeches of an inflammatory nature and tendency—he should not have joined the Society for the Protection of Agriculture, if it had not been for the Anti-Corn-Law League. He would not impute motives to the members of the Anti-Corn-Law League; but if any one looked to their language from beginning to end, he would find that it had been violent, improper, and vulgar to the last degree. His noble Friend (the Earl of Radnor), in describing the proceedings of the Society for the Protection of Agriculture, stated that it was said at those meetings that free-trade was a delusion. Now, would his noble Friend say, that any Members of a society were not at liberty to express their opinions upon public questions, and if they thought free trade a delusion, that they had not a perfect right to say so? His noble Friend might believe, that in the views which they took of the subject they were in error, but if they thought that the opposite opinions were fallacious, had they not a perfect right to expose the fallacy of the views which the Anti-Corn Law League were spreading by all the means in their power? He was delighted at the observations which his noble Friend made on the subject of the Societies for the Protection of Agriculture, for the opposition of the Anti-Corn Law League to such societies showed that they were doing good already, and that they would be productive of great advantage. That was important; and he would recommend the farmers of this country to remember it, for they would not have had the discussion of that night if it were not for the Protection Societies. He would recommend them to persevere in the course which they had commenced, and not to allow wild theories of free trade to carry them away, whether they were advanced by Peers, by Members of Parliament, or by members of the Anti-Corn Law League. He hoped they would continue in the course they had adopted, and that they would not allow themselves to be prevented from boldly stating their opinions on all political or public matters. He believed, if they inquired about the petition, it would not be found to be the petition of the owners and occupiers of land in the county of Somerset. He believed that the landowners and the occupiers of land would be anxious to be relieved from the disgrace which would attach to them if it were generally believed that such a petition emanated from so respectable a body of men. He would ask his noble Friend, had not the emissaries of the Anti-Corn Law League organised their opposition to the meeting, had it not been well organised, did not the emissaries of that League go to Bridgwater before the day of the meeting, and make preparations for their proceedings; did they not hire vans to bring persons to the meeting, and pay men to go there and make a "row," in order to prevent the farmers from expressing their opinions? But they were not to be so beaten, and they stayed so long as they thought necessary to carry their own resolution, and then the Anti-Corn-Law League men, thinking it necessary to show that the money which had been expended, and the music that had been prepared, had not been thrown away, brought their hired bands up to carry their own opinions, and adopt this petition. They were right in giving their opinions; he did not object to the expression of them, but he thought that opinions were of more importance when they were not bought, always excepting opinions procured from members of the learned profession of the law.

Lord Beaumont

said, that the impression on his mind and upon, he believed the minds of those at the meeting was, that in the speech which alluded to the effect of the proceedings of the Anti-Corn-Law League there was no intention of accusing the Anti-Corn-Law League of a design to cause incendiary fires. What he understood from that speech of the noble Lord was, that although the motives of the Anti-Corn-Law League might be good, yet the exciting speeches addressed to the labourers were calculated to produce the effect of making persons of that class believe that the farmers were their enemies, and possibly might in some instances, produce other effects; but he felt convinced that there was no intention of charging the Anti-Corn-law League with a desire to cause incendiary fires. With respect to the assertion that there was no such thing as a free meeting in favour of agricultural protection, he would ask, had not the meetings at York and Thirsk been free meetings? He (Lord Beaumont) re-echoed the condemnation of the harsh language that had been used in the discussion of the question of the Corn Laws. He wished that both sides would avoid the use of such language, and discuss the question with coolness, as one of great political importance, and one which ought to be decided by argument alone, and could not be advanced by virulence or by personal attacks. If he heard correctly the words of the petition which had been presented to their Lordships, it stated that the petitioners were desirous for the removal of all protection to English industry. It pleased him to hear that statement, for it showed clearly the views which they entertained, so that now all interests in the country could see the objects of the free traders, and thus the watchmakers, the shoemakers, and all our artisans, would be attacked by being exposed to the competition of foreign artizans. If the Anti-Corn-Law League were enabled to carry their views into effect, our artizans would be exposed to the competition of foreign mechanics as well as the agriculturists would be exposed to the competition of corn from Poland and America. What, he would ask, had been the effect produced on America by the boon which the Bill of last year, on the subject of Canada corn had given? American wheat, ground into flour in Canada, would be allowed to come in at 4s. by the Bill of last year, and had the Americans given any facilities to our manufactures in return? No; the duty in America on most articles of Birmingham manufacture was still about 200 per cent. ad valorem, so that it would not appear that Birmingham could expect much benefit from the abolition of protection. That was an example of the effects which they might expect from carrying those principles out fully.

The Earl of Radnor

said, the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond) appeared to accuse him of entertaining an objection to the expression of their opinions on the part of those who were opposed to him in their views on the subject of the Corn Laws. Now he did not object to any one for expressing his opinions; but, on the contrary, he had a very great objection to one-sided meetings, which he did not consider favourable to the formation of correct ideas. The effect of those one-sided meetings was to encourage those who attended them to persevere in their views, without seeing both sides of the question. At York, for instance, one of the resolutions was to the effect, that the "modified protection" to British agriculture, which was given by the existing law was agreed to after long deliberation, and after a distinct appeal to the people at a general election on the Corn Law and the Tariff. Now, he (the Earl of Radnor) could not agree to the statement which that resolution contained, for there was no such appeal to the people as it mentioned at the general election, and they were taken by surprise on the subject of the Corn Law and the Tariff. The fact was, that at such meetings gentlemen all of one view meet together and there was usually no one present to contradict the opinions which they expressed. He was not displeased at meetings being held by those who were in favour of the Corn Laws, he was not displeased at anything which produced discussion on the subject, and the Members of the Anti-Corn Law League, so far from opposing discussion, absolutely entreated it. There were many meetings which had been held throughout the country, and described as meetings of tenant farmers, but he had doubts as to their being comprised solely of tenant farmers, and he should also doubt the statements which had been made to the effect that all the tenant farmers were averse to free trade. The Corn Laws were injurious, and that opinion was gaining ground every day both in this country and America, as a letter lately written by Mr. Calhoun went to prove. For the last twenty years we had been progressing towards free-trade, and adopting free-trade principles. Now, if these principles were wrong, the proper course would be to go back—to retrace our steps. But, on the contrary, the highest authorities and most distinguished Members of the present Government had declared the principles of free-trade to be the principles of common sense. Nothing could be more mischievous than to stop short where we now where. He (Lord Radnor) wished for nothing more than that the supporters of the Corn Laws would really allow discussion, but they did not permit it at their meetings.—Petition to lie on the Table.

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