§ LORD BEAUMONT
rose, in accordance with previous notice, to draw the attention of the House to the injury inflicted on the country by the uncertainty which exists as to the intentions of Government respecting the law regarding the importation of foreign corn; and to put a question to Her Majesty's Government whether it is, or is not, their intention to recommend to Parliament an alteration of the present policy with respect to the importation of corn, as soon as a new Parliament can be assembled? The course he intended to pursue was, as he had given notice, to put, in the course of the observations he would make, questions to the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby) as to the intentions of the Government with respect to this subject; but as it was desirable that the rules of the House should be complied with, and that a formal Motion should be before it, he should also present a Petition to 985 the House, and he should conclude his observations by a Motion that that Petition do lie on the table. He would adopt that course that he might put himself perfectly in order with their Lordships' House, and afford any other of their Lordships a full opportunity of expressing their opinions on the subject. He should also confine his observations to the topics alluded to in the allegations of the petitioners, and, adopting the order they had observed in their statements, he should proceed by endeavouring to prove to their Lordships, in the first instance, that it is desirable that the country should be informed as early as possible of the intentions of the Government respecting so important a topic; and in the next place, that up to the present moment uncertainty reigns in the country with regard to the intentions of the Government—that as yet they were unable to gather from all that had been said or done by the noble Lord and his Colleagues on the questions of financial and commercial policy what were the particular intentions of the Government in that respect. He should attempt to show, even from the noble Earl's own words on a former occasion, that their Lordships were as yet unaware what measures, or indeed if any measures, were to be brought before Parliament on the subject. He should then, after having proved the utter darkness in which both the House and the country had been left in respect to the views of Government on so vital a question, proceed to show the great inconvenience which arose now, and which was likely to continue to arise, from that uncertainty; and he would then submit to the House if, after having established these three points, he was not entitled to put questions to the noble Earl, and to expect the noble Earl, as responsible Minister of the Crown, to answer in such a manner as to relieve the country from that uncertainty. If the noble Earl should so answer them as to remove all uncertainty, he should be bound to say that his object in bringing forward the subject, would be completely attained; and he might add, the prayer of the petitioners would to its fullest extent he complied with; for all they asked was that the uncertainty of the country should no longer exist. In following that course, the House would excuse him if he alluded to what had fallen from the noble Earl on a former occasion; because it was from the difficulty of clearly understanding what policy the noble Earl 986 had intended to point out in the words he used on the occasion referred to, that he drew the proof that the petitioners were right in stating that uncertainty existed, On that occasion the noble Earl—with a degree of eloquence which he alone at present possessed, and with a frankness which he readily acknowledged—stated that as far as he himself was concerned he had not in any way changed in office the opinions which he had entertained out of office—he stated in language not to be mistaken that he still thought the policy which at present governed the country with respect to the importation of foreign corn was not the best policy for the country—that the principle which governed the American tariff was the right principle, and that it would be for the advantage of this country if that principle were adopted. That so far nothing could be more frank or clear on the part of the noble Earl, they must all acknowledge; so far he was perfectly consistent. The noble Earl and his Colleagues, when they sat in opposition, took every opportunity that presented itself of professing their principles; by doing so they justly merited the name they were known by—namely, Protectionists; for on no occasion, when the subject was brought forward, did they ever profess any change of opinion on that subject; on the contrary, they invariably maintained, in doors and out of doors, the principles and policy which, at the period of the great contest in 1846, they had so eloquently and firmly advocated. After stating those opinions, the noble Earl, on the occasion to which he had alluded, proceeded to say, these were his own private opinions—his own individual opinions; and, therefore, whatever his opinions were—however firmly he adhered to his former opinions, the House could draw no conclusion that those were the opinions which were to guide his policy. The noble Earl did not state on that occasion the opinions he entertained were the opinions of his Cabinet. He did not state those opinions as a Minister, for if he had they should be bound to believe they were the opinions of the Cabinet, and would form the basis of its policy, and that there could be no mistake in supposing that the same principles which guided them in opposition should be carried into execution now that they were in possession of power. The noble Earl further said, with great caution, after stating that what he had been setting forth as the true policy of this country, was only 987 his own opinion, that the question was one which could only be settled by reference to the well-understood and clearly expressed opinion of the intelligent portion of the community; from which statement he (Lord Beaumont) would naturally draw the conclusion, that the Government of the day intended to propose a scheme in accordance with their own views, and should they not be able to carry it in the present Parliament they would appeal to the country on its merits—that the country having responded to the appeal, by returning to the other House of Parliament representatives to express their opinions on the subject, the sense of the country would be taken by a division in the House of Commons as soon as Parliament had assembled. That was the ordinary course on similar occasions. The noble Earl stated he was in a minority in the other House, and had barely a majority in their Lordships' House, and therefore that the question was to be decided by the country. That must have meant, as he had already said, that it was intended to take the sense of the country. Now the only way of taking the sense of the country was by laying before it the issue to be settled, and then, after the elections, by testing it by a division in the House of Commons. If the noble Earl had stated that to be his course, he (Lord Beaumont) should have been perfectly satisfied, and should have had no occasion to put questions to the noble Earl; he should have said that the course was a straightforward one, consistent with the noble Earl's principles, in accordance with the constitution, and, considering his opinions on the subject, one that was the least detrimental to the country. The noble Earl had not, however, said he should adopt that course; but had contented himself with saying that it was a question to be decided by the intelligent portion of the country; but that he did not thereby mean that he would propose any measure, or go to the country upon it, or that he would take a division on it in a new Parliament, or, in other words, that he would take the sense of the country upon it. The noble Earl avoided pledging himself as to any course. On the noble Earl arriving at office there were two courses open to him to adopt, either of which would have been satisfactory or fair to the country. Either he should have said that now he and his Colleagues had come into office they intended to carry out the principles which they had advocated in opposition— 988 that, knowing they could not carry them out in the present Parliament, they would go to the country upon them, and take the sense of the country immediately on the assembling of the new Parliament, by a division in the House of Commons; or the noble Earl might have adopted another course—and if he had he (Lord Beaumont) would not have said a word against it—the noble Earl might have said, that it was true his individual opinions were not changed, that he still entertained the same opinions he had always had with respect to the policy adopted by the late Sir Robert Peel, but that that policy once adopted, it was so dangerous to undo, that though he had not changed his opinions in the abstract upon it, he did not think it wise to commence any dangerous agitation upon it, or to reopen such a vexatious question after it had been once settled—that, notwithstanding his own individual opinions upon it, his Government intended to adhere to it as being the less of two evils, preferring it to agitating the country in the hope of obtaining a doubtful good. If the noble Earl had adopted that course he (Lord Beaumont) would never have charged the noble Earl or his Colleagues with inconsistency; for he firmly believed that whatever opinions he might once have maintained on the subject, it would not be advantageous to reagitate a question which had been agitated for so many years previous to the measures of 1846, and again unluckily and ill-advisedly kept alive for so many years after the great struggle of 1846. Either of these courses would have been perfectly straightforward; and, if openly avowed, would have been an act of candour on the part of the noble Earl. But the noble Earl, on the contrary, had adopted neither of these courses. He had never told them that he intended positively to reverse the policy of the late Sir Robert Peel, or to acquiesce in it. On the contrary, he had appealed, if not directly, at any rate by inference, to the country to agitate the question, without making any promise whatever at the same time that he meant to settle it. That was reopening everything and settling nothing; it was creating a contest out of doors, without bringing it to an issue within doors; it was not the conduct of a statesman in Parliament, but of an agitator out of doors. The noble Earl threw a ball of dissension to the country, called upon his friends to recommence their agitation for protection, but would not say whe- 989 ther, in the next Parliament, or at all, he intended to bring this question to a final settlement by proposing a measure to Parliament. That was a dangerous proceeding for the country; it was bad as a precedent, and it unsettled men's minds—for each person interpreted the noble Earl's speech according as his hopes or fears inclined him. Moreover, it appeared to him—although the noble Earl had more experience in such subjects than he could boast of—that that was very like abdicating the functions of Government—for it was the part of the Government to originate measures. The noble Earl avowed no intention to grapple with the subjects which still unfortunately agitate the country, nor had he announced the course the Government were prepared to adopt in their regard; but, on the contrary, the noble Earl and his Colleagues said to the country, "Tell us what measures we should take, and we will adopt whatever policy the majority tells us to pursue." If that were the case, if they intended the discussion to be carried on in public meetings and not in Parliament, they were advancing far to an external out-of-door democratic Government. The noble Earl stated, that the corn laws was a question to be settled by the enlightened classes out of doors, meaning thereby the constituencies; but though he referred the question to the constituencies, he would not pledge himself to take a division on the subject in the next Parliament. Was not that encouraging agitation? was it not calling on the country to agitate this question, without a view of carrying any avowed plan? The words of the noble Earl said in almost express terms, "Fight the battle among yourselves; and whichever party wins, I declare for the winner." The consequence was, that no sooner had the words of the noble Earl escaped his lips than the parties out of doors began the contest. The Anti-Corn-Law League came instantaneously into existence, and it could not do otherwise, for it was a life-and-death struggle for their principles which was threatened, and to that struggle they were urged on by the noble Lord. The League came forward to defend the policy which they knew would be attacked if there was a majority in the New Parliament against them; whilst those favourable to protection said, "Here is a chance for us—we might have adopted the present policy so long as we thought that it could not be reversed; but now, if we fight our battle well, we may gain back all that we 990 have lost, and re-establish ourselves again under the banner of our darling protection." So doubtful in their import were the words of the noble Earl that the agricultural champions had seen in them various extents of protective duties. Some saw in them a fixed duty—others interpreted them as re-establishing a sliding scale. Now, was not this a course likely to create agitation out of doors without any prospect of ever seeing it settled within doors? The noble Earl was, in his opinion, bound to state the issue which he wished to be tried by the country on this subject before the New Parliament was elected, in order that the struggle might be narrowed and confined to as small a point as possible. If he travelled from the speech of the noble Earl in that House to the speeches of the noble Earl's Colleagues on the hustings, he became not more precise in his views, but more mystified. They had now had time for consideration, and it was to be hoped that after so many meetings of the Cabinet they were now of one mind; but if they looked to their various speeches on the hustings, it was "confusion worse confounded." In North Essex he found one of them making a stout and bold agricultural speech, which looked to the whole restoration of protection. In Lincolnshire there were two strong speeches made. In the first speech there was a distinct promise of the restoration of protection; but in the second protection was described as a very good sort of thing, but it was somewhat doubtful whether it over could be restored. In Buckinghamshire we were lost entirely in the clouds, and were amused by being led over no less than half-a-dozen different schemes. There we had set before us, in the first place, the great advantages of countervailing duties. In the commencement of his speech the noble Earl's Colleague recommended his scheme of countervailing duties as a compensation for the burdens on real property, and the taxes by which land was over-weighted. We were told that 7s. ought to be the amount of the countervailing duty, but that 5s. might be taken as a compromise. It was, however, represented as a matter of some doubt whether even that amount of duty could be obtained; and we were told that, if that plan were not successful, we must look to the diminution of the burdens on land in another point of view. There were 12,000,000l. of local taxation, and something was said, in addition, of the pressure of the malt tax. 991 But of these 12,000,000l. of local taxation, represented as so burdensome on land, or, rather, on real property, one-half was paid by houses, canals, railways, and other real property, and only the remaining half by land as used for purely agricultural purposes. But if you talk of adopting the course of taking away these 6,000,000l. which you represent as the burden on the land, you will be under the necessity of imposing it on other classes of the community: an alarm will soon spread among the manufacturing interests and all the producing classes of the community who are not producers of corn and other commodities extracted from the land; while, on the other side, hope will rise high among the agricultural classes, and they will begin to claim that the repeal of the malt tax be thrown into the bargain, inasmuch as the same arguments apply to that impost as to their other burdens. This, and more than this, was promised on the hustings at Aylesbury, at the commencement of the right hon. Candidate. Hope became exuberant in every Buckinghamshire heart, while despair brooded sorrowfully in the bosom of all unconnected with the agricultural interest. But what then came next from the right hon. Orator?—"Oh! I did not say that any measure of this kind will be brought forward. I did not, and I do not, pledge the Government to any such thing. These things are floating before us; we don't say whether we will adopt them or no. Before Parliament reassembles we will not say whether we will bring forward one or other of these schemes." Now, if both, or if either, or if neither of these schemes were to be adopted by the Government, still the country was entitled to know it. The country was entitled to know, after the Parliament was elected, whether the Government meant to propose a protective duty on corn—he did not mean the exact amount, whether 5s. or 7s.; but whether it was the intention of the Government to impose a protective duty on the importation of foreign corn. He declared that it was, in his opinion, incumbent upon the Government to tell the country whether they did or did not intend to propose a fixed duty on the importation of foreign corn before they dissolved Parliament. As they appeared to have several schemes in petto, they ought to tell us which scheme they intended to try first. On the turf, when you have two horses entered for the same race, you are generally called upon to declare with which 992 horse you intend to win. Now, he asked the noble Earl, who was not unacquainted with that rule, whether he meant to win with his 5s. duty, or with the transfer of the burdens on agriculture to the manufacturing classes? What proved the great uncertainty arising out of the declarations of Ministers on this subject was this—that out of five or six persons, who from their long experience were supposed to know best the real meaning of words which fell from Gentlemen in office, each has given a different version of the import of their declarations. No two of them concur in attributing the same meaning to their words; and yet they all say that it is quite clear what Ministers intend, though they differ toto cœlo in the explanation of what they believe to be that intention. Under such circumstances he thought that the noble Earl should put five of these Gentlemen in the wrong, by declaring himself what is the right meaning, if, indeed, he should not put all the six in the wrong by informing them that they had none of them deciphered his riddle. There was, however, another portion of the speech of the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire which went much further than either of the propositions to which he had already referred. It was a general attack on the commercial and financial policy of the late Sir Robert Peel. It could not be deduced from the speech of the noble Earl that he intended to reverse all the financial and commercial policy of that great statesman; but he had said that the recent alterations in the navigation laws were injurious, and ought to be reversed, and that the alterations which had been made in the tariff in other articles besides corn were unjust, and ought to undergo modification. Now, he (Lord Beaumont) thought that for the sake of preventing unnecessary agitation in the country, the noble Earl should come forward and state plainly that even if he intended to reverse the policy of Sir Robert Peel, it was not his intention to go beyond the article of corn. The great object he (Lord Beaumont) had in view in rising to put his question to the noble Earl was, that he might narrow as much as possible the subjects of agitation, and not derange and disorder more interests than was absolutely necessary. Now already, he maintained, the noble Earl had perfectly deranged and put out of order all the proceedings which were connected with the letting of land. He had been credibly informed that valua- 993 tions to a considerable extent had been suspended since the speech of the noble Earl of the other night—that valuers had thought it advisable not to proceed further until they knew whether a 5s., a 7s., or any, or what amount of duty was to be added as the increased value of the quarter of foreign corn. He had further been informed by persons who were employed in the drawing up of leases that several leases had also been suspended; that until this question was settled there would be a difficulty in drawing up these leases; that some parties hesitated to enter into them until they knew the result, whilst other parties hesitated to give any lease at all until they knew the result. He understood, moreover—in fact, he knew instances where the incoming and outgoing tenants did not at present know exactly upon what basis to draw up their arrangements, or agree on the compensation to which the latter might be entitled. This, of course, would be the natural consequence of any idea prevailing that the policy with respect to the corn law was to be changed. If the noble Earl said he thought it was for the interest of the country that the corn laws should be altered, he (Lord Beaumont) would not lay to his charge the disturbance which now existed in the way of these arrangements. It was, in fact, naturally incident to any alteration in the commercial policy of a nation; and would doubtless exist until those alterations were adopted as the permanent law of the country. A declaration by the noble Earl that he intended to make any alterations, would not of course prevent the continuance of these derangements. But if, on the contrary, he stated that he did not intend to make any alteration, but to abide by the policy at present in existence—whatever his motives for adopting that course—at once he would quiet the country upon the subject, allow things to take their natural course, and prevent—no small advantage in itself—anybody building on the false hope that the policy adopted in the year 1846 was to be reversed. Whilst speaking of the policy of 1846, their Lordships would excuse him if he stopped to say a few words with regard to that subject personal to himself alone. When that policy was under their consideration, he (Lord Beaumont) firmly believed that that policy was a dangerous policy; and in conformity with that belief he acted with the noble Earl in endeavouring to oppose it. Under 994 the same circumstances—if we were now where we were in the commencement of 1846, and had again to discuss the subject—being in the same circumstances, he believed he should find no reason to change his opinion. That which he then foresaw had happened. He was at no time one of those who denied that there would be both evil and good resulting from that policy; but he thought that the evil would greatly preponderate; and of one thing he was certain—that one of the two great interests of the country, then in apparent collision, must suffer, whatever might be the case with the others. Since that time we had had a fair experience of the new system, and he must say that what he then feared with regard to that interest had taken place. That portion of the agricultural interest who were owners of land had been serious sufferers; and so long as the present policy existed, they must continue to bear the evils to which they were now subjected. As to the occupiers of land, they also had suffered in consequence of that policy; but they had the means in their own hands of adjusting their position, and subsequently that adjustment had taken place. The diminution of profits upon agricultural produce had been gradually met by a reduction of rent, and by a final loss to the owners of the land. In many instances, to his knowledge, rent had been permanently reduced 25 per cent. In other instances where no reduction had taken place, an outlay had been made by the owners of land which was quite equivalent to 25 per cent. But in either of these cases the occupier was not the sufferer. The owner of the land was the sufferer. He had made his arrangements with his occupiers upon the basis of the present value of their produce, instead of the old rate which ruled under the corn laws. Valuations had gone on throughout the country in consequence of the change, and the basis of these valuations was as between 5s. and 7s.; that was to say, that whereas valuers formerly took 7s. per bushel as the basis of their valuation, they now took 5s. per bushel as their basis. Of course, where this had been the case, the loss fell on the owner, and not on the occupier; and it was in vain to say that it was not a loss to the owner if the value of the produce of agriculture was diminished 25 per cent, or his income was diminished in the proportion of the difference between 7s. and 5s. Now, all this he (Lord Beaumont) foresaw at the time the change was proposed; and 995 it had taken place. On the other hand, however, he must acknowledge that what little good he then anticipated to spring from the measure, had been much exceeded by the results in another respect. As an eyewitness, living in the West Riding of Yorkshire, he must own that the increased comfort, the immense activity, the improvement in the manufacturing districts, had far exceeded the anticipations even of those who had advocated the repeal of the corn laws. He could not deny, moreover, and he thought it could not be denied by any of their Lordships, that throughout the country generally the labourers had not been the sufferers that he himself had anticipated that they would have been. He found no diminution in the employment of labour—at least in his own county. True, he was aware that it had been diminished in certain localities; he knew that in some places there was not the same quantity of land cultivated with wheat. And why was that? Simply because certain descriptions of land were laid down in grass, and therefore did not employ so many men as formerly. But their Lordships must look to the country generally; and doing so they would find that certain soils adapted to the growth of wheat had suffered; but that the labouring classes were never in a better condition than they were at this moment. Now, if that were the case, and even though the sufferings of the owners of the land were still greater, he (Lord Beaumont) did not think the Legislature would be justified in reversing the repeal of the corn laws. In the abstract, he granted that such a state of things did imply a species of injustice to the owners of land. There was no doubt that special burdens paid by the land—be they what they might—were in reality a diminution of rent, and, therefore, fell on the owner. All local taxation too came at last to be merely a diminution of rent. That loss must, therefore, fall on the landowners—to whom it was a positive injustice that they should pay these special burdens, submit to this diminution of their rents, and, at the same time, struggle with corn freely imported into this country, without any countervailing duty whatever. He must observe, too, another circumstance, that they could not arrive at the actual amount of the injustice until they ascertained what were the local burdens on foreign corn in the countries where that corn was produced; still it could not be disputed, he believed, that there was a cer- 996 tain amount of duties paid by the landowners of England which did act as a considerable disadvantage to them. That he had stated on former occasions in this House, and he must say he continued to adhere to the opinion. But notwithstanding that disadvantage, looking at the interest of the country generally, the various interests involved in the question of our commercial policy, the improved position of the labourers, the activity pervading the manufacturing districts, and altogether the advantages which were enjoyed by the mass of the people at this moment, whatever his opinion might be in the abstract, he (Lord Beaumont) was quite prepared to come forward and declare that he was opposed to any reversal of the present policy. He was for maintaining the policy which was now in actual existence, because he saw that any attempt to reverse it would be attended with great danger. Already he saw the most violent passions brought into action. Class was being raised against class—old animosities, lately slumbering and dying away, were again in process of revival—and owners of land in some country districts were showing a disposition to raise their rents, where previously they had been reducing them somewhat in proportion to the diminished price of agricultural produce. For his part, he believed that the occupiers would be much better off with a free market and low rents, than a restricted market and high rents. Therefore, without abandoning his opinions with regard to the burdens on land, and the justice in the abstract of countervailing duties, he still contended that the broad policy of the Government was not to disturb what had been so recently done; but, on the contrary, at once and for ever to settle the question by declaring their resolution to abide by the present policy. If they would do that he (Lord Beaumont), for one, would hail the announcement with pleasure; but if they did not so announce their intentions, then, he said, they were bound to let the country know, without delay, what was the nature of the alterations they contemplated making, or, at least, to let the country know that they positively intended making some alterations. It was their duty to inform the country upon this question, that, at any rate, the present suspense might be as short as possible—that, as soon as the public business allowed, the country might have an opportunity of stating its opinion upon the question to be laid before it by the noble Earl and his Government, and 997 that the noble Earl himself, too, might have the opportunity of early testing and ascertaining the sense of the country, by taking a division in the other House of Parliament. An answer either "no," or "yes," to the question he would now put to the noble Earl would be satisfactory to this extent. It would show that he intended either to abide by the present policy, or positively to change it by restoring protection in one form or another. Any one of these answers would clear away a great deal of the existing uncertainty. But if the noble Earl declined distinctly to state that he did or did not intend to alter the present policy, and left the country in uncertainty and doubt, he must again repeat that the noble Earl would not be acting that part which he (Lord Beaumont) thought was the part of a Minister of the Crown; that he would be acting the part of an agitator out of doors, and not the part of a great statesman who stood at the head of a great party in the country; that he would be inflicting on the country generally a great and a serious injury; and that he would prevent the hope or prospect being entertained of an early settlement of the question in Parliament. He (Lord Beaumont) might add much to what he had already stated; but he had started by saying that he should confine himself to the mere allegations of the petition, and he believed he had not travelled beyond them. He had proved that uncertainty existed in the country; he had shown what were the disadvantages attendant upon the existence of that uncertainty, and the necessity for speedily removing it. He now begged to put to the noble Earl the question of which he had given notice—namely, whether or not it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to recommend to Parliament any alteration in the present policy regarding the importation of foreign corn as soon as another Parliament shall be assembled? And he would conclude by presenting a petition from Owners and Occupiers of Land, in the County of York, and moving that it do lie on their Lordships' table.
The EARL of FEVERSHAM
Will the noble Lord be good enough to state from what place in Yorkshire the petition comes?
The EARL of FEVERSHAM
Will 998 the noble Lord also state the prayer of the petition?
§ LORD BEAUMONT
stated that it was to the effect that their Lordships would take such measures as would relieve the petitioners from the evils they at present anticipated as the result of the uncertainty which prevailed with regard to the intentions of Ministers upon the subject of the policy of free trade in corn.
§ Petition presented, and read.
§ The EARL of DERBY
Certainly, my Lords, it would be very satisfactory to me, and I am sure it would be equally satisfactory to your Lordships, if I could take the very short and summary mode recommended by the noble Baron who has just sat down, by answering the discursive question which it has occupied the noble Lord no less than one hour and ten minutes to put to me by the single expressive monosyllable "Yes" or "No." But, my Lords, although I shall not occupy so much of your Lordships' time as has been occupied in asking the question, I confess I am not prepared to give to the noble Lord so brief and categorical an answer; to the question which he has in so elaborate a form put to me. At the same time, my Lords, I shall be most ready to give to the noble Lord, and to your Lordships, such information as is consistent with my duty with regard to the course intended to be pursued by Her Majesty's Government on any points which may have been left in any degree of obscurity in the course of the observations which I had the honour to submit to your Lordships on a former night. In doing so it is not necessary that I should follow the noble Lord—and I certainly have no intention of doing so—into the various arguments on which he has dwelt, in regard to the policy of the corn laws, the course pursued in 1846 in respect to those laws, or the incidence of the burdens or losses which have more; or less followed from that policy as affecting the interests of landlord, tenant, or occupier. I shall not be led by the noble Lord, and I hope none of my noble: Friends who may follow me in this discussion, will suffer themselves to be led, by anything which the noble Lord has said, into a most fruitless and unnecessary discussion upon the subject of the corn laws generally. The noble Lord certainly has not done great justice to his clients, the petitioners, on this occasion; because, although he commenced by stating that he should 999 proceed to show to their Lordships the various evils these petitioners were suffering—the grievances that were afflicting them—and the anxiety which was depriving them of repose by night or by day, yet from the beginning to the close of his speech not one single word did the noble Lord say about the petitioners; and it was not till the question was put by a noble Friend near me that it was elicited from the noble Lord who the petitioners were, or what was the prayer which they prefer to your Lordships as the foundation for all those earnest remarks which the noble Baron has been addressing to you. The noble Baron has been kind enough to allow me a sight of the petition since the notice of his question was given; and I certainly think (speaking with every respect of the petitioners, who, I have no doubt, are of the highest respectability) that in point of number, undoubtedly they are not exceedingly extensive. These petitioners, as the noble Baron stated, are not confined to a single district or a single county, but a certain number of them belong to a certain township called Snaith, and one or two others to adjoining districts. My Lords, what is the numerical force of these petitioners who are in this state of unparalleled anxiety? what interests do they represent? what bulk of property do they come forward and tell your Lordships is in a state of total confusion—concerning which no commercial arrangements can be made—all owing to this protracted uncertainty on the part of the Government? These petitioners, my Lords, it appears, are thirteen in number. They describe themselves thus: "The humble petition of the undersigned owners and occupiers of land, in the county of York." The noble Earl near me has marked in pencil one of the subscribers to the petition as being the occupier of 500 acres of land; but the whole thirteen petitioners, including that gentleman, only occupy 1,841 acres of land. These are the owners and occupiers of the county of York, who come forward and petition your Lordships on the great anxiety they are suffering because of the uncertainty of the policy intended to be pursued by Her Majesty's Government respecting the importation of foreign corn. Some of the petitioners are farmers, and some are very respectable gentlemen following other pursuits in life. There is among them Mr. Langdale, a highly respectable gentleman; then comes Mr. Jonathan Wright, who is an auctioneer 1000 at Snaith, and his occupation is twelve acres: and after him is Mr. Thomas Pickering, a surgeon: this gentleman occupies twenty acres of land. It must be confessed that that this is not a very serious undertaking. These are the petitioners who come before you on the present occasion. The noble Lord did not plainly state their grievances; but I am happy to find—and even there the noble Lord correctly stated the fact when called upon to read the prayer—that the injuries and grievances of these petitioners consist in injuries and grievances not in esse, but only in posse. The petitioners are not actually labouring under any grievances, or suffering from any injuries; but it is what they are anticipating they shall hereafter suffer and labour under, that they are now petitioning your Lordships to relieve them from. They ask to have the anxiety as to what may hereafter happen removed from their minds. Take, for instance, the auctioneer, who is the owner of twelve acres of land, and the surgeon, occupying twenty acres. No doubt, the auctioneer is a very respectable man. I dare say he has made some money by his business, and occupies a snug villa, with a very pretty shrubbery around it; that he has a kitchen garden, and a paddock where he keeps two or three cows. Thus he becomes an occupier of a certain quantity of land, and lives very comfortably, not on the farm, but on his business of auctioneer. But I should like to know what is the amount of wheat which is grown by Mr. Snaith—I beg his pardon, Mr. Jonathan Wright, the auctioneer of Snaith—after deducting the shrubbery, the paddock, the kitchen garden, and the lawn, from his twelve acres of land? And yet that gentleman cannot sleep night or day, he cannot enter upon any new valuation of his land, he cannot grant his leases or determine on his mode of husbandry, or settle his covenants, and all because he does not know whether it is the intention of the Government to put on an additional moderate duty on the importation of corn at some distant and indefinite period. To talk, my Lords, of the postponement of the final settlement of this question for a period of six, or eight, or twelve months being an interference with all the arrangements affecting agriculture, and a disturbance of the relations between landlord and tenant, is—without any wish on my part to depreciate or diminish the magnitude and importance of an ultimate settlement—to attach an exaggerated and fictitious importance to that which the noble Lord de- 1001 mands, that is, an immediate and categorical explanation of the course which Her Majesty's Government intend to pursue. Why, in the cultivation of a farm, do you not know in March, and may you not know in November, what is to be the course of proceeding?—what alteration in agriculture would be made by the postponement of any declaration as to what is to be the import duty on a quarter of foreign wheat? I presume that even at Snaith they do not sow their wheat in March or April, and that the cultivation of wheat in that neighbourhood will not be affected by a declaration now, rather than at the next harvest, of what are the intentions of Her Majesty's Government, or, what is of more importance, the intentions of Parliament on this great question. Does the noble Lord suppose, either, that the imposition of any such duty as he appears to believe to be meditated, could be carried by any Government, that it would produce such an alteration in the relations between landlord and tenant as materially to interfere with the arrangements which subsist between them as to rent and the covenants under which they hold their land? I have not supposed any amount of duty as being the duty that ought to be levied; but the noble Lord has taken the sum of 7s., or 5s., incorrectly referring, I think, to what was said in a speech by a right hon. Friend of mine in the county of Buckingham the other day. Now, I am not going to speak with regard to the amount of the increase of price which would be produced in the home market by any possible alteration of the duties on foreign corn. I am not going to reopen the subject upon which a noble Earl opposite put a question to me the other day, when he contended that whatever increase takes place in the price of corn or other articles in consequence of the imposition of a duty, falls not only upon the price of that which is imported, but upon the whole amount of the produce which is grown at home. What I contended for then was, and what I contend for now is, that whatever the duty may be, it is not the whole amount, but a small portion of that amount, which must be added to the price in consequence of the addition of the duty. Take a duty of 4s., 5s., or 7s., or whatever you please—let us take, for instance, that with which we are the most familiar—a 5s. duty on the import of corn—that is, an addition of 4s. to the present existing duty. Now, suppose the utmost possible extent of the augmen- 1002 tation of price in this country consequent upon an increased duty of 4s. to be 1s. 6d. or 2s. a quarter, will any man tell me that to doubt whether that amount would or would not be imposed, and the subsistence of that doubt for some eight or ten months, could introduce the smallest amount of uncertainty with regard to the relations of landlord and tenant, and the permanent arrangements between them? My Lords, I certainly have seen a statement, and I read it with some surprise, which was made by a friend of mine the other day, that he should take care to inform his tenants that if they obtained a 5s. duty upon wheat, he should immediately put on half-a-crown, I do not know whether per acre or per quarter, upon their rents. Now I do not think this is a very generous course of proceeding. That gentleman is himself a farmer, and an extensive sheep-owner; and he is at this moment canvassing the city of Westminster upon the ground of his extreme liberal principles! Now, I confess that it appears to me that the sheep are not the only portion of his property which this gentleman seems disposed to fleece. But I believe the example he has set, or has announced his readiness to set—for I do not believe he would do it—is an example which would not be followed by country gentlemen generally. I grant, however, my Lords, that this is a question which should remain in abeyance no longer than is absolutely necessary. I admit that most frankly. But with regard to the uncertainty, my Lords, there is a very large party in this country, as is well known, who have declared in the most emphatic terms that it is not until the next election that that uncertainty should be removed—that by the next election the question must be settled, and settled definitively; and to that election they refer on their own part, confident in the strength of their cause, but ready to submit to the judgment of the country should it be pronounced against them. So that whether the change of Government had or had not taken place, that uncertainty as to the final decision of the country, and of Parliament following the country, must have equally remained, but with this difference, that in consequence of that change of Government the period of the duration of the uncertainty will be diminished, and the dissolution of Parliament, which might have been postponed for a period of two years in the ordinary course of things—I trust I need not offer any 1003 apology for alluding to it—must take place within a period of six or eight months from this time. Therefore, my Lords, so far as uncertainty is concerned with regard to the final decision of the country, the period of that uncertainty is not extended, but is diminished by the change of Government; and that change of Government, remember, has not taken place upon any question connected with the subject of protection to the land. And I go further, and say that the period of suspense ought to be as short as possible; that the appeal to be made to the country ought to be made as early as a regard for the great interests of the country will permit. But I say further, my Lords, that so far as it depends on me, no taunt, no challenge, no difficulty to which I may be subjected, and no mortification to which I may be exposed, shall induce me to recommend to my Sovereign that that dissolution of Parliament, however anxious I may be for the decision, shall take place one hour sooner than regard to these great and paramount interests renders necessary. My Lords, let me venture to look back for a moment to the circumstances under which Her Majesty's present Government have assumed—the noble Lord was good enough to say have taken upon them—power:—I would correct the expression, and say, have assumed the responsibilities and the duties of office. The late Government fell by no adverse Motion of ours:—least of all did they fall by any adverse Motion involving the question of protection to the landed interest. Patiently and steadily we have abstained from pressing that question in the shape of direct protection upon the attention of Parliament. The noble Lord will not, I think, venture to say that from those who sit opposite to him in this House, or from those who sit opposite to his party in the other, the late Government had encountered a factious opposition, or a desire to eject them from office. By what, then, did the late Ministry fall? They fell by their own internal weakness: they fell by their confessed and notorious inability to conduct the business of the country: they fell by the absence of their friends: they fell by having quarrelled with their Colleagues: they fell by their inability to muster 130 Gentlemen in the House of Commons to give them support upon a question which they declared to be vital to their existence. My Lords, it was under these circumstances that we were called upon to assume office; and I for one—and 1004 I thank my noble friends and my colleagues in the Government for the readiness with which they answered to the call—felt that in the then state of this country, internally and externally, the country ought not, and should not, be left without a Government. My Lords, when that division took place on the Militia Bill which was the ostensible cause of the fall of the late Government—the real cause was very different, and, perhaps, the noble Earl opposite, whom I see taking a note (Earl Grey), may be somewhat aware of that cause—I say, when the late Government had been placed in that minority, the noble Lord at the head of the Treasury announced to Parliament, that subsequently to that decision he had consulted his colleagues as to the propriety of their resignation, or of a dissolution of Parliament, and that he had come to the conclusion that under the circumstances of the country a dissolution was inexpedient. Inexpedient for whom, my Lords? Inexpedient for the noble Lord and his colleagues, or inexpedient for the interests of the country? I will not so far impute such unworthy motives to the noble Lord as to suggest that it was to the convenience or advantage of his colleagues and himself that he looked. I can only consider that he and his colleagues came to the conclusion that a dissolution of Parliament at the present moment—whatever results it might have upon the future constitution of parties—that such a dissolution of Parliament was not only inexpedient, but that it would be positively dangerous to the interests of the country. Then, my Lords, I ask with what face can any man or body of men who have declared that a dissolution is inexpedient—who have declared that they were unable themselves to conduct the Government—who have advised the Queen to send for me to undertake the duties of responsible Minister of the Crown—with what face, or upon what pretext, I say, can any one of these men, or any body of these men, call for a premature dissolution of Parliament which they themselves condemn; or seek to embarrass that Government which, if they succeeded in destroying, they know they would not have the means of rebuilding, or of building another in its place? But the noble Baron said that upon this particular question of the corn laws we ought to have taken one of two courses: either we ought plainly and simply to have declared that, having now obtained office by the support of those who call themselves the Protectionist party, we 1005 are ready to throw down the ladder by which we have mounted to office, in which case, the noble Baron says, he will be the last man to taunt us with our inconsistency; or else, that we ought to come forward at the present moment, and at once state in the fullest and completest detail the course which we intend to recommend to Parliament—which course we have ourselves declared that we have no intention of recommending to Parliament until another Parliament has assembled. Now in order to judge of the propriety of our conduct in this case, I will ask the noble Lord to look back to the last occasion when a change of Government took place in this country. In 1846 the late Sir R. Peel's Government was ejected from office by an adverse vote upon an important Irish question, which was introduced and supported by a Gentleman who subsequently formed one of the Administration which succeeded that of Sir Robert Peel. In 1846, this Motion, in opposition to the policy of the then Government, was carried successfully against Sir Robert Peel. There was the usual intervening period between the fall of the old Ministry and the formation of the new; and at the end of a fortnight's time—precisely the same as under the existing circumstances—Lord John Russell appeared in the House of Commons as First Minister of the Crown, and stated what were those Bills lying on the table of the House with which he intended to proceed, and what were those which he proposed to abandon. On that occasion Lord John Russell was taunted by one of those hon. Members who is now supporting him—the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. S. Duncombe)—and he was called upon; by the Honse to state the principles upon which he intended to conduct his Government, and the course which he intended to pursue in regard to special and important measures [see 3 Hansard, lxxxvii. 1167, 1175]. Well, I commend to the noble Baron's attention, and to the attention of other noble Lords opposite, the very detailed and elaborate answer made by Lord John Russell standing in the position of First Minister of the Crown. Lord John Russell denied the right of Parliament to put such a question; he denied that it was the duty of the Government to answer such a question. Lord John Russell declared further, that, upon the particular subject referred to, he would give no answer whatever; and, in fact, he refused to pledge himself to any particular course with regard to 1006 most important measures—a measure of Parliamentary Reform, and a measure dealing with the Church of Ireland. But he went still further; and with regard to a measure connected with the Church of Ireland, he used these remarkable expressions:—I do not say that I am satisfied with the existing state of things. I may desire to reduce the revenues of the Protestant Church of Ireland. I may desire to endow the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. I retain the opinions I have expressed upon both those questions; but the people of England entertain different opinions, and I will be guided entirely in my course by the recorded opinions of the people of England. And I will not pledge myself as to the course which now, hereafter, or at any time I will take upon the important and vital questions—the maintenance in its integrity of the Protestant Church in Ireland, and the endowment of the Roman Catholic Church.Those were the doctrines of Lord John Russell in 1846. Those were the doctrines in which the Opposition of that day acquiesced, and warmly and cheerfully acquiesced. Those were the principles upon which, without let or hindrance, Lord John Russell and the Government which had taken office in the middle of the Session, were permitted to proceed to the close of the Session, without any factious interruptions—and whereby they were enabled to carry on so much of the business of the country as pressed for the immediate consideration of Parliament. My Lords, I ask no more. I ask for justice, not to me, not to my Colleagues, but I ask for justice to the great interests of our common country. I ask not to be precluded from making the necessary financial arrangements for the public service. I ask not to be precluded from placing the country in a permanent state of internal organisation against the possible danger of foreign invasion. I ask you not to interrupt the course of all public and private business—I ask not to be called upon to interfere with those useful law reforms which have already been sketched out to your Lordships, which proceed from the recommendations of a Commission appointed by the former Government, and upon which the heart and mind of the people are distinctly set. I call upon you, my Lords—indeed, I ought to beg pardon of my noble and learned Friend on the bench below me (Lord Lyndhurst) in alluding to this subject, because the noble and learned Lord the other day, in dwelling upon these important questions, made a most able and elaborate statement, in which he showed all the inconveniences of a dissolution at 1007 this period of the year; and I am conscious how incapable I am after such an eloquent and unanswerable speech to press those topics upon your consideration, and to enumerate the evils that must arise from a premature interruption of these proceedings. In common with the noble Lord, I say of those who advocate it, they have no ground for thinking it required. It is said by the noble Lords opposite, it is said by the right hon. Gentlemen in the other House of Parliament, that they have no apprehension as to what the verdict of the country, on an appeal now or at a future time, would be. If that be so, why the anxiety, why the alarm, where the uncertainty? I have told you, in regard to financial and commercial measures, that neither I nor my Colleagues in the course of the present Session intend to make any proposition to Parliament attempting to disturb the existing state of things. I have told you before—I repeat now—that the next election must finally decide, at once and for ever, this great question in respect to our commercial policy, and that in the meantime we shall not propose any measure that can call for such an opposition as is now threatening us. I have told you before—I repeat now—that in the meantime the uncertainty is no more than if the Government had not been changed, while that uncertainty must necessarily be of less protracted duration; but I say that if the business of the country be interrupted—if it be factiously interrupted—in this House I have no fear that will be so, and in the other House I hope better counsels may prevail—but if that business be interrupted, depend upon it, whatever the merits of the case—whatever may be the judgment on the abstract question Parliament may be prepared to pronounce—that that factious interruption to necessary measures, that that interruption to the course of a Government endeavouring to carry on the business of the country in the absence of any other Government which by any possibility could conduct it, will be visited—and justly visited—on the heads of those who are the fomenters of that interruption. As to this state of alarm, of anxiety, of uncertainty, which is said to prevail—where are the indications of it? To me, indeed, the country appears to be tranquil, peaceable, and contented. Is there a more correct barometer of public apprehensions and public feelings than the public funds? Well, will the noble Lords opposite point out to me a single moment during the whole period in which they held 1008 office at which the funds were so high, so steady, with such a tendency to advance, as at this present moment, when, according to the noble Baron, the whole nation is in a state of panic? Now, my Lords, the question of the commercial and financial concerns of this country is not, as the noble Lord seems to infer, or would desire to have it inferred, a mere question of the imposition, or non-imposition of a moderate duty on the import of foreign corn. Nor is this any question as to the total reversal of the policy of Sir Robert Peel, either with regard to the imposition of a duty on corn, or with regard to the navigation laws, or with regard to any one of those series of important measures, in a portion of which I willingly acquiesced, which I do not wish to see reversed, but which I do think were carried out to an unnecessary and dangerous extent. The noble Baron himself admits that with one great class of the community serious evil, and serious injury, has been the consequence not only of the adoption, but of' the mode of the adoption, of the principles of free trade. My Lords, I feel that there are other interests which have similarly suffered, and are similarly suffering—not to the same extent as the class referred to by the noble Lord, but still to a considerable extent—from the alterations which were made. But, on that account, do I desire to go back upon all the legislation of the last few years? Why, I recollect well that at the time the measure for the repeal of the Navigation Laws was under discussion, I warned your Lordships against adopting it for this, among other reasons, that whatever might be the case with regard to the customs duties, the new principle of the Navigation Laws once adopted, would be final and irrevocable, and that you could never hope to go back to the old principle. I made that statement at the time; I repeat it now. I do not desire to go back to the laws of 1846 with regard to corn, and I do not desire to go back to the tariff of 1842. But I do desire your Lordships and the country calmly and deliberately to consider—not through the means of local agitation—God knows I should be the last man to stimulate agitation!—not through the agitation of persons who perhaps make more noise than argument—who put down large subscriptions—on paper—who have exercised, and still perhaps may exercise, a dangerous influence on the community, and who, perhaps, may succeed for a time in creating local apprehensions. I do not look 1009 for such intervention; but I say it is a question which ought to be calmly and deliberately considered by Parliament and the country, not simply whether there ought to be, or ought not to be, one particular mode of legislation, the imposition of moderate duties on corn—but whether you will apply yourselves, not to a total reversal of an established system but to such modifications of your system as shall lighten the blow and alleviate the injustice which has been inflicted as its necessary result upon those interests which noble Lords opposite confess to have suffered by our recent policy. My Lords, I have frequently expressed to your Lordships my individual opinion—and I do not think my Colleagues would individually differ with me in that opinion—that for the relief of the farmer—without creating corresponding difficulties in meeting the expenditure of the country, and without throwing the burden on other classes, the imposition of a moderate duty on foreign corn, while it would produce a large revenue, and thereby enable other classes of taxation to be removed, while it would cause hardly any appreciable effect on the price of the food of the people, would be at once a most just, a most economical, and for the country a most advantageous mode of effecting the object desired. But, I say, at the same time, that is a proposition which no Minister ought to bring forward and submit to Parliament, unless he were clear, not only of a bare majority in Parliament, but also clear of a very general concurrence of opinion throughout the country. And as I say that that is only one portion of a great question, it is the duty of Ministers who think and feel with me, to devise carefully, calmly, and deliberately, such measures as they may think best calculated for alleviating the injustice and mitigating the distresses which change in the commercial laws have occasioned to large sections of the community. Further, I say that in taking into consideration the course which they ought to pursue under such circumstances, they are bound not—as the noble Baron suggested—to fling down a distinct and fixed proposition as to the precise mode of operation, which proposition, for five or six months to come, must necessarily be the subject of angry controversy and popular discussion; but they are bound, having commended the case of these differing interests, not to the consideration of agitators, but to the clear 1010 and deliberate sense of the country; and having ascertained that deliberate sense, then to take those measures which, even if abstractedly in their own judgment they regarded as not the most desirable that could be framed, yet which they may be capable of carrying into effect, with the general concurrence of Parliament, and without arousing angry and hostile feelings, and thus give unequivocally valuable relief to different classes of the community. I believe that that is a more statesmanlike course than the course which the noble Lord suggests. I believe that that course is to be preferred to our hastily bringing forward a proposition, clear, perhaps, of having it negatived, and then subsequently forcing a general election, and thus appealing to the judgment of the country on that one question, and on that one question alone. That cannot be the proper mode. It is not alone a mere party question, whether a duty shall be imposed on this or that description of foreign produce; it is not alone even on the whole commercial question, great as that question is, upon which, when we make an appeal to the country, I intend that that appeal shall rest. My Lords, I saw with regret and with susprise proceedings taking place not long ago—I needn't use the same circumlocution in speaking of Chesham Place which I should have to use in speaking of "another place"—and I will therefore say that I have seen with some surprise and some regret the proceedings which are stated to have occurred in Chesham Place, and which, I think, bid fair to render the Chesham Place convention a fit rival with the Lichfield House compact. I saw that on that occasion the noble Lord who preceded me in the office I have now the honour to hold, had summoned together a large body of his supporters to consult with them on the course they should take in opposition. Looking to the circumstances under which that noble Lord quitted office, I should have thought that the last object which he would have had in view, as a statesman and as a patriot, would have been the organisation of an opposition against the Government, which he knew had been compelled to assume office by his retirement. But I confess that my surprise and regret were much increased, when I saw the nature of the association which the noble Lord has formed. The noble Lord on that occasion was attended by 168 Members of the House of Commons. 1011 Where were those 168 when the Government was going to a division on its Militia Bill? Their presence and support on that occasion would have averted the blow, or at least would have given a more dignified character to the catastrophe. But, abstaining from rendering assistance when they could have saved the former Government, they now willingly join in a cry of raising an opposition for the purpose of thwarting and impeding the course of the present Government—joining, indeed, those who are ready to take measures to make the existence of any Government impossible. I have seen all this with extreme regret. I may wrong the noble Lord; I speak only from the authority of public intelligence—I speak only on the authority of those newspapers which generally support the policy of the noble Lord—but I apprehend that what passed at Chesham Place is not matter of secrecy or doubt—and I repeat that I regret to find the noble Lord stating distinctly that he had concerted his plan of operation in opposition with Sir James Graham on one side, and with Mr. Cobden on the other. I find that Sir James Graham was not present; but Mr. Cobden, Mr. Bright, Mr. Villiers, Mr. Hume, and one or two other Gentlemen, appeared to take the principal part in the discussions which are reported; and in that united assembly the noble Lord, hardly one week out of office, the author of a Reform Bill which he had laid before Parliament, with the assent of his Colleagues, for the purpose of settling the representation of the country, was called upon by his supporters to amend that nugatory and absurd Bill; and hardly out of office one week, the noble Lord had no hesitation in stating that if he were called upon to form another Cabinet, it would be on a very different and on a much wider basis than that of the Government of which he had recently been the head. This, then, is the position in which Her Majesty's present and late Governments stand. The head of the late Government has been unable to maintain his place, but thinks it not unworthy of his high character and station to associate with those who during the continuance of his Government ceaselessly opposed him, for the mere purpose of rendering the difficulties of those who have succeeded to the management of affairs positively insurmountable. And the noble Lord has pledged himself in the face of the country, if these reports are to be relied on, that the next Administration, 1012 formed under his auspices, shall not be a Whig Administration, but an Administration on a much wider basis. As regards the present Government, we go to the country when it becomes consistent with our duty to our Sovereign and to the country to appeal to it, upon no narrow plan of commercial policy, having reference to duties on corn; we leave that question to the deliberate judgment, to the general concurrence of the country, without which I will not bring forward that proposition. I say, my Lords, I will not flinch from performing my duty for fear of any noisy agitation. If the good sense and judgment of Parliament and of the country be with me in support of a measure which I believe would be a useful measure for the country, I will propose that measure. But I will not overstrain the influence which may belong to a Government; I will not abuse the high position in which the favour of my Sovereign has placed me; I will not urge on a struggle, and I will not by a mere and bare majority of votes force on the country a measure against which a great portion of the country may entertain a decided opposition. There may be those who would object to the specific measure of relief who will yet be ready to join me in supporting the great institutions of the country, and in affording modified relief to those classes who have suffered peculiarly from your legislation; and I would not wish to withhold from Her Majesty's Government the valuable aid of those who unite with us in general principles, and who, agreeing with us as to the distress of these particular interests, are ready to join with us in assisting them, though they may differ with us as to the specific mode of affording the relief, and would be unable to give us assistance in carrying the distinct proposal to which I have referred. For we are threatened with far more serious consequences than could result from the imposition of a 4s., 5 s., or 7s. duty on foreign corn. The question before us is, whether the Government of this country can be carried on, and as to the principles on which it is to be carried on. And when I appeal to the country it will be on these grounds: Will you, Protectionists and Free Traders, all you who desire the advantage of all the interests of the country, place your confidence in, and give your support to, a Government which, in the hour of peril, did not hesitate to take the post of danger when the helmsman had left the helm? Will you support a Government which is exerting itself to 1013 protect the country against any hostile attack, to maintain the peace of the world, to maintain and uphold the Protestant institutions of the country, to give, to the utmost of its power, religious and moral education throughout the land; and which will exert itself, moreover, I don't hesitate to say, to stem with some opposition, to supply some barrier, against the current of that continually increasing and encroaching democratic influence in this nation, which is bent on throwing the whole power and authority of the Government nominally into the hands of the masses, but practically and really into those of demagogues and republicans, who exercise an influence over those unthinking masses—will you, I say, support a Government which is determined to resist that noxious and dangerous influence, and to preserve inviolate the prerogatives of the Crown, the rights of your Lordships' House, and the liberties of a freely elected and freely represented House of Commons? These, my Lords, are the questions on which, when I go to the country, I make my appeal, on behalf of myself and of my Colleagues; and in the words which are placed in the mouths of the meanest felons that stand in the prisoners' dock, but which are not unworthy of the mouth of the First Minister of the first country in the world, I say, "I elect that we shall be tried by God and our country."
§ EARL GREY
, after a few sentences which were inaudible, said: My Lords, I am astonished that, after the able and temperate manner in which the present question has been introduced to the House by my noble Friend near me (Lord Beaumont), and with the knowledge which we all have of the deep interest taken by the country in this question; how from one end of the country to the other that anxiety is manifested in the clearest form, I am astonished the noble Earl, the First Minister, should have thought it worthy of him to amuse your Lordships—or rather, try to amuse your Lordships—for a full quarter of an hour with light and irrelevant remarks respecting the signatures to the petition which was presented. The petition was presented as a matter of form, simply to put my noble Friend in order in raising the discussion; and, under the circumstances, the noble Earl, the First Minister, has condescended, I think, to what I must say are miserable witticisms on the petitions, quite unworthy of him and of the subject. My noble Friend asked whether it was the intention of the Government to 1014 propose any alteration in the law with regard to the importation of corn. In reply-my noble Friend has only got the individual opinion of the First Minister. The individual opinions of the First Minister, and of his Colleagues, are stated to be in favour of such a change; but your Lordships are informed, that whether the Government proposes it or not, will depend on whether there is a majority in favour of such a measure in a new Parliament. Now, this is something quite new in our constitutional history. I have always been taught to believe that a statesman in England ought to claim the confidence of the country, not on his abstract opinion, but on that course of policy which he would be prepared to take the responsibility of recommending to Parliament. But what we are now told is quite new, and no less strange than it is new, that the Gentlemen who have been called to the councils of their Sovereign have themselves the strongest possible opinions upon the policy which ought to be pursued on a great question—that they are convinced that both for the interest of the country, and respect to one large class of the community, a particular course ought to be adopted, but that they will not say whether they mean to take the course they think right not. This, I think, is totally unprecedented. The First Minister has told us, indeed, that, in 1846, on coming into office Lord John Russell took a similar course in regard to the Irish Church measure—[The Earl of DERBY: And other measures.] And in regard to other measures. Now, my Lords, not expecting that what occurred at that time would be adverted to on this occasion, I have not referred to the records of what then took place, and speak only from recollection as to what happened so long as five years and a half ago: it does not become me to be very positive in contradicting the noble Earl, but, at the same time, I must express my very strong conviction, that the statement of the noble Earl is altogether erroneous—a conviction which is strengthened by what I caught of the words then used by my noble Friend, Lord John Russell, as quoted by the noble Earl. I feel very confident that the answer returned in 1846 by Lord John Russell to the question put to him as to what would be the course of the Government respecting the Irish Church, was not that he would leave that course to be decided on by what might thereafter be the wish of the people of 1015 England, but that he would abide by the recorded—the already expressed—opinions of the country. The real purport of his answer was to say, that, whatever might be the opinion of some members of the new Government on the Irish Church, no intention existed on the part of that Government of seeking to set aside the existing arrangement; and I defy anybody to contradict me when I say that that reply of my noble Friend was so understood by Parliament and by the country. The noble Earl, the First Minister, cannot therefore quote this as a precedent for his refusal of explanation as to the views of the present Government on the subject of Protection; and I must express my great surprise at his mentioning this as a subject of little practical importance, on which no explanation is necessary. He speaks now of this question as being a question of a paltry duty, which would affect only to an inappreciable amount the price of the food of the people. But if this is the case, I want very much to know why it is that such great efforts have been made during five years and a half to keep together a large party, under the banner of "Protection?" If this question is a question only of a paltry duty that would not affect appreciably the price of food, how is it that we have heard so much of such a change being indispensable to the preservation of the British farmer? But I will tell the noble Earl that it is not this light and trivial question. Whatever the noble Earl may say here—that it is not a question of reversing the commercial policy of the last six years—I will tell the noble Earl that when his Colleagues meet the farmers, they do distinctly declare that it is a question of reversing our commercial policy. What does the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Christopher) say to the farmers of Lincolnshire? That hon. Gentleman said, "I accept office under Lord Derby, from a conviction I have of his sincere desire to reverse that financial and commercial policy which has proved so injurious to native industry and capital." Well, is Mr. Christopher deceived as to the views and intentions of the noble Earl; or, is Mr. Christopher himself deceiving the electors of Lincolnshire; or, has the noble Earl deceived Mr. Christopher; or, lastly, is the noble Earl deceiving your Lordships in professing to think that this would be a question of "paltry" duty? I say that the question of augmenting by the smallest amount the existing 1016 duties on the food of the people, would, in the present state and temper of the people, prove a question of transcendent importance. It is, in short, a question of policy so vital to the country, that no Administration is entitled to keep it in the back ground. Therefore, I say the present Government are bound to state, one way or the other, whether they are for or against it, not as individuals, but as a collective Cabinet. My Lords, I will not repeat what has been already said by my noble Friend (Lord Beaumont) as to the evils which must attend a continuance of the uncertainty of the country as to the future intentions of the Government. But I must remark on the argument of the noble Earl, that the uncertainty as to our commercial policy has not been augmented by the change of Government, while the period for the termination of that uncertainty has been abbreviated; that, as far as I can judge of public feeling, until there was a change of Government, there seemed to be no uncertainty on the matter whatever. There was the most complete confidence that no change in the policy of the country would be attempted. But when the present Government succeeded to office, this uncertainty was immediately created; and for the best of all possible reasons—because it was generally known that the great object of the party was the re-establishment of protection. Let us look back to the circumstances of the last few years. The noble Earl states that the late Administration did not fall in consequence of any hostile vote from his party, that there was no factious opposition offered to it, but that it fell from sheer inherent weakness. Now, it is perfectly true, that the Administration of Lord John Russell came to an end, because it failed to obtain an efficient support in the other House of Parliament. The noble Earl said, that the vote of the House of Commons on the Militia Bill was the ostensible cause of the resignation of the Ministry; and the noble Earl, referring to me, remarked that I perhaps might be aware of the real cause. The insinuation is perfectly obvious: and, in answer to it, I must inform the noble Earl, that for my own part, and I believe speaking the opinion of my Colleagues, the only thing I greatly regretted in connexion with that division on the Militia Bill was, that it compelled the late Government to retire before the question of the Cape could be discussed by the House of Commons. There was nothing I so anxiously desired 1017 as that that discussion should take place; and for this, among other reasons, that I wished an hon. Friend of mine, who had lately filled the office of Under Secretary of State, to have had the opportunity, which I have no doubt, from what I have observed in the period in which I was connected with him, he would have availed himself of to distinguish himself. That division on the Militia Bill, however, made it impracticable for the late Government to continue in office; and I quite agree with the noble Earl that even if this division had not occurred, it was hardly probable that the late Government would have long retained office. I quite concur with the noble Earl in thinking that we had failed in obtaining such a support in the other House of Parliament as would have enabled us to conduct efficiently the affairs of the country; and I also think that when the late Government retired, it was desirable that the noble Earl should undertake the task of forming another Administration. But let me remind the noble Earl that this, though the truth, is not the whole truth. When the noble Earl says that the late Administration fell from the want of support, he ought to say what was the cause of that want of support. I say—and I defy the noble Earl to contradict me—that the cause and the reason of their not commanding the support of the other House of Parliament was, that the subject of protection was for five years and a half made the means of marshalling and arraying against them a powerful party. The noble Earl says that there was no factious opposition to the late Ministry. I do not say that there was; but it is not the less the fact, that by keeping up the cry of protection, by the noble Earl telling the farmers that he and his Friends could restore protection, the late Government was weakened, and that the opposition to them was thus strengthened cannot be denied. By speeches, by public dinners, by meetings, and by every practicable means, pains were taken to convince those connected with the land that by the noble Earl and his party protection would be restored. Not two years ago the noble Earl told a deputation of farmers to trust to him that he would yet succeed in restoring protection; that be was longing for the time which he was confident would come, when he should be able to address his followers in the memorable words of the noble Duke at the table, and cry, "Up, Guards, and at them!" [The Earl of DERBY: I told them to trust to 1018 themselves.] The noble Earl told them that they must trust to themselves, but that they should also trust to the party which was pledged to protection, and rally round it. What were the consequences? It is notorious that many noble Lords in your Lordships' House, who were attached to the Whig party, withdrew their support from my noble Friend, on the ground that we were opposed to protection, and because they hoped yet to get it back by means of the noble Earl. In the House of Commons this happened to a greater extent. Many Members of that House, who concurred with us on the question of free trade, differed from us on other matters; but, on the other hand, many who concurred with the noble Earl on the question of free trade, had no difference from my noble Friend (Lord John Russell) on any other question. The whole of that party was kept together by the expectation, so sedulously kept up, of the restoration of protection. In the same way, in many counties and boroughs, persons who were ready to give a general support to the then Government, and had a confidence in that Government, were prevented coming into Parliament by the opposition which was raised against them on the ground of protection. It is notorious, that by these means, not only were the ranks of the late Government weakened, but the ranks of the Opposition were strengthened. But, my Lords, this was not all. The noble Earl not only kept a powerful party together in the House of Commons by the cry of protection, but he did more; he led the party thus organised, I will not say in a factious, but certainly in a very eager and decided opposition to Her Majesty's Government. Those who were united together by the cry of protection by no means confined their opposition to the question of our commercial policy. No one could have expected it to be otherwise. It is the ordinary, fair, and legitimate course for those who are in opposition to the Government, and differ with the Government on an important question, to try to drive them from power by assaults on different questions. In accordance with that practice, the Protectionist party, kept together by means of the cry of protection, made continued attacks on the Government in this and the other House of Parliament, and they were ever ready to join with any, however they might differ from themselves, who were carrying on attacks against us. The whole circle of our domestic, foreign, and colonial 1019 policy was eagerly made the subject of attack. The noble Earl cannot deny that he, as the leader of that party, was the adviser and director of those attacks; and it is something more than public rumour, it is no secret, that the last attack—that which was made on my noble Friend below me (the Earl of Clarendon), was pressed on an unwilling soldier, who was dragged into the case; and that the noble Lord the present Chief Secretary for Ireland, was required to bring forward a resolution which was framed and even written by the noble Earl.
§ EARL GREY
I am very glad to hear it; but if the resolution was not written, it was at least counselled and directed, by the noble Earl; but, to the credit of many of his party be it said, they were ashamed of this Motion, and it was negatived by a considerable majority. An opposition of this kind, for five years, was conducted with vigour and ability (and I do not complain that it should be so), and at last it was successful. It is not, therefore, a correct statement for the noble Earl to say that the assumption of the Government was forced upon him. It devolved on him, as the natural and necessary consequence of a long-continued and ultimately successful opposition. It cannot, therefore, be urged that the manner in which the present Government was formed, constitutes any justification for a departure from the ordinary rules of proceeding, as to the course which that Government is now to take. But when an Opposition has been kept together for a long time by an avowed concurrence of opinion of a number of individuals on one particular question, what is the course we should expect to be pursued when that Opposition has triumphed, and taken on itself the responsibility of office? Why, it is naturally to be expected that they will endeavour to give effect to the views they expressed when in opposition. I should have expected, therefore, that the noble Earl on assuming office would have told us, as he did last year, that he retained his former opinions, and that he could not, as an honest man or a man of honour, sacrifice those opinions. In February of last year, the noble Earl tried to form a Ministry, and having failed to do so he explained to the House fully the feelings and motives which influenced his 1020 conduct. I find in his speech the following remarkable statement. The noble Earl said—It was impossible for me, even had my convictions been less strong than they were, as an honest man, to take office without a full determination to deal with that distress, and endeavour to apply to it, as a Minister, effective measures of relief. I stated that if I could so far forget myself as to sacrifice my own honest convictions, the loss of honour that would be involved in such a course would make my services worse than valueless. I said I had entertained, and that I retained, the opinion that it was the duty of the Government, if it were impossible to do full justice, at all events to take steps towards mitigating the injustice under which the proprietors and occupiers of land in this country were suffering. I did not bind myself to any specific measure; but I did state that I would not take office on any other condition than that of endeavouring, bonâ, fide, to give effect to my own conviction of the necessity of legislating for the relief of that class of Her Majesty's subjects." [3 Hansard, cxiv. 1007.]And a few sentences further on the noble Earl proceeded to say—I cannot, as an honest man, abandon the attempt to relieve the existing distress by retracing the false step which has been taken, and to remedy the wrong done by the imposition of a moderate import duty upon corn.This was the declaration of the noble Earl last year. Now I say that when an Opposition, based on protection, which used protection as a lever to upset a preceding Administration, accedes to office, we have a right to say, do you still adhere to those opinions, or do you not? If the noble Earl adheres to the opinions he expressed last year, he is perfectly justified in saying, "I will not bring forward a policy to which the present House of Commons is opposed, and which can have no confidence in a Government founded on the views which it entertained in opposition." But if the noble Earl still adheres to that policy, and cannot propose it in the present House of Commons, because he knows that the House of Commons is opposed to it, it seems to me the natural inference that the same course should be taken as was taken in 1841, when the then Government, on a question of financial policy, being in a minority and not having the confidence of Parliament, were informed that it was their duty, if they did not resign, to take the sense of the country as soon as possible, and fairly bring the subject to an issue. My Lords, I think the same course is to be expected from the noble Earl. If the noble Earl adheres to a policy to which the House of Commons is opposed, a policy 1021 which is the subject of great interest to the country, and which both protectionists and free-traders deem of vital importance, I think he is bound, as was done in 1841, to take the sense of the country as soon as possible. If he had done so, I am persuaded that no party in either House would have offered any obstruction to his measures, and that every facility would have been given to him in carrying on the necessary business of the country, in order to enable him to proceed to a dissolution. But the noble Earl says that an early dissolution must necessarily delay many important measures for which the country is highly anxious, and that great responsibility will rest on those who impede the progress of these measures in the present Parliament. I do not say that there will be no inconvenience attendant on the postponement of those measures; but if the opinion of the country on the questions of free trade and protection is to be taken, I cannot see how this is to be avoided—and the step should be taken as speedily as possible. Referring to the events of 1841, and the course taken by Sir Robert Peel, with whom the noble Earl was then acting, it will be seen that Sir Robert Peel said that when it was evident that the days of the then Parliament were numbered, they could not usefully enter on the discussion of any important measures; and he urged that Parliament should be dissolved and a new one assembled as soon as possible: and he relieved the scruples of my noble Friend Lord John Russell (I was not a Member of the Government at that time, but I remember it very well), with regard to any constitutional objections he might entertain as to state what advice he might intend giving to the Crown, by showing that such a course was regular, and that there was precedent for it. In consequence of the request thus addressed to him, my noble Friend, Lord John Russell, gave an assurance that Parliament should be dissolved, and it was dissolved as soon as possible. My Lords, if Her Majesty's present Government mean to bring forward this subject of protection, it seems to me quite obvious, that according to our former precedents, this is the course they should take; but, at the same time, I, for one, have no wish to drive them to it. I should listen to them with the greatest satisfaction if they would come forward and boldly and frankly say, "We find that when we consider this question with the 1022 responsibility our present situation imposes upon us, although our opinions remain unaltered as to the policy of 1846, still we are convinced that it is not, on the whole, for the good of the country that the question should be again agitated." My Lords, if they were to do this, no doubt they would expose themselves to be reminded by their own followers of their own former attacks upon Sir Robert Peel; but that would only be the unavoidable consequence of their want of candour, or of foresight, during the five years in which they have supported protection; it would, be a penalty they ought to pay for the error they have committed; and if they really mean to abandon protection; they are bound fairly, frankly, and explicitly to avow it. I am convinced of this—whatever reproaches their followers may cast upon them for deserting their opinions, and disappointing the expectations they have wilfully raised—whatever reproaches of this kind may be cast upon them, will not be diminished, but will, on the contrary, only be increased and rendered more just and telling, if the noble Earl, refusing frankly to avow his alteration of opinion, practically evades the performance of that which his followers considered he had promised. My Lords, look to the extraordinary position in which the noble Earl is placed. The noble Earl has told us tonight that be retains all his old opinions, but that the imposition of a duty upon corn is not to be attempted except with the full concurrence of the country. He says that such measures are not to be carried by a bare Parliamentary majority—that it is not his intention to do violence to the consciences of any class—that he will not seek to obtain enforced support, or to influence his followers or the constituencies, but that he will leave the question to be settled by the calm and temperate consideration of the people. Is there any man of common understanding who heard these words, that does not see that this is in reality giving up the question? Does any person suppose that the restoration of protection can be carried by such rosewater support as this? Does any person believe that, even if it were supported with the whole strength and power of the Government of the noble Earl and his Coleagues, the reimposition of any duty on the importation of corn could be accomplished without extreme difficulty? My Lords, I do not believe it could be accomplished at all. I have too much confidence 1023 in the good sense of the people to think they will allow any departure from the policy which has been adopted with such triumphant success during the last six years. That it could be established otherwise than with great difficulty is not for one moment to be supposed: then what is the object of maintaining the sort of reserve the noble Earl affects on the question? If the noble Earl means to give up protection, why does he not say so? The reason is obvious. The noble Earl wishes his supporters to canvass the counties as Protectionists. He means that one of them should canvass Lincolnshire as a person pledged to reverse the commercial policy of the last five years; and another, whose address I have seen, should be able to solicit the votes of the electors of Macclesfield as a supporter of the Government, but an opponent of a duty upon corn. He wishes his supporters, to canvass the counties as Protectionists, and to canvass the towns as Free-traders. Let me ask those who for five years have made great sacrifices for Protection—whose interests have been injured by the doubts that have been raised regarding its restoration, and who have been taught to expect that Protection will be renewed—will it be to them any reason for lessening their just right to complain of the noble Earl's conduct for the last five years, if he now leaves the question open? Far from it. The noble Earl and his friends were very severe upon the conduct of Sir Robert Peel; but if Sir Robert Peel was to be blamed with reference to the corn laws—if any just censure could be thrown upon the conduct of Sir Robert Peel, it is this, that prior to 1846 he had not changed his policy—that he had been too long in arriving at a conviction with respect to the necessity for abandoning the policy of the then existing law; or, if he had arrived at the conviction, had not the candour sooner to avow it. The charge of a want of foresight, or a want of candour (of course I believe it to be a want of foresight), prior to 1846, is the only charge in reference to this subject that can be brought against Sir Robert Peel. Looking to the great sacrifice he made in 1846, and to the fact that every personal and private interest was opposed to his taking the course he did, I think that nothing but the most unreasoning animosity, could for one moment believe that Sir Robert Peel, in proposing the repeal of the corn law in 1846, was actuated by any 1024 other motive than a desire to do what be believed the good, and I may add the safety, of the country indispensably required. Looking back at the interval of time since the measure was passed, and with the calmness with which the question may now be considered, I believe hardly any person could be found to deny that this is the correct judgment to be pronounced upon Sir Robert Peel. So now, if the noble Earl were to abandon protection, and tell the farmers and landowners that they had better awaken from their dreams, and apply themselves to other means of regaining prosperity, because protection is an impossibility, does anybody believe that in holding that language the noble Earl would be liable to be justly charged with holding language now inconsistent with his real opinions? For my part, I say that by holding frankly this language, he would make the best amends now in his power for what he has done. The only reproach he would become obnoxious to by thus dealing with this question now—and I admit it would be far more serious than the one to which Sir Robert Peel was liable—would be that for five years he had knowingly used protection as a political instrument, irrespective of the real interests of those whose cause he professed to maintain, knowing that ultimately the restoration of protection was impossible. Undoubtedly, looking to the noble Earl's language to the farmers two years ago in his own house—which I have quoted—and looking to the course of conduct at all times pursued by his party, it would be difficult for the noble Earl to prove that it was mere want of foresight, not want of candour, that had been the cause of his conduct, and that he had not knowingly made use of the cry of Protection merely as a political instrument. But, my Lords, look how infinitely the assumption is increased if now, when he abandons practically all attempt to restore Protection, he shrinks in doing so from following the example of Sir Robert Peel, and openly, manfully, and frankly declaring that he was in error, and that he therefore gives up protection. If, instead of thus fairly avowing that he cannot keep his promise to the farmers, he evades it by saying he will perform it, when a condition he well knows to be impossible is fulfilled; if he endeavours to creep out of his pledge in this manner, he convicts himself in the eyes of every man of common discernment not only of having hitherto used the cry of 1025 protection as a political instrument in opposition, but of continuing to do so, in the station he now occupies, by still professing his adherence to the policy of protection, while, in reality, he evades an attempt to carry it into effect. My Lords, I say that the noble Earl incurs the deepest responsibility by thus playing with the best interests of the country, and by keeping alive this question between different classes of the community, when he knows in his heart the contest is really at an end that protection can never be restored, and that one word from him, avowing that he had come to this conclusion, would at once put an end to any further doubt or contention on the subject. By taking the line he has adopted, the noble Earl has indeed incurred a fearful responsibility; and it is my firm belief that in the whole Parliamentary annals of this country there is no instance in which the public interests have been so entirely sacrificed to party objects.
§ LORD ABINGER
denied that the question of protection had been kept constantly before Parliament, for until this moment he had not had an opportunity of expressing his opinions upon it. He also denied that the claims of those demanding protection had been factiously pressed upon Parliament. He estimated the loss to the landlords and tenant-farmers of this country, through a repeal of the corn laws, at 30,000,000l. value of annual revenue; a sum which amounted to three-fifths of the annual revenue of the country. It was impossible that a confiscation of property of this great magnitude could take place, without inflicting a deep and lasting injury upon the agricultural interest. He had not only taken the liberty of remonstrating with the late Sir Robert Peel on the subject of the Corn Law Repeal, but upon the question of the franchise; for he (Lord Abinger) had always felt that since the Reform Bill the institutions of the country had rested on a much less firm foundation than before. While he admitted that the labourers in this country had benefited by the repeal of the Corn Laws, yet it was not the less confiscation that the labourers should live at the expense of the capitalists. The position of the landlords at this moment reminded him of that of the French citizen who had to smile graciously on the revolutionary crowd to whom he was giving an involuntary banquet in the street. Without begrudging 1026 the advantages which the labourers had derived from a change in the law, he still did not think it right that a whole nation should be fed at the expense of the landlords. For what was that but benefiting one class at the expense of the other? In the present state of the question, he should say to his brother farmer, "You still may sow, but sow less; do not farm worse, but farm less, and reduce your expenses." And he would advise those who had dealings with the labourers to trust to their fidelity and prudence, and above all to their sense of justice.
The MARQUESS of CLANRICARDE
thought the advice of the noble Lord to the farmers not to agitate, came most admirably after the speech of the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby), which he had heard in part with some satisfaction; but as to the greatest part of it with the deepest regret. The noble Earl would excuse him for saying, without any diminution of personal respect, that a more unstatesmanlike speech he had never heard or read from any man in office. His advice was to agitate on this question to the fullest extent on both sides; and he said that then he would abide by the decision of the country. The noble Earl said that but few persons had signed the petition now before their Lordships, and he remarked with some derision on their occupations, as if farmers were the only persons to be considered in this matter; but the gentleman particularly referred to by the noble Earl, who had signed the petition, was an auctioneer, and probably a land-valuer, and of the question in hand was probably a good authority. But was this a question one that could rest between the noble Earl and the producers of corn, and did it not extend to consumers? He (the Marquess of Clanricarde) had risen simply to express satisfaction at one part of the noble Earl's speech, which he took to be a complete abandonment of the question of protection. He understood the noble Earl distinctly to say, that unless there was a large majority, or at least a considerable majority, in Parliament, and unless that majority was supported by a general concurrence of opinion in the country in its favour, he would not attempt a protective policy. He (the Marquess of Clanricarde) used that phrase because he understood the noble Earl did not confine his remarks to a duty on foreign corn, but extended them to those other measures which were 1027 usually understood as constituting a protection policy.
§ The EARL of DERBY
The noble Marquess is mistaken. What I said was this; that with respect to the particular question of an import duty on foreign corn, I did not think it was a question which ought to be proposed by Government to Parliament, unless we were satisfied not only that we should be able to carry it by a fair majority in Parliament, but that there was also a general concurrence of opinion in the country in its favour. I made these remarks solely with reference to an import duty on corn, and not by any means, as the noble Marquess supposes, to the protection policy—that is, to doing that which under any circumstances, whether in a majority or a minority, we are bound to do, or to attempt, namely, to mitigate the distresses to which the agriculturists are subject in consequence of the adoption of free trade.
The MARQUESS of CLANRICARDE
said, he had used the phrase "protection policy" because he was not aware that the noble Earl had made any limitation, and because it was difficult to know precisely what that policy was. But, looking at the whole speech of the noble Earl, he still thought that as the noble Earl had resolved to attempt a renewal of protection, provided only he obtained a majority in Parliament, and a general concurrence of opinion in the country in its favour; and as Parliament had already declared itself to be adverse to protection, and the country was known to be still more adverse, that policy might be considered as virtually, totally, and really abandoned; and therefore he thought that the recommendation which had been given by the noble Earl beside him (Earl Grey), namely, that the Government should at once candidly declare that they had abandoned protection, was one which might wisely be followed. The noble Earl had emphatically talked of the danger of a dissolution of Parliament in the present state of the country. He could have wished that the noble Earl had more clearly stated wherein he considered that danger to consist; for he (the Marquess of Clanricarde) denied that the country was in a dangerous state at present; and his reasons for objecting to a revision, which implies of course an alteration of our financial and commercial policy, were to a large extent founded upon that opinion; the consequences of that policy 1028 had been to raise the prosperity and welfare of the country to an almost unprecedented pitch, and therefore he objected to any revival, or change of it. The noble Earl also talked of the measures necessary to be adopted for the defences of the country. He (the Marquess of Clanricarde) knew not what measures the Government meant to propose for that purpose; but of this he felt sure, that if the noble Earl should come down to Parliament and propose measures which would put the country in a better state of defence within seven or eight, or probably in two, months, he had not the least doubt that Parliament would be readily inclined to pass any Bill for that purpose, if declared to be necessary, without delay; but any other reason for delaying the dissolution he was totally at a loss to conceive. The country was never in a more tranquil state than at the present moment; the agitation, of which the noble Earl had this night given the signal, had not yet commenced. The noble Earl had said that there had only been one petition on the subject, with thirteen signatures. Did he wish for more petitions? If he did, he could assure the noble Earl that he would have petitions enough and signatures enough before long. But, for his own part, he wished rather that the petitions should be rendered unnecessary, and that agitation should not commence. But the noble Earl said, he was guided by precedent in the course he was now pursuing, and he quoted one, which however did not apply. If the noble Earl looked to the best constitutional authorities, he would find that for the last century the course had almost invariably been, that a dissolution had speedily followed a change of Government. For instance, Lord John Russell took office at the end of June, 1846, and the only new measure introduced previous to a dissolution was the measure relating to the sugar duties, and that was indispensable, because the previous Act was about to expire. Then let him look back to the case of Mr. Pitt in 1784–5, and also to the case of the Duke of Portland in 1807. The question was, did the Government now in office hold different opinions from their predecessors or not, with respect to the financial and commercial policy of the country? If they did then there ought to be an appeal to the country on that point, and that speedily. He (the Marquess of Clanricarde) thought 1029 the more desirable course to be pursued would be to decide the question to which the petition related at once, for by keeping it still unsettled, they were only exposing the country to all the dangers of un-certainty and of agitation for a long time. He thought, therefore, it would be for the honour of the noble Earl's own character, that he should avow at once his conviction of the necessity of not altering our present financial and commercial policy; and that he saw the dangers of now unsettling that policy. Of this he (the Marquess of Clanricarde) was most sincerely of opinion, because he felt convinced that if there is one thing which this country is less inclined to stand than another, it is public men playing fast and loose with great questions. He confessed he was astonished at the speech of the noble and learned Lord (Lord Lyndhurst) on this subject the other evening, for he remembered that the noble and learned Lord, when the dissolution which took place in 1835 was attacked, distinctly stated that a dissolution followed a change of Ministry as a matter of course. He was greatly surprised to hear the question of protection now treated by the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) as of little consequence. The noble Earl asks, is the imposing of a 4s. or 5s. duty on foreign corn a question of such paramount importance as that for it they should postpone the consideration of law reform, and other needful reforms? That was not the language he expected to hear used by the noble Earl, for it was upon that very question of a duty on foreign corn, he had, taken the reins of Government, and upon; that question he would be judged by all classes of the country. He (the Marquess of Clanriearde) could only say, that if the noble Earl thought he could reverse the financial and commercial policy of the country, he was greatly mistaken. The noble Lord who spoke last had made a computation that the farmers and land-owners had lost 30,000,000l. per annum by the abolition or the corn laws. Now, if it could be proved that the difference between the price of corn now and formerly amounted to 30,000,000l. per annum, all he could say was, that 30,000,000l. had gone into the pockets of the people, and principally into the pockets of the lowest class of the people. He regretted extremely the course taken on that occasion by the noble Earl; he thought the intimation held out was clear enough; he thought 1030 the noble Earl gave that intimation in a manner not to be mistaken; but he still must say, that a frank straightforward avowal of policy on the part of the noble Earl was the course that would most redound to his own credit and the advantage of the country.
§ The EARL of HARROWBY
said, that he did not wish to add one grain to the difficulties of his noble Friend (the Earl of Derby). He felt that it was not merely a question of a corn duty which was now involved. He felt averse to see a Government formed on a "wider basis" that would risk the balance of the constitution: but he could not help expressing his opinion that if the noble Earl attempted to impose a duty upon corn, either for purposes of revenue or protection—if he attempted to tax the food of the people, it would be fatal to his Administration and to the great conservative interests of the country. In former times it was contended that a free-trade policy would not only be fatal to the landlords and tenants, but that it would be attended with great inconvenience to many other classes. The result had, however, proved that the inconvenience was confined to these two classes; and, however important they might be, it was not possible to attempt for their sake to levy a tax upon the food of the people. Let the noble Earl, therefore, if he would, readjust the taxation of the country, and so relieve them from those unfair burdens under which they laboured to some extent; and he believed that when they were relieved from all apprehension of the imposition of a tax upon their food, the feelings and the sense of justice of the country would go along with him in that policy, and that they would consent to relieve the landed interest from some of those burdens under which they laboured. But let the noble Earl speak plainly on this question, and be assured that he would lose nothing by his plainness. Nobody could have looked to his language, or to that used by the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the other House (Mr. Disraeli), without seeing that for some time they had had a growing impression that the agriculturists ought not to look for relief to a protective duty; and that conviction must have been still more forcibly impressed upon them when they came to look at the question more closely under the responsibilities of office. He believed that it would be impossible for a candidate to have the slightest chance 1031 of success in some of our large commercial towns, however popular his opinions in other respects might be, if he professed himself to be in favour of the imposition of a tax of a farthing upon the food of the people. They had now enjoyed the cheapness of food, and he was sure that if the noble Earl appealed to the country upon this point, the Conservative interests of the country would be set upon a false issue; and when the noble Earl thought he was merely trying the question of this policy, he would be in fact trying the question of democracy or not. The noble Earl would, he was sure, find it to be both for his own credit and for the interest of the country if he would at once declare that a Protectionist duty was not in his mind the course which under present circumstances would be most beneficial to the country.
§ LORD BEAUMONT
regretted extremely that the noble Earl had not thought proper to give him quite so direct an answer to his question as in his opinion he ought to have done. He agreed with the noble Earl who had just set down that it would have been better for the interest of Government to have been more explicit upon that occasion. He believed firmly that the noble Earl would have lost nothing in his reputation if he had candidly confessed that he had abandoned the policy which he had supported on the other side of the House. But, although the noble Earl had not given him a direct answer, he had given him some indirect information: he had in effect intimated that protection for corn had been abandoned as a measure of the present Government. Now, although this somewhat agreed with what he (Lord Beaumont) had stated to be his own wish on the subject, he did not know what would be the effect upon the unfortunate yeomanry of Essex, Lincolnshire, and Buckinghamshire when they found that after all their fine speeches, their public meetings, and subscriptions to the Great Central Protection Society, with George Frederick Young at its head, the result was that they had only been mystified by the noble Earl and his friends. But that was their look-out. He regretted that the noble Earl bad not stated his intentions more clearly, because he feared that the result would be as his noble Friend (Earl Grey) had pointed out, that some of his supporters would go to the counties professing protection, and others to the towns professing free trade. 1032 If that was his object, he would say that it was unworthy of the noble Earl. It was unworthy of any Government to raise class against class without any object in view—with a reservation in their own minds that they would never bring before Parliament the very subject upon which they had originated the agitation. He knew nothing to compare with it except the conclusion of the speech of Mark Antony in the play of Julius Cœsar, where, after stirring up the people to agitation, he said,—Mischief, thou art afoot;Take now what course thou wilt!
would not have addressed the House on that occasion if it was not that he had been disappointed in not hearing any other Member of the Government but the noble Earl express his sentiments on this momentous question. The House would not have forgotten the repeated speeches of the supporters of the noble Earl, in which they inveighed against the policy of the late Government, and charged it with all the evils which they alleged it had brought upon the labourers and occupiers of the land—imaginary, he believed, with regard to the labourer, though he admitted that some distress had existed amongst the occupiers. After all those speeches it was somewhat satisfactory to persons like himself, who had given his humble support to the late Administration, to find that those supporters of the noble Earl were now about to recant their opinions, and bow in future to the great authorities on political economy who had been quoted the other day by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and whose views were formerly scouted as theories and abstract opinions. But, as a humble Member of their Lordships' House, he could not help expressing his regret that the noble Earl, who had usually been looked upon, above all men, open and candid, should have taken a course which, so far from being open and candid, he believed to be one, of all others, most likely to affect the best interests of the country, by reviving that which was most pernicious to those interests, namely, an agitation over the length and breadth of the land for the purpose of reversing the policy which had been the cause of so much prosperity for the last few years. The noble Earl had accused his opponents of a wish to excite a party contest. He believed that in the present critical cir- 1033 cumstances of the country a party contest upon a subject so exciting as that of the food of the people was much to be deprecated; but, bad as that was, he believed it was far more dangerous to the well-working of the constitutional system of this country that public men, after organising an opposition very strong in the other House of Parliament, and extremely strong in their Lordships' House—after attacking the Government upon every question on which there was the slightest chance of embarrassing them—after having, on the question of the exclusive burdens on land, obtained within fourteen votes of a majority—from the day they came into office till the day they left it, should think it consistent with their duty to leave—as the noble Earl proposed to leave—the farmers throughout the country, who honestly desired and looked up to him to help him to return to protection, without attempting to fulfil their expectations. Living in a county where what was called protection views largely prevailed, he knew the feelings which prevailed among that class, and which had been displayed against himself on more than one occasion for advocating other opinions; and he knew nothing in which those humble but honest supporters of the noble Earl more believed than that he was prepared to relieve their distresses, real or imaginary, by some measure which would increase the value of their produce. Dangerous as it might be to provoke a party contest at this moment, and great as the responsibility that might rest upon those who should occasion it, yet, in his opinion, there rested a far greater responsibility upon those who set the dangerous precedent, that it was consistent with the duty of public men to abandon, when they obtained office, the measures the advocacy of which had brought them into power.
§ The EARL of POWIS
said, if anything could have been needed to show the little value of the apprehensions expressed by the noble Earl opposite (Earl Grey), as to the inconvenience which the country would suffer from the delay of the dissolution, it was supplied by the tone and temper of the speeches delivered by noble Peers on the other side, who evidently desired the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) to place himself in a position in which no wise man would willingly be put—of the first bidder at an auction. They desired that the noble Earl should commit himself by some definite pledge, and then they would employ all the time which 1034 might elapse before a dissolution in agitating and exciting the country against him. There had been no concealment on the part of the noble Earl. His opinions were perfectly well known, and there was not the least pretence for the supposition that he intended to take the country by surprise. The noble Earl said he was bound to take the opinion of the country on the subject, and had declared that he did not intend unduly to postpone taking that course. And he (the Earl of Powis) hoped that there would he in both Houses moderate men who would support his noble Friend in conducting such public business as properly could be transacted in the present Parliament. The noble Marquess (the Marquess of Clanricarde) had quoted precedents, and spoken of "playing fast and loose with great questions." But there was a precedent in 1835 of a Government, which came into office on a very important question (a religious question of the class which stirred the country perhaps more than any other)—they announced their policy on that question, but did not carry it out, and continued in office for Sessions more than one—for Parliaments more than one—under Sovereigns more than one—without all that while making any attempt to carry out that policy on the very question on which they had come into office. The noble Earl opposite (Earl Grey) had alluded to some supposed loss the late Government had sustained through their stedfast adherence, as he called it, to the policy of free trade. But the defections they might have sustained on the subject of the exclusive burdens of agriculture were not at all dictated by factious feelings, but the result of sincere conviction. The noble Earl had also alluded to the Motion which had been made against the foreign policy of the late Government; that was a vote in which he (Lord Powis) had not concurred, but he must say, without changing his own opinion, that to those who had joined in it an ample justification was afforded in the events of the last six months. On the whole, he did not think the Members of the late Government had any reason to complain that they had sustained any loss in consequence of their devotion to free trade, and had only to console themselves with the reflection that their leader, like Antæus, was often most vigorous after he had received a fall.
§ House adjourned till To-morrow.