HL Deb 29 January 1846 vol 83 cc342-53

said, he should be sorry if the discussion commenced by the noble Duke on the cross benches (the Duke of Richmond) should have terminated before he had had the opportunity of adding one or two observations. There was one part of the remarks of his noble Friend, in which he entirely concurred; and that was, that this question, when it came on for discussion, ought to be discussed as it deserved, seriously and solemnly. He should greatly rejoice if his noble Friend, who truly stated the question really at issue to be the principle of protection or no protection, would adopt the suggestion which had been made elsewhere, and submit a resolution calling upon their Lordships to affirm the principle of protection. There was also another point on which he concurred with his noble Friend. He (Earl Grey) must say, he regarded with great satisfaction the measure which had been propounded in another place, and which was likely soon to come before that House; but, like his noble Friend, he should have been better pleased, if, when so much was proposed to be done, the proposition had gone a little further. It would have been better, he thought, if the measure, which substantially amounted to the abolition of the protection on corn, had, that object being contemplated, proposed the abolition at once. For his part, he regarded the modified sliding scale, which was to be continued for three years, as neither more nor less than a mockery of protection. It was clearly considered so by those noble Lords who advocated the principle of protection, and being so regarded, he (Earl Grey) was totally at a loss to understand upon what ground it could be recommended to them. He confessed that as a landowner, this was the only part of the measure of which he was afraid. He was not afraid of a fair and free competition, for he was perfectly persuaded that the agriculturists of this country were no less able than the manufacturers to compete fairly in the market with their foreign rivals; but he was seriously afraid, when a change in the policy of the country was about to take place, and the avowal was made that protection could not be maintained, that the interposition of an interval of delay before that suggested change was carried into effect would be most injurious, by prolonging those evils with which a state of transition in commercial affairs was invariably attended. In his opinion, it was perfectly clear that during those three years it would be scarcely possible for a satisfactory arrangement to be come to between landlords and tenants. He believed also that the continuance of this modified protection, would afford an excuse for continuing the great evil of agitation; and would have the effect of throwing obstructions, by the uncertainty which it tended to promote, in the way of the extensive employment of capital in the improvement of land. No man who looked into the matter could doubt that, for some years past, since the apprehension of a further modification of the Corn Laws had become strong, that there had been an indisposition among all persons to invest any great amount of capital in the permanent improvement of the land—that there was an indisposition to make bargains for land for any lengthened periods. As he thought that any great improvement in agriculture must be founded on the granting of leases, and of thus giving the necessary security to the tenant before he could be expected to effect improvements, so he felt that whatever tended to continue agitation, and consequent insecurity, must be most injurious to the landed interests. But, further, by continuing this modified protection for two or three years, it seemed to him that a considerable increase would be made in the difficulties attending the transition. They all knew that the stock of corn in foreign countries was low at present; so low, that the demands of the market in this country, even under the existing law, had completely swept all the foreign ports from which corn could be shipped, and that, therefore, an immediate alteration of the law could be made with comparatively slight effects; but if the measure that had been announced in another place became law, and a modified scale of duties were continued for three years longer, to be followed at the end of that time by a free trade in corn, the necessary tendency of such a law would be to induce the foreign grower, instead of gradually feeding our markets, and bringing his competition with our farmers to bear gradually on prices, to check and dam up the current of importation from abroad for three years, and at the end of that time to let a great quantity of foreign corn into our markets, to the great detriment of all parties; for a sudden influx of that kind would be no less injurious to the consumer than to the producer. He firmly hoped that those among their Lordships who, like himself, were deeply interested in the prosperity of agriculture, would look well into this matter. It was, no doubt, for the purpose of conciliating their Lordships' support that this scheme had been proposed; but if he were right in believing that of all plans that could be adopted such a one must be the most detrimental to their interests, he trusted they would use their influence to prevent the passing of a measure which was really calculated to injure rather than to benefit the agriculturists. There was another point on which he was nearly ready to concur with his noble Friend on the cross bench (the Duke of Richmond). His noble Friend had spoken with something like ridicule and contempt of what was called compensation to the landed interest in the proposed measure. Now he did not think that, on reflection, their Lordships could view this compensation in any other light than that in which it had been represented by the noble Duke; for though he thought some of the relief proposed was perfectly just, quite irrespective of the Corn Laws, still to talk of a measure involving some half a million annually, spread over all the landed interests of Great Britain and Ireland, as one of compensation for the injury they might receive (supposing they received such injury), was, he should say, to practise a gross delusion towards their Lordships. He believed that the only real compensation that could be made to them would be that contained in the promises that had been held out, but which, he was sorry to say, appeared from the printed papers not intended to be fulfilled. He meant that if the principle of free trade were adopted with respect to corn, so it should be with regard also to other matters. It seemed to him beyond all things just, that if they were to sell their corn, regulated by competition, they should have an opportunity of buying the things they required at prices also regulated by competition; that if they sold cheap corn, they had a right to buy cheap sugar, cheap tea, and cheap coffee. He would like to know on what principle of common justice and equity, the contrary practice was intended to be maintained; more especially with regard to the Colonies. If the English landowner was expected to meet competion, and to take his chance in the market with foreign nations—if he was expected to bear with the effects of free trade, he would wish to know on what ground the Colonial landowner should not bear competition also. The English landowner was taxed largely to maintain the military and naval forces necessary for the protection and safety of the Colonies. Nor was this all: large sums of money were voted annually for the maintenance of civil and religious establishments in many of the Colonies, and when they took these burdens off the Colonial landowner, was it, he asked, common justice and equity, that when the principle of free trade was extended to the British landowner, it should be withheld in regard to them? He trusted their Lordships would insist, when the proper time arrived, for the full extension of the principles of free trade; and if these principles were, as he thought they ought to be, extended to the landowner at home, he hoped and trusted their Lordships would insist on having them carried out with regard to others also. This course was the more advisable, because the remission of protecting duties on such articles as sugar and coffee would afford great relief to the consumer, and would at the same time ensure an increased revenue to the Treasury. In fact, the Treasury and the consumer would be benefited together, and thus Her Majesty's Government would be enabled to afford more easily the remission of those protective duties to an extent, which, in the absence of such an addition to the revenues, must now he regarded as impossible without—what he would much regret to see—the imposition of new taxes. He thought the continuance of protection in the manner proposed, was calculated to throw discredit on the great principle on which this important measure was said to rest, when he found that it was not finally and resolutely carried out; and, above all, it created the greatest surprise in his mind to perceive that Her Majesty's Government should still think it worth their while to cripple and diminish the efficiency of this measure by adhering to the plan—which he thought had been now completely exploded—of making a distinction between the duty on sugar the produce of free labour and of slave labour. He thought this system had been completely exploded, and that those who had first brought it forward had long since got ashamed of advocating it. Considering how much of the language of wooing, which had been adopted when the possession of office was the object in view, had been since given up; considering how many of the pledges then given had been departed from, it seemed to him to be a highly unnecessary sort of squeamishness not to have gone a little farther, and to have abandoned the most groundless of all the doctrines that had then been brought forward. He had hoped that they were now to start entirely from fresh ground, and that the just and sound principles of free trade, now announced, would be carried into effect for the benefit of the whole nation. The remarks which had fallen from the noble Duke had induced him (Earl Grey) to trouble their Lordships with these observations, and he feared that he had, perhaps, gone further than he ought to have gone on this occasion; but considering how, generally, such matters were decided—that is, practically and virtually decided—before their Lordships had an opportunity of pronouncing an opinion regularly upon them in that House, he thought there was some justification for Members of their Lordships' House venturing—perhaps a little irregularly—to state their views on important questions. This principle of free trade was one on which he had always felt most deeply, ever since the first Session that he had the honour of a seat in the other House of Parliament. When the question of the corn trade first came before the House after that period, he was one of those who had voted in the small minority by which the principle of the sliding scale had been opposed. From that time to the present, whether in or out of office, his course had been the same. His belief had always been that the whole principle of protection, from first to last, was a mistake—that it was injurious to the protected interests as well as to the consumer—and that the sooner they adopted the principles of common sense—the principles upon which every great writer on political economy for the last fifty years had argued the question—the sooner they adopted these principles in their legislation, the better.


said, that as there were millions of persons who believed that their fortunes and existence were at stake on this question, it was not to be expected that they would be very nice in the expressions they made use of when discussing it. On what might be called the main question, that of free trade, which the noble Earl contended for, the Government of the Crown could never, in his apprehension, be able to carry on the business of the State. He admitted, that the principle of perfect free trade, for which the noble Lord argued on the present occasion, and of which he was aware the noble Earl had always been a consistent supporter, was, if it could be established, the principle of common sense. It was completely undeniable that the principle of free trade was in accordance with common sense; but the question which they had to consider was, how that principle could be established in a country having such complicated interests—placed in such an artificial position with regard to other countries of Europe, which were placed in positions equally artificial, and which had interests that were fighting against this country in every possible way—this country having, too, a debt of eight hundred millions upon its shoulders. How, he asked, was it possible that the principle of free trade, even admitting—which he did—that it was the principle of common sense, could be applied in such a case? He not only admitted that perfect free trade, if practicable, would be in accordance with common sense, but that it would be consistent with the best interests of all countries. The noble Lord advocated entire free trade; but how, he would to ask the noble Lord, would he be prepared go into a Committee of Ways and Means, to pay the interest of the national debt, and to maintain the credit of the country, without meeting with all the difficulties and chances of a loss of revenue, which his principle would oblige him to risk. Take, for instance, the article tea, which the noble Earl had omitted from amongst those which he enumerated; and from which millions of revenue were derived: this was an article of consumption which the British farmer required, and which those with whom he had to compete obtained at one third the price he did. The noble Earl had referred to the difficulty which the British farmer would have in meeting the corn growers of other countries in the market on equal terms. It required no great study of political economy to state the simple fact which this question involved, that while the man on the shores of the Baltic, in the north of Germany, paid his workman 6d. a day, and the Britsh farmer paid his workman 2s. a day—it required, he repeated, no great skill in political economy to perceive that these two persons did not meet each other in the market on equal terms. Again, those countries were free from tithe, from the poor-rates, and other burdens imposed upon the British farmer, the general rule being that the poor-rate was taken from the municipalities of the different towns, while the country districts were usually left entirely free. All these were difficulties which, much as he admired the general principles of free trade laid down by the noble Earl, were, he thought, insuperable in the way of establishing them in this country, under the artificial circumstances in which the country was placed. In fact, they had no wise man amongst them, who had not over and over again told them the same truths. Mr. Huskisson had in all his speeches laid down the principle, that when they no longer wanted to raise fifty or sixty millions a year of taxation, then they might demand cheap bread even on the principles of the most perfect free traders. Other political economists, down to Mr. Ricardo, had all admitted that the British farmer required some compensation for the disabilities under which he laboured. They differed much as to the amount of such compensation; but all admitted that it was to some extent or other necessary. Another difficulty in the way of free trade in corn he would also allude to, with the conviction that others who understood the subject would carry out the point more fully. Other European countries, as France, Prussia, Holland, Spain, all derived their supplies of corn in times of scarcity from the shores of the Baltic, or from the Black Sea; but principally from the former. Now, all these countries had scales of protective duties. They protected themselves against the importation of corn in years when it was not wanted; but in times of scarcity they all went for their supplies to the same shop or granary, namely, the Baltic. Now, what was the consequence? The seasons usually produced the same results over all the northern countries. The consequence was, that though while in times of scarcity they were all obliged to purchase corn at the same time, the effect in years when the crop, as in the case of last year, was pretty nearly sufficient to supply the wants of the country, would be most destructive to the British farmer. In such years, all the other countries to which he alluded shut their ports. The ports of Great Britain were the only ones open—they were, in fact, a sort of refuge for the destitute, for every thing grown in other countries in plentiful years—and that, too, not only for the corn intended for this market, but for the corn grown on the calculation of the possible wants of a large extent of Europe, in which the ports were kept closed. The markets of Great Britain would thus be paralysed, and the difficulties against which the British farmer would have to contend, would be materially advanced. The farmer would, in fact, have to go for week after week to market, without being able to effect a sale. Nothing but the very finest quality of grain would sell at all: and what, he asked, would be the consequences? The British farmers were not very rich, the greater portion of them being just able to pay their rents when called upon to do so, but no more. The fallacy, therefore, lay here, that they did not, and could not, establish free trade. So long as they had their debt, with all the rest of the world fencing and fighting with them, the Utopian scheme of which the noble Earl was the advocate, and of which they heard so much, was wholly impracticable. With regard to what had fallen from another noble Lord (Lord Kinnaird) respecting the Anti-Corn-Law League, he would make but a single observation. He did not complain at all of the League subscribing money for the purpose of watching the registration, and of canvassing; but when he saw them opening in every town of the kingdom a regular shop for the purpose of furnishing what he could hardly call fictitious voters, but, according to their advertisements, offering for a sum of 45l. to give a vote in any county; and when a majority of two thousand on one side, in a particular county—Lancashire—had been by this means converted into a minority of one thousand, he would ask whether such a system ought to be allowed to continue, if the present constitution of the Empire was to be maintained?


observed, that the doctrine just propounded by his noble Friend they had often heard elsewhere, namely, that all customs duties were against the principle of free trade. Now, this opinion, which had been put prominently forward by his noble Friend, as well as by some extreme advocates of free trade, was carrying the argument in favour of free trade far beyond its legitimate principle. He protested against the assumption that the imposition of revenue duties was to be considered as obstructive to the system of free trade; and he was surprised that his noble Friend, with his extensive knowledge on the subject, and with his great experience, should have started such an objection; and he must say that it was a most unexpected and singular observation, coming from such a source. He was surprised to hear his noble Friend allude to the tea duty, and the tobacco duty, as being against the principles of free trade. These duties might, indeed, be too high to insure the largest return of revenue—they might have passed the maximum point of productiveness; but how it was possible to show that they were against free trade he could not understand. Until we could produce tea and tobacco in this country, the duties on these commodities had no more to do with protection or with the principles of free trade, than any subject of foreign policy which could be brought forward. It appeared to him that the course taken by his noble Friend was not the most legitimate mode of arguing the question. He would not refer to old doctrines; because he thought it was not very just, nor could it be very agreeable to argue the case on personal grounds; but he must say, in reference to the persons who had been lately attacked upon this subject—his noble Friend himself had often been attacked upon it—that he had known very few men indeed who had been perfectly consistent on the subject of the Corn Laws. But there was one peculiarity in these changes of opinion. They were all in one direction—in favour, and not against, freedom of trade. With one exception—a very strong exception he admitted—and that was his noble Friend, all who changed their opinions were persons who had previously adopted the doctrine of protection and restriction of commerce, who had abandoned it by degrees. Even the Legislature of the country, in all its alterations of the Corn Laws, from the year 1815 up to the present time, had been departing steadily from the doctrine of protection, and gradually approximating to that of free trade. Let them compare the Bill of 1815, which his noble Friend so vigorously opposed, with the Act of 9th George IV., and again let them compare the 9th George IV., with the Act of 1842, and they would find that the cause had been steadily advancing, notwithstanding the national burdens, notwithstanding the progress of civilization, in the cause of free trade. His noble Friend considered freedom of commerce to be inconsistent with the interests of the country, and with its progress in wealth; but, without referring further to the opinions of noble Lords and right hon. Gentlemen, he might be permitted to direct their attention to a most important document. He referred to the celebrated petition of the merchants of London, presented to the other House by his noble Friend, at a time when the burdens of the country were greater than they are now, in which the doctrine of free trade was laid down in the most lucid, the most admirable, and, at the same time, most absolute manner. He could refer to that most important document, in which his noble Friend had entirely concurred, as a justification of his denial that taxation imposed on importation for the sole purpose of revenue was an obstacle to free trade. But supposing that these taxes were imposed only for revenue purposes, to be extended in maintenance of our establishments, and the payment of the interest of the debt, these could only be regarded as legitimate taxes, and however onerous they might be, they only furnished a stronger argument for leaving the industry of the country unfettered and unshackled—leaving every possible reward to the labours of the merchant, and to the powers of production of the farmers and manufacturers; and this he contended was best done by abandoning protection altogether. With reference to one part of the plan submitted by the Government to the other House, he concurred with his noble Friend (Lord Grey), that, viewing it as an agricultural question, an adherence to the interval of three years of duty previous to the total abolition of the Corn Laws, would prove greatly prejudicial to the interests of those classes for whose benefit it was now proposed. But it was not for him to object, if those who were mainly concerned differed from him in opinion on that point: he would not reject the Bill on that account; for, taking the measure as a whole, he considered that it was the greatest step that had hitherto been taken in the improvement of the commercial legislation of the country. He should have preferred it if the measure had been brought immediately into full operation; but he trusted that the agricultural interest, when they came to consider the effect of the proposed limitation, with a free trade in corn in prospect, to be established after an interval of three years, would arrive at the conclusion that it would be better for their interests at once to bring the measure into full operation; and if it should appear that the parties most interested objected to the continuance of the interval of restricted trade, he trusted that the Government would consent to abandon it. He must protest, in passing, against the doctrine of his noble Friend, that tithes should be considered a burden upon land, for which the landed interest was entitled to protection. He could on this subject rely on the authority of Mr. Ricardo, who clearly showed that when tithes became a rent charge, they ought not to be considered as a peculiar burden on land, augmenting the cost of production. Tithes were only a different mode of apportioning the produce. They never had belonged to the landlord, and therefore neither the landlord nor the occupier of the land had any claim to protection in that respect. He could not conceive how tithes could be brought forward by his noble Friend as an argument against free trade.


said, that it should be remembered that the farmers were obliged to employ even more men than they really wanted. Before establishing free trade this state of things should be got rid of. If the Legislature was determined to make corn cheap, the farmers should be enabled to get their labour at the cheapest possible rate. He knew, that the lowering the wages of the labourers would be most repugnant to their feelings; but still the circumstances should be taken into consideration. With respect to the malt tax, he would ask, why not remove it, and give the labouring classes cheap beer as well as cheap bread? Why, he would ask, was it proposed to reduce the duty on brandy, unless they sought to make a greater number of drunken people about the streets? Perhaps, however, the object was to do an injury to the smugglers. Now, he regarded a smuggler and a free trader in the same light. The smuggler was a brave man, and the free trader was a reckless man. He considered that the Government should have made a reduction in the malt tax. It appeared, however, that Government would not do this, because they feared that the Leaguers would say that it was a boon to the farmers, whereas it would be only a boon to the consumers of malt. He did not think that it was generally expedient to take up the time of the House on measures of this kind; but when he was called upon to present between four and five hundred petitions from farmers demanding protection to native industry, he trusted that the House would not prevent discussion, as he conceived that those persons had a right to be heard, instead of the petitions at once being placed in the blue bag. For his own part, he thought that it would be better to have free trade at once; but this was only his own individual opinion; but he knew that the great body of the farmers did not concur with him in this opinion. The farmers were in hopes, that if the interval continued, circumstances might arise which might produce a change of opinion; and that that system of protection which had always existed in this country would be continued. All that the farmers required was fair play, and that the Legislature should not lightly overturn a system which had existed for ages.