HL Deb 20 May 1879 vol 246 cc813-20

rose to ask the First Lord of the Treasury, Whether his attention has been called to a meeting of manufacturers at Huddersfield on the 2nd of the present month? The meeting to which he referred was called by the President of the Local Chamber of Commerce, and was attended by a number of gentlemen engaged in the manufacture of woollen goods. The first resolution passed affirmed that the present serious depression in the woollen industry in this country was largely caused by foreign competition. From the statements made by the several speakers at this meeting, and from the statistics of a valuable paper read by Mr. Brassey (extracts from which the noble Duke quoted), it was clear that the very greatest depression existed in the woollen trade, and that this depression was not decreasing, but increasing. They took exception to the statement of the noble Earl at the head of the Government on the 20th of April, that the volume of our foreign trade had not diminished; and seeing that foreign workmen worked 72 hours a-week they passed a second resolution, to present to Her Majesty's Government a Memorial praying for a Bill which should enable workers in factories to work 60 hours a-week, as could be done before the Act of 1874. It was clear, therefore, that the manufacturers present at the meeting desired that the hours of labour should be increased. He had sent a message to the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury), to inform him that he intended to bring the resolutions agreed to by the meeting before the notice of their Lordships; but he regretted to say that the noble Earl was unable to be present. The noble Earl had signalized himself by his devotion to the factory workers of this country, who were indebted to his ability, energy, and perseverance for the salutary legis- lation which regulated their hours of labour. Were, then, their Lordships going to agree to the prayer of the Memorial to which he had referred and to repeal the Factory Acts, so that the people, by working some 72 hours a-week instead of 56, might aid in reducing the intensity of the present depression? He thought their Lordships would dismiss the suggestion at once. As usual, there were three courses open to their Lordships. The first he had already mentioned. The second was one which might be debated, and which he was afraid had been somewhat popular. It was to hold our arms, open our mouths, and wait for something to fall into them; to trust, in short, to Providence, and hope that something of a satisfactory nature would happen. That would be a very easy course to pursue; but it was not one which their Lordships would assent to. He would again refer for a moment to the proposal to increase the hours of labour. A very important pamphlet had been written on the subject by a Mr. Lister, who pointed out that we were being ruined by having to compete with foreign nations, by whom 72 hours of labour were allowed in the week. Later on, Mr. Lister said— The Conservatives passed the Factory Act and the Liberals Free Trade; and these are antagonistic to each other; and I say that we cannot have restricted labour and unrestricted competition. The question, therefore, narrows itself to this issue—are we to make our factory operatives slaves, in order that we may compete with our rivals, or are we to protect both the labourer and the produce of his labour? Now that gentleman attended the meeting at Huddersfield, and, presumably, was a consenting party to the resolution in favour of extending the hours of labour from 56 to 60 hours. What had caused the change in his opinion? Perhaps he had read the words recently uttered by his noble Friend—namely, that reciprocity was a phantom, and he might have thought that, as he could get no relief in that direction, there was nothing for it but to lengthen the hours of labour. He (the Duke of Rutland) quite admitted that reciprocity was now a phantom; but he asked whether, if they put on duties on foreign imports, reciprocity would not, instead of being a phantom, become a living power? No fewer than 168 articles had been taken off the tariff, and only 22 remained on. Why should they not say to foreign Powers—"Take off your duties, and we will treat you in the same way?" If they did, reciprocity would become a force; now it was as an enormous gun, without either powder or shot, but properly loaded it would become as formidable as one of the Armstrong guns. They had been, on a late occasion, reminded of the number of Treaties they had with foreign nations containing the "most favoured nation" clause, and it was said that they were bound to treat all those nations in the same way. That might be so; but he saw that last night there was a short debate on this subject in "another place," and that Mr. Bourke stated that the French Treaty had lapsed in December, and that other Treaties were about to lapse. Might he not suggest that those Treaties might not be renewed at all, or else renewed leaving out the "most favoured nation" clause, or in any other way in which life could be given to reciprocity? He now came to the third course which they might adopt, and which he believed was most likely to be conducive to the interests of the country; and that was to put a moderate duty on foreign imports. In favour of such a course he could cite Chatham, and Pitt, and Huskisson, and Thiers, and Bismarck, and Derby, and George Bentinck, and, might he not add, the name of Disraeli? These were some of the greatest statesmen who had ever lived, and they had all advocated a system of import duty. There was not a country under the sun, with the exception of this, which had not adopted the system. Would it not, if adopted here, relieve those who were suffering from the depression of trade, by means of indirect taxation? They now raised, on an average, £120,000,000 a-year by taxation and rates, and of that sum £20,000,000 only was raised by indirect taxation. Was that a fair proportion as between the two systems? No one, he thought, could say that it was. For all these reasons he hoped they would make some compensation to the hard-pressed manufacture of which he had spoken, by putting some duty on foreign imports, and protecting, not one industry or two, but all the industries of this great country. The ultra-Free Traders seemed to think that all the world was mad except themselves; but he hoped he had shown that the time had come when we ought to take some step for ameliorating the condition of our commerce and industry, even if we were to follow the example of those poor unenlightened French, or Germans, or Canadians.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to my noble Friend's expression of his views, which reminded me almost of the days of my youth, when I heard doctrines of the same kind enforced by himself with the same energy and determination. But I do not think my noble Friend has treated me very fairly in respect of the manner and the occasion which he has selected for bringing these matters before the House. In the first place, the Question, of which my noble Friend had given Notice, was whether my attention had been called to a meeting of manufacturers at Huddersfield on the 2nd of May? I keep my eye on public meetings as much, probably, as any Member of your Lordships' House, but, unfortunately, that meeting escaped my observation; and my noble Friend, by an inadvertence which I am sure was quite unintentional on his part, did not in his Notice give me any clue to the subject which had occasioned that meeting, and which he thought of sufficient interest to justify him in bringing it under the notice of your Lordships. But from the statement which my noble Friend has now made, I gather that the meeting was held in a manufacturing town of repute, in consequence of the general depression and distress, in reference to which I made some remarks a short time ago. I did not collect from my noble Friend anything which really seemed to meet the observations I then made. By way of refuting my remarks, he quoted the opinion of a gentleman (Mr. Brassey), who, although I do not know him, I have no doubt is a competent witness to the fact, that not merely the value of our woollen exports, but the amount—the volume of them—has considerably diminished. But, as a matter of fact, I never gave an opinion upon the state of the particular trade to which my noble Friend has called our attention this evening. I spoke generally, when I said that while the value of our exports had fallen off their volume remained unchanged. That statement was made upon official authority, and upon facts the accuracy of which no one can impugn, and it is perfectly consistent with the fact—if fact it be—that the amount of our woollen exports has diminished. The total amount of our exports may have been maintained, while our woollen exports may have diminished. I come now to the subject of recriprocity—and I must say it is gratifying- to find that the arguments which were elicited in the course of the previous debate on this subject have convinced my noble Friend that reciprocity cannot be, in present circumstances at least, a satisfactory remedy for the state of things to which he has called attention. I showed, on that previous occasion, that reciprocity was really impossible with us. First of all, because we had almost destroyed our tariff. I stated that when we had still 168 articles left on our tariff the idea of reciprocity was not entertained; and that at the present moment the number of those articles was only 22, which it would be difficult for us to touch, since Revenue mainly depended upon them. But I also called the attention of my noble Friend to another difficulty which we should encounter in attempting to introduce the principle of reciprocity—namely, the number of Commercial Treaties we had entered upon, that number being, if I recollect aright, 38, every one of which contained the "favoured nation clause"—so that in obtaining a concession from any particular Power in return for one conceded by us, the remaining 37 nations would have the right to claim from us the same concession. I showed my noble Friend that, in these circumstances, the introduction of reciprocity must be a process of considerable time. I ought then to have added—what is an important consideration—that 20 of those Treaties are extended to our Colonies. The whole, therefore, of their vast foreign commerce would be disturbed, and possibly destroyed, if we suddenly interfered with those Treaties. Some of them are for a long term of years—10 years—others have conditions to be observed in terminating them which it would not be easy to fulfil. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that it might take a quarter of a century to rid ourselves of all this machinery of Commercial Treaties founded upon the principle of the "favoured nation clause." It is not, therefore, surprising, after all, that my noble Friend should be convinced that reciprocity, in the present state of affairs, is not the easy remedy which, unfortunately, so many people throughout the county consider it to be for the manufacturing and commercial distress now prevalent. My noble Friend did not come forward with the fresh remedy for the evil which appears to have been adopted by this meeting at Huddorsfield. The meeting at Huddersfield seemed to regard the Factory Laws as the great cause of this evil. Well, my Lords, I am not prepared myself to change my opinion upon the wisdom, the beneficence, and the national advantage of that great system of legislation, commonly called the Factory Acts, without evidence more convincing than any yet produced that the distress in our manufactures is to be ascribed to that diminution of working hours which many believe adds to the efficacy of labour. Considering the unanimity of opinion with which your Lordships adopted that system of legislation, I do not suppose your Lordships would readily agree to a change. I do not think my noble Friend himself would do so. Well, then, if my noble Friend agrees that reciprocity is a phantom, and if he agrees that it is not in any legislative increase of the hours of labour that a remedy should be found for the manufacturing and commercial distress now existing, what is really the remedy which the noble Duke wishes us to adopt? It is neither more nor less than the imposing upon all foreign articles what my noble Friend calls "a moderate duty," but which I shall call a duty, without the epithet, because I have observed that opinions as to what constitutes moderation differ greatly. I have no idea myself as to what are the "moderate duties" which my noble Friend would impose. Well, my Lords, this brings us face to face with one of the gravest questions that can demand our attention; and is it to be expected—is it fair to expect—that we should enter upon a discussion of it simply because my noble Friend has placed a Notice on the Paper that he will call attention to a meeting of manufacturers in Huddersfield on the 2nd of May—a meeting, the object of which is not even stated? If the noble Duke thinks the time has come for a vast change in the commercial system of the country, let him give Notice that he will call attention to the subject—let us have an attendance adequate to the occasion—whatever may be our opinions, let us have an opportunity of enforcing them by all that documentary evidence which the experience of many years has afforded us; and let us have a discussion worthy of the subject which by the country generally may be received with content and confidence. I must decline, on an occasion like the present, to enter on such a discussion. It is not unsatisfactory that by those guerrilla remarks we have had on two or three occasions the position occupied by my noble Friend and a numerous party in the country is now clear. It is not a movement in favour of reciprocity—which, in the present state of affairs, is acknowledged to be a phantom. It is not a movement for increasing the hours of labour—which my noble Friend says he will not sanction. It is a movement to produce a tariff which shall encounter the hostile tariffs of other countries by equal duties and equal regulations. That is what is clearly before the country now. The details of this change in our commercial system should be put before the country completely and clearly. Let us know what is to be the nature of this new tariff. It is not satisfactory to hear that it is to consist of what are called "moderate" duties—because one man will consider 20 per cent a moderate duty, and another man will consider 5 per cent moderate. Let us know clearly whether those who are proposing these changes are prepared to extend these duties to agriculture and its products. The noble Duke has reminded me of a remark I made in a former debate, and which I do not shrink from now. Of all the distress which now prevails among different interests, agricultural distress, which is so severe, is, perhaps, the only instance in which that severity can be traced or attributed to the change in our commercial system which was made when the principle of Protection was relinquished by the country. Is my noble Friend prepared to give to the agricultural interest that protection which he thinks is necessary? In the discussions which the present distress has led to, I have heard of schemes for relieving the pressure on British industry by what are called import duties; but we have always been told that land will be an exception to that protection, and that no article of agricultural produce is to be subject to these import duties. I can only protest against the injustice, if you are to have a protective system, that, under the plea that it is impossible to tax the food of the people, the landed interest and all its produce is to be subjected to unequal treatment. I hope your Lordships will not be induced to enter into a long and desultory discussion, when we have not before us any proposition embodying the conviction which my noble Friend so earnestly entertains. If he will bring before us the question whether we will give up the commercial system which was established 35 years ago, I am sure the House will give to so important a subject, brought forward by a Member of the House whom all so much respect, that due consideration which it would deserve.