§ Earl Grey
rose to bring forward his motion for further inquiry into the subject of the Corn laws; a motion which, from an imperious sense of duty alone, he was induced to submit to their lordships, and to which, from the great importance of the subject, he conceived that he had a strong claim on their lordships patience. It was not his intention at present to discuss either the general principle how far the Legislature ought to interfere with the regulation of the commerce in grain, or even to enter into any of the details of the measure now before the House, any farther than to shew the imperfect state of the information on which their lordships were proceeding to decide upon this occasion, and also to shew the necessity of farther inquiry into the subject. For the second reading of the Bill now before the House, it would be proper to reserve both the entering into the general merits of the Corn laws, and the particular discussion of the subject of that Bill; and he was persuaded that the House would then enter into that discussion with all the calmness and all the temper which such an important subject certainly required. He said all the calmness and all the temper which the subject required, because he had observed that in the discussions which had already taken place on this subject elsewhere, these qualities had not always belonged to them; and he was convinced that nothing could more prevent the decision which their lordships should 126 think proper to pronounce from being satisfactory to the public, than the appearance of this being treated as a matter where adverse interests existed, and that it was not taken up in the spirit of calm investigation. For in no decision ought their lordships to favour the interests of one class more than another; but they ought to take a general and enlarged view of the interests of all, and the welfare and good of the whole community.
It had been truly stated by the noble earl opposite, the last night on which they were assembled, that unless it could be shewn that the measure was for the general good, it ought not to be entertained; and he had thus admitted, that if he could not shew that it was for the interest of the consumer as well as the agriculturist, he would proceed no farther with it. If one interest, however, ought more to be attended to than another in that House, it was that of the most laborious class of the community—the manufacturers: he trusted that even their prejudices would be indulged; and he was convinced that the decision of their lordships, whatever that decision might be, would give satisfaction to that part of the community, as that which was best calculated to produce the good of the whole. He could safely say, that in order that this character should be established with respect to the present proceedings, he had been induced to submit the present motion to the attention of their lordships. He could have no other motive than this. On this question, one of the most important which was ever argued within these walls, those friends whom he valued and looked up to for knowledge and instruction, were much divided in opinion. With respect to his own particular interests, if a man might speak of his own interests in a question like the present, they were entirely those of that description of persons by whom the present Bill was supported. He could, therefore, have no motive but the obtaining satisfactory data on which to proceed—excepting the elucidation of truth—excepting the attainment of those clear results which could alone make their decision such as to afford satisfaction to their own minds, and have authority over the minds of the public. If they wished their decision to be respected—if they wished the law, (if this Bill should ever pass into a law,) to be cheerfully obeyed,—the true way of proceeding ought to be to manifest an anxious desire to investigate this impor- 127 tant question in all its bearings, before they came to that decision.
In a question like the present, on which the greatest number of petitions had been presented, that had ever, perhaps, been known in the history of parliament, the petitioners uniformly stating that the measure would have the effect of preventing a cheap supply of food to the labouring classes, it was their duty to examine into the subject with the utmost diligence and impartiality. The petitioners might possibly be labouring under a mistake—their feelings might have been improperly excited, and the views taken by them might be unfounded; but the true corrective of this evil would be to go into a dispassionate inquiry into the subject, and not to seem as if they had come to the decision of the question with minds already made up and determined. If the people were right in their views, they had a claim on their lordships to interfere in protecting them from the injury which they apprehended—if they were wrong, it was their lordships paramount duty to endeavour to enlighten their judgments, and to shew at least that they had themselves examined the subject. Let them not imagine that the discontent, if it existed, could be suppressed by any appearance of conduct indicating that they proceeded with undue precipitation, as if they were determined to pass a measure on which they had themselves made up their minds, and to shut the door to every objection and every call for information. This course, he was persuaded, it was the duty of their lordships to follow; and the question, therefore, this night was, whether, in point of fact, there existed a case sufficient to make the inquiry which he called for necessary; whether, in the discussions both in that House and elsewhere, in debates and pamphlets, in the amplitude of documents, in the voluminous evidence which had been adduced, the subject was not yet sufficiently elucidated; and whether there still remained on any point a want of information which could justly be required, and which ought to induce their lordships to stay their opinion, with a view to the farther investigation and elucidation of the question.
On this subject he had little more to do, than to refer to the Report of the committee of their lordships; for, with a view to consistency, their lordships were bound to adopt the recommendation with which the committee concluded that Re- 128 port. It was almost unnecessary for him to state, that last year a committee of their lordships was appointed to investigate the present subject, who began to sit on the 13th of June, and continued to the 25th of July, in all six weeks, when they made their Report to the House. Knowing the persons who composed that committee, he was persuaded that neither pains nor diligence was spared by them, and he knew that they had communicated much valuable information to the House: but in producing this information they themselves were aware that it was not complete; and it was incontestable that they not only admitted that farther evidence was necessary, but expressly recommended to the House, that they should not proceed to legislate on a subject of so much importance without making farther inquiry, and obtaining that knowledge on subjects on which they were defective. The Report of the committee was fresh in the recollection of their lordships, but he was induced, on this occasion, to quote their expressions:—"Upon these principles your committee have proceeded in the investigation of this important subject; and though conscious that their labours have not been productive of all the information that they could have wished to have laid before your lordships, yet they are not without hopes, that their proceedings will, at least, have the effect of proving, in the most authentic manner, their anxious desire to execute fairly and impartially the duties confided to their charge: being persuaded that your lordships sole object in this inquiry, and in any other that you may institute, is to obtain such a body of information as to enable you, hereafter, to judge of the regulations which it may be proper to adopt, for securing to the public an adequate supply of grain at the lowest price that may be found consistent with the necessary encouragement of its growth." And the committee afterwards added, "At the same time they are so fully impressed with the necessity of producing further evidence upon some parts of the question, in order to render the investigation complete, that they cannot avoid anticipating your lordships opinion on the propriety of resuming the inquiry in a future session, and before any alteration takes place in laws affecting the interests both of the growers and consumers of corn in this kingdom." This was, in July 1314, the opinion of their lordships committee, 129 after the conclusion of their laborious investigation, who thus stated their conviction, that before their lordships proceeded to make any alteration, they would call for farther evidence by an inquiry, conducted in some way or other before their lordships House. Since the printing of that immense body of evidence, a general discontent had spread throughout the country; the petitioners at the bar stated, that in their opinion the measure proposed would be injurious to the trading and manufacturing interests of the country; and yet, without one additional tittle of evidence, were they now to torn round on the petitioners and say to them, they were determined to hear nothing farther on the subject. This Report, in the opinion of the committee itself, was confessedly incomplete. If they wished to allay the discontents of the country, this was most assuredly a strange mode of proceeding. But he knew that it would be said by the noble earl opposite, that though no farther inquiry had taken place, certain facts had since come out, so obvious both in their causes and their effects, that it was impossible any longer to doubt of the necessity of the present measure. Upon the particular facts on which this rested, he should have something to say when they came to a farther stage of the discussion; but from what he had been told had passed before it was in his power to attend his duty in parliament, he understood that there were many persons of the committee who had recommended further inquiry, who now were of opinion that it was proper to desist from making such inquiry.
It was his duty now to state the particular point on which further information was required, and without which they would be proceeding to legislate on some most important points, as he conceived, without due knowledge of the subject. It was not, in his opinion, necessary to admit the general principle of the propriety of Parliament interfering for the protection of the agriculture of the country. Making no such admission, therefore, but for the sake of the present argument supposing the principle established that such interference was requisite, the question then was, in what manner they were about to interfere, and if they were sufficiently informed as to the nature and probable effect of the regulations which they were about to establish? The first point was, the regulation of the price at which they 130 would admit the importation of foreign corn. This was fixed in the Bill brought up that day at 80s. Now with respect to this most material point, had they, he would ask them, such information as to enable them to say what price ought to be fixed? A great deal of evidence had been adduced on this subject, but not of a satisfactory nature, often resting on data, which, when examined, would not bear the test, the same witness often affording the best means for refuting his own statement, one part of his testimony being at variance with another, and different witnesses having delivered the most different opinions. Looking at these opinions, he was altogether at a loss to conceive why 80s. should be stated as the proper sum at which foreign corn might be imported. Many persons had been examined as to the price at which the grower of grain could afford to sell it in the market. One witness stated that he could not produce it at less than 96s.; another had stated 120s.; a third from 90s. to 100s.; Mr. Arthur Young, 87s.; Mr. Driver, 90s.; Mr. Turnbull, 84s.; and Mr. Brodie and some others, from 84 to 90s. A great number of these witnesses were much above 80s.; and why 80s. should be pitched upon he certainly could not conjecture. In looking at the calculations on which many of those opinions were founded, it was impossible for him not to say that they appeared to him to be conducted on a principle which stated the expenses of the agriculturist much higher than they ought to be, and there was therefore no sufficient groundwork for these opinions. In saying this he did not wish to be understood as imputing any improper motives to the gentlemen who gave this evidence. It was natural for men in their situation to act as they had done. But this he would state, that there were persons of no less authority than those who had been examined by their lordships' committee, who had given an opinion directly the contrary—there were persons as respectable in every way, who had given their opinions that a price a great way below this was sufficient for the farmer. He observed his noble friend (the earl of Lauderdale) looking as if he disputed the troth of this assertion; he would inform him, that he did not allude to the evidence taken before the committee of their lordships, but the evidence before the committee of the House of Commons; and here he must say, that notwithstand- 131 ing the obligations which they were under to the diligence and ability of the noble lords by whom the inquiry was conducted, it was impossible not to perceive that the questions and examinations had often been influenced by a partial view of the subject; and that, if the witnesses had been more accurately examined, many of them who appeared at first view favourable to the measure would in reality have appeared adverse to it. There was evidence before the House of Commons supporting the opinion that much less than 80s. was sufficient.
Mr. Driver, the first witness examined by the committee of the House of Commons, stated, that in his opinion 5l. per quarter was absolutely necessary to protect the farmer against the foreign grower—that there should be an absolute prohibition of importation till the price arrived at 90s. and that from 90s. to 5l. there should be a duty on a decreasing scale. Being, however, asked, if he was of opinion that if 18l. or 20l. a load could be obtained as an average price, the improvement of the agriculture of the country would continue progressively to increase, he answered that he thought it would pretty much; that would not alarm the people—the cultivation of the country would continue, if not increase. Now here he would only remark, that wheat at 20l. a load would be 10s. a bushel, and at 18l. a load 9s. a bushel, which was exactly 72s. the quarter, so that, even at 72s. a quarter, one of those persons who had stated that the foreigner should be excluded till the price reached 5l. still thought that the English farmer could be sufficiently protected. Another witness, Mr. Claridge, who stated the price at 80s. being asked if, in his opinion, the inferior lands in Yorkshire, and other counties he had described, would be thrown out of the cultivation of wheat, if the price were to be 8s. a bushel, the prices of sheep, wool, and other produce, excepting wheat, remaining nearly at their present rate? answered, that he thought, under those circumstances, the cultivation of wheat would be discontinued. Being afterwards asked, would those lands remunerate the farmer, if the price of barley and oats were reduced in proportion to that of wheat? He answered, perhaps they might; he could not say but what they might. Here, therefore, was evidence, which in one part of it certainly bore a very different construction from that which the first part of 132 his opinion might lead to. Mr. Crabtree stated from 70s. to 75s. as sufficient; Mr. Mant and another gentleman thought 75s. and 72s. were ample protection. With this evidence, that 75s. or 72s. would be a sufficient protection, he would ask them on what ground they adopted 80s. as a protection? Many of those witnesses who had been examined, and whose evidence had been represented as favourable to the Bill, would, if further examined, afford a contradiction of this. He alluded in particular to one gentleman, Mr. Wakefield, very eminent in his line, who had great experience and great knowledge, both with respect to this country and to Ireland, and who had been represented as stating 80s. to be a proper protecting price to the farmer. He believed he might state from authority, that Mr. Wakefield's opinion was against the present measure. If he had been represented as stating that 80s. was a fair remunerating price to the farmer, and if he was a man conversant on the subject, and capable of giving their lordships much useful information, and the data on which this opinion, unfavourable to the Bill, was founded, their lordships would surely allow him to be further examined on the subject. There were other persons also, though he had not authority to name them, who would state an unfavourable opinion, and what was of most importance to them, the grounds on which that opinion was founded. Among those persons whose habits made them conversant in subjects of this kind, and who thought 80s. too high, and that 72s. was a sufficient protecting price, there was one person, whom he could not with propriety name in that House, or allude to (sir James Graham), who had of late paid particular attention to the investigation of this subject, and who had in an opinion given somewhere else stated himself in favour of the lowest of these sums. This person was well known to be connected with some of the greatest land estates in the kingdom; and he had declared that in all the communications he had had with farmers and surveyors of credit, he had never heard that the agriculturist would not be sufficiently protected at a prohibitory regulation of 72s. If they had this high authority against the price of 80s., was not this, he would ask, a point which they ought to inquire into, and ascertain, before they proceeded to legislate on so important a subject?
Though he had hitherto only stated the 133 argument as applicable to England, with respect to Ireland, the case was still stronger. But though they were urged to this measure as much for the sake of Ireland as of England, and though the greatest number of petitions praying for some relief were from that country, yet he would say that there was not one tittle of evidence before their lordships to shew at what rate grain could be grown and sold by the Irish agriculturist. In the House of Commons some evidence had been obtained on that subject, but it was contradictory. Mr. Wakefield said he thought 70s. sufficient: another gentleman said 64s. The general result, however, of the evidence before the House of Commons respecting Ireland was, that grain could be grown at a much less price in that country than in England. And as far as his information went, from the state of labour and the comparative low taxation in Ireland, corn, under a moderate rent, could be grown at a much less rate than any of the sums which had been stated. Looking, therefore, at Ireland, in particular, he would say that there was no evidence that any protection was required for that country; but if some protection was necessary for the safety of the English farmer, what would be the effect produced by this measure? It must produce one of two effects. By fixing the protecting price at 80s. it would have the effect of keeping up the price to the consumer to that sum, and would thus give the grower a greater remuneration than was necessary, and would thus keep up the rents of the landholders of Ireland at the expense of the people of England; or it would have this other effect—as grain was grown in Ireland much cheaper than it could be grown in England, they would be enabling the Irish grower to undersell the English farmer in the market of England, which would render the present measure an insufficient protection to the English farmer. Would any man say that any of these effects were of so unimportant a nature that it was not necessary to inquire into them before coming to a determination? The Irish grower would be able very much to undersell the English grower, and with the number of Irish absentee landlords, resident in England, to whom remittances must be made, and with the interest on their public debt due in England, the Irish grower would be under the inevitable necessity of bringing his corn to England, and would thus undersell the English 134 grower. But, then, what became of the protection to English agriculture, the poor lands, which would be thrown out of cultivation, and the numerous other mischiefs which were to follow the want of this protection? [Hear, hear!] This effect would be infallibly produced, and all the advantages which they promised themselves from this measure would be defeated, unless at the same time that they protected the English farmer against the foreign grower, they also repealed the beneficial law of 1806, by which corn was allowed to be imported from Ireland into this country. All he said that they ought to ascertain was, whether these effects were likely to follow or not. They ought to inquire whether the English farmer should be supported or left open to the competition which he had here stated.
He conceived that he had already made out a strong case for this inquiry, by showing, first, that there was no satisfactory evidence that 80s. was required for England; in the next place, that there was no evidence to show that this sum was requisite for Ireland, but that on the contrary there were strong reasons for presuming that a much cheaper price would be sufficient for that country; and, lastly, that England and Ireland together were proceeding to enact a law by which the English farmer would be exposed to those very evils which it was the intention of this measure to remove. Before they could fix the price at 80s. it was necessary not only to know whether this sum was requisite for Ireland, but also at what rate corn could be imported from foreign countries. Here, also, the information of which the House was in possession was defective. When their lordships committee were sitting, the only importation into this country came from the Baltic; and the whole tendency of the evidence before that committee was to shew that corn could not be imported from the Baltic, without a loss, under 75s. One person, Mr. Solly, stated, that it could not be imported much under 80s., but in general the witnesses agreed that it could not be imported under 75s. If, therefore, the evidence went to shew that 75s. or 72s. was a sufficient protecting price to the English landholder, as far as the foreign importer was concerned, there was no evidence to shew that the public interest could be in any wise affected. But it was now found that the Baltic was not the only place from which corn might be imported. By 135 the happy termination of hostilities with France, which situation of things, he trusted, was not likely to be endangered by any recent events in that country,—and he hoped that it at least would not be endangered by any injudicious interference on the part of this country, if any struggle should take place in France,—the markets of Great Britain, were at length accessible to Holland, the Netherlands, and France. Whether it was thought that England could not permanently obtain any supply of corn from these countries, or that they wailed for further information on this subject, he knew not; but the fact was, that with regard to the supplies from these countries, they had no information whatever; and they were ignorant both as to the capacity they possessed of producing more corn than was necessary for their own consumption, and as to the price at which corn could be imported from them into England. He knew that he should be told, that all examination on the subject was unnecessary, from the notoriety of the fact, that importation had taken place to a considerable extent from these countries, and that such importation had produced a great effect on the home market—a notoriety which precluded the necessity of any inquiry. He anticipated this statement, as one which the noble lord opposite was likely to make. But to this he would answer, that no noble lord ought, from the importation of one particular year, to conclude that the same thing would happen in all future years. The importation of that year might be produced by a thousand temporary circumstances which were not likely to continue. In fact, they had some sort of evidence, to shew, that such a state of things as did exist last year arose from peculiar circumstances, which could not be supposed to continue. He alluded to the two witnesses called on this point—Mr. Samuel Scott and Mr. Barandon. Mr. Scott told them, that in the present relative state of the home market and the continental markets, it was impossible that any considerable importation of grain could take place. He allowed that some wheat had arrived that year, but not in considerable quantity; and he accounted for it partly from disappointment of the holders of wheat on the continent, who had principally intended their adventures for the Spanish and Portuguese markets, which markets had fallen in a greater proportion than the markets in England, and 136 partly from an expectation of the foreign merchants that an advance would have taken place in Great Britain. Here, then, there was evidence that the importation arose from a decrease in the demand in Spain and Portugal, since the cessation of hostilities. Mr. John Barandon stated, that the importation was on account of the high prices expected in this country, and the high duty which they thought would be imposed.
The noble earl proceeded to observe, that upon this point there was no satisfactory information as to the price at which grain could be imported, and that therefore it was peculiarly incumbent upon the House to call for information upon this branch of the subject before they proceeded to legislate. He was aware he should be told, as it had already been said, that the importation of grain to a considerable extent from France, together with the price, was a matter of notoriety. Still, however, much information upon the subject was required, particularly if, as there was reason to believe, a large importation had taken place upon the speculation of some measure regarding the Corn laws passing through Parliament. If this were the case, then it would be found that the avowed or intimated intention of Parliament had been the chief cause of the importation, against the effects of which it was the object of this very measure to seek protection. Upon another important point also they were greatly in want of information; he alluded to the effect of the present mode of taking the averages. It was on all hands admitted, that the present system of ascertaining the averages was extremely erroneous. The average was struck of the twelve maritime districts; and one small district in South Wales, where perhaps not more than 100 quarters of wheat were sold, might regulate the average of the vast supply for the consumption of this great metropolis. No information whatever was before them as to the effect which this mode of striking the averages would have upon the price under the present Bill. Were they sure that they were really legislating for a price of 76s. or for 80s.? They had no data whatever before them to lead them one way or the other to any certain conclusion; all was doubt, hesitation, and contradiction. It had been said that the effect of the measure would be to raise the quartern loaf to 1s. 4d. This had been controverted; and he was ready to admit, that supposing the 137 actual price to be 80s. the quartern loaf ought not to be more than 1s. But what was the fact? At the present price of 60s. the quartern loaf was 1s. and therefore at 80s. one third more, the price of the quartern loaf must be 1s. 4d. He admitted that this arose from the mode of setting the assize of bread; but did not this form an important subject of inquiry, in order that they might ascertain the details of the manufacture of flour, and the manner of setting the assize? They might thus confer an important benefit upon the consumers, by lowering the price of bread, which would tend at once to allay the popular ferment. But to do this they must institute an inquiry, without which they could not legislate with any advantage or satisfaction. Another assertion had been made and denied, that the import price would be the minimum price in the market, and that wheat would never be sold at a less rate. He did not mean to assert that such must necessarily be the effect of the measure; but the House had no information to enable them to legislate upon the subject with any certainly, as to what would be the actual effect upon the price of wheat. He had looked into the tables, comparing them with the averages for several years back, and he had found that the market price of wheat had been often below the import price, but sometimes much above it, and that there was frequently a very considerable difference between the average price and the real price. Upon these points the House was destitute of information, and this formed an essential ground for going into the inquiry which he intended to propose. They did not know whether the import price might be the maximum or the minimum price in the market, or what effect the measure would have on the market price. How, then, could they legislate?
There was still another point applicable to this subject of the greatest importance, he alluded to the state of the circulation. Would it be contended that 80s. now, particularly after the sanguine prospect held out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the resumption of cash-payments in the next year, was the same as 80s. would be when a regular and healthy circulation was restored: This, then, was a point on which the House required information, and without which they could not safely proceed to legislate. In thus detailing the grounds on which he thought further inquiry necessary, he certainly 138 did not mean to object to the general principle of extending protection to agriculture; that was equally just as applied to agriculture as to the woollen trade, the coal trade, and other branches of commerce. The question was, what protection was required by the actual circumstances of the case? He was aware that agricultural distress existed to a great extent; he knew that in his own neighbourhood it existed to a considerable extent. The pressure on the farmer of course extended in an aggravated degree to the labourer. Still, however, it should be recollected what the price of wheat was for a few years previous to 1813, and even in that year, although a year of great plenty, the price of wheat was 120s. It was impossible, therefore, to suppose that so much distress would have arisen in a short time from a fall in the price of wheat, unless arising from that general derangement of interests which resulted from the effects of a long and expensive war. All these therefore formed strong and essential grounds for inquiry, in order that they might ascertain with correctness what they were actually doing, and what was, in fact, required to be done. All parties would be satisfied if a case was properly made out. The ports were now shut against importation, and would remain so for three months to come; no inconvenience therefore could arise from delay. His lordship concluded by moving "to institute a further inquiry relative to the state of the growth, commerce, and consumption of grain, and the state of the laws relating thereto."
§ The Earl of Derby
declared his conviction, that the petitions of his fellow-subjects were always entitled to the most serious consideration. This opinion he had held through life, and he was the less likely to abandon it on such an occasion, when the table was crowded with them. He had presented many himself, with the prayers of which, unfortunately, he could not agree; but as they were all dictated by the most honourable and conscientious motives, they should be attended to. He would even go so far as to say, that, as long as there was a single man in the country who wished to petition, Parliament ought to pause. He therefore recommended to their lordships to agree to the motion. It was impossible for them, even if they could pass the Bill to-night and obtain the Regent's assent to-morrow, to prevent the discussions which they 139 might be anxious to avoid. These discussions would arise upon motions for the repeal, and in other shapes that could not be evaded. He agreed most cordially in his noble friend's motion; and if the discussion on the Bill itself should alter his opinion, no false shame should prevent him from retracting the opinion which he now held.
§ The Earl of Hardwicke
defended the committee, and explained its proceedings. The first inquiry in which it was occupied, was to ascertain the price at which grain could be imported. The want of communication with the continent prevented the evidence from being so perfect on that head as could be wished. With respect to the commerce of corn from the Baltic, it was complete; but there was a deficiency in the intelligence regarding France, Holland, and the Netherlands, from which such an immense supply had recently taken place. There was another head of inquiry relative to the manufacture of flour from grain, and of bread from flour. The committee had a difficulty on that subject; and in former times it was found impossible to combine it with the general subject. His lordship then entered into a detail of correspondence between the committee and several petitioners; from which it appeared, that the committee had taken every means to collect evidence either for or against the measure.
Lord St. John
said, that if the present motion had been made at a former period, he would have agreed to it, but he thought the proposition now came too late.
The Earl of Limerick
observed, that the noble mover seemed to consider Ireland as if it was a foreign country, and not entitled to the protection of the British Legislature. [His lordship was proceeding to observe upon what he conceived lord Grey to have stated, when the noble earl rose to explain as to the hypothesis he had put with respect to the effect of the measure. The Earl of Limerick spoke to order, conceiving the noble earl was replying. Earl Grey again rose and explained, that he had alluded to the effect which in one way or the other, with regard to Ireland or England, either giving the Irish farmer an undue profit, or to the Irish landlord a greater rent, or enabling the Irish grower to undersell the English farmer, which the measure was calculated 140 to produce.] The earl of Limerick then proceeded, and observed, that of the six million of which the population of Ireland consisted, four million were engaged in agriculture. By the importations from France, this numerous class of persons were greatly distressed; was it not, therefore, an object of the greatest importance to give protection to this numerous class of persons, which could only be effected by the present Bill?
§ Earl Spencer
observed, that the question was, whether they would legislate with their eyes open or their eyes shut? His noble friend called for inquiry; there were many most essential points upon which they were either utterly ignorant or deficiently informed; surely, therefore, they were peculiarly called upon to agree to his noble friend's motion, that they might legislate with due information, and with a knowledge of all the bearings of the subject.
§ Viscount Mountjoy
urged the interests of Ireland as being deeply involved in the present measure; the agriculture there, from which this country derived so essential a supply, standing greatly in need of protection. Delay would be to their interests highly injurious, as there were a great number of farmers at the present moment who refrained from sowing the ground until they should be secure of protection against foreign importation, under a fair protecting price.
§ Viscount Sidmouth
conceived the motion to found itself on two things—the necessity of having more information, and respect for the rank and number of the petitioners, which was supposed to be involved in the delay of the measure. As to information, he was surprised to hear that now called for. There was, in fact, no one subject in the whole range of political economy on which our information had been so full, nay so voluminous. It had been the subject of twenty years. A great nnmber of volumes, and some of them of great excellence, had been written on the question. In 1794, the subject had been discussed. Again in 1804, again in 1806, it had come under revision: two committees of the House of Commons had investigated it; it was now examined by a committee of their own. There was no ground for the idea that the committee had proceeded on ex parte evidence. They had examined the question diligently in its various bearings, and their opinion was pronounced with all obvious impartiality. As to the motion for in- 141 quiry, why did the House hear of it now for the first time? During the six weeks that passed from the first meeting of parliament, net one syllable had been dropped on the subject, except by a noble lord (Grenville), who at the recess had mentioned it as one of the questions necessary to be discussed. On the first day of their last assembling, a noble lord gave notice that he would not propose the further sitting of the committee; thus giving room for noble lords to declare any intention they might have of following up the topic. But here again, not one syllable was said from the 19th of February to the 13th of March. The noble chairman assigned his reasons why further information might be wanting. That referred to France. That information was now, however, fully given. The noble lord proceeded to state, that were the motion acceded to, the House might go on examining witnesses till the dog-days, and after all, there would be no end to the inquiry. The House had ample grounds to legislate upon already, and they must at any rate exercise their own judgment in the last resort. The noble earl had suggested the possibility of the Irish underselling the English farmer, and had stated this as a fit subject for farther inquiry: but was the House prepared to make any such distinction? As well might the House inquire into the rates at which farmers in various parts of England, in Devonshire, Cornwall, and Yorkshire, could raise their produce. The question was, whether we were not rather to protect the supply from Ireland, than from other countries which could either give or withhold it, as it pleased their respective governments. No man entertained a higher respect for the petitioners than he did: he wished that the people of this country should always think and speak freely on the great interests of the nation, and should approach both Houses of Parliament with their sentiments. At the same time he had to remark, that very few of the petitions asked for delay; they neither asked for, nor offered to present further evidence. They were for no change in the Corn laws. To please them, the Bill now in its progress must at once be stopped. But would this meet the views of the noble mover, or of their lordships generally? He saw great inconvenience in the suspense, anxiety, and irritation which any unnecessary delay would produce, and therefore should oppose the motion.
contended, that the petitions praying for no alteration in the Corn laws, formed no objection to inquiry, it being for the House to legislate, and it being of course its duty, before legislating upon a subject, to obtain the best information respecting it. The information at present before them was altogether insufficient; they had none as to the expense of growing wheat in Ireland, or as to what would be a fair protecting price for the Irish farmer. They had no satisfactory information upon many other important points; and he should, therefore, vote for the motion of his noble friend.
contended, that any delay in the measure would be of the greatest injury to Ireland, where the farmers would abstain from sowing wheat, till they knew what would be the protection they were to expect. His lordship repeated the arguments so often urged respecting the advantage to be derived by this country from the circulation of her manufactures in Ireland. They had been told, that Ireland was a log round the neck of England; but if this was the case, what had been the cause of it? He would answer—the want of capital; and he would add, that the only means of furnishing capital to that country was to encourage her agriculture, and to enable her to bring her corn to this country. By this means her prosperity would be insured, and instead of becoming a burthen upon England, she would become one of her chief supports. With these sentiments, he felt it his duty to vote in favour of the Bill, and against the motion of the noble earl.
The Earl of Lauderdale
said, that conscious of the vital importance of the subject now before the House, it had received from him the most anxious consideration; and the result was, that he was more firmly fixed than ever in the opinions he had originally maintained. He admitted to his noble friend, that there were some points on which sufficient inquiry had not taken place, namely, on the mode of taking the averages of corn, and regulating the assize of bread. These, however, were topics by no means essentially connected with the Bill before the House; and he must say, in justice to the noble earl at the head of the committee last year, that he never saw a chairman labour so hard as he did to get evidence of all sorts. For himself, he only viewed the measure as a protection to the British farmer, and therefore he did not care 143 much about the precise importation price that might be fixed. In this view, thinking that the price ought not to be lower than 80s., he would have been prepared to go as far as even 90 or 95s., as being calculated more effectually to secure domestic supply, and when the proper time arrived he should be prepared to assign his reasons for this opinion. In the mean time he should advert to some parts of the evidence before the committee, on which his noble friend (earl Grey) had commented. It was true that Mr. Mant, one of the persons examined, had given it as his opinion that 72s. would repay the farmer; but this was on the supposition of the removal of the income tax, and of the wages of labour being lowered. The former of these conditions had indeed taken place; but were the petitioners, he would ask, prepared to consent to the latter? Would they not find it better to leave bread somewhat dear, with good wages, than cheap bread and no wages at all? The latter of these alternatives, he was sorry to say, was the situation of many of the agricultural labourers in his part of the country, where bread indeed was cheap, but, from the want of employment, they had no wages. His noble friend had called upon the House to stop legislating on this subject, until the currency of the country had recovered its standard value. This, if listened to, he feared would entail an absolute prohibition on the measure for years to come. It by no means followed, that if 80s. was fixed as the importation price, it would be also the minimum price of corn. This was contradicted by the whole history of our corn laws; and during many years of the last century the average price had been only 35s., while if the importation price was likely to be the minimum price, it should have been as high as 60s. He would repeat, that the distress among the agricultural labourers was extreme; and if agriculture was not protected, they would naturally crowd into the towns, and thus, by competition, lower the price of manufacturing labour. His object was to afford such protection to home supply as would, upon an average of years, secure abundance, for the supply was necessarily regulated by the demand. He was disposed to speak with every respect of the petitioners; but on questions of this sort, he had seldom witnessed, enlightened proceedings on the part of the great body of the merchants and manufacturers. They 144 were too apt to consider the present alone, without looking forward to future years. There was only one way of enlightening the lower orders on a subject of this kind, and that was by making them experience the beneficial effects of the law which the Legislature should enact. It was a frequent argument in the mouths of the manufacturers, that if we imported grain to the amount of a million, we exported manufactures to a similar amount. There never was a more unfounded opinion than this. If by the protection of agriculture the whole of this corn was raised by our own farmers, would not this be preferable to the manufacturer in every point of view? It was impossible to enumerate the variety of ways in which the prosperity of the agricultural classes created a demand for manufactures.
The Earl of Darnley
expressed his high satisfaction at the speech of his noble friend who had just sat down, by the strong arguments contained in which he had been confirmed in opinions which he had long entertained. At the same time he was anxious that the House should proceed with every possible degree of deliberation, and that they should not move a step with the Bill, while it was possible to say that a single piece of evidence on the subject was wanting. By this course, he was convinced the landowners would be far from losers. Although he was satisfied, in his own mind, that the restrictive price of 80s. would not raise the quartern loaf above 1s., yet he thought that, in a measure on which so much agitation pervaded the public mind, further inquiry ought to lake place; and, therefore, he should give his vote in favour of the motion.
§ Lord Grenville
, in a luminous and elaborate speech, contended that the only safe line of conduct for the House to adopt was to abstain from all legislative interference on the subject. If, he said, a just light did not even yet pervade the councils of the country upon it, he should deplore it as a calamity. He conjured the House not to take any step without well understanding their ground. The facts before them were sufficient to shew the consequences of proceeding upon any mistaken principle. The committee had felt that the House would not discharge its duty unless it resumed the inquiry before any alteration took place in the laws. He was of the same opinion. The first object of the inquiry ought to be into 145 the capability of the country to supply the full quantity required for its subsistence. The number of acres might be extended to three times, or even thirty times as many as were now sown with corn, if sufficient capital could be employed in their cultivation. But the quantity of capital requisite to effect this object was a material consideration, as well as to ascertain at what price the corn could be grown. Respecting the necessity of fixing the price at 80s., the evidence, so far from agreeing, had been completely contradictory; yet the House was about to legislate on a subject which was to be permanent, and to fix a price, calculated at a time when money was greatly depreciated, while the Chancellor of the Exchequer had declared that there was a prospect of the currency rising to its former level in the very next year. This was a most important reason for going into the inquiry, and it was the only way in which the House could discharge its duty to the country. He was unable to discover what other effect the measure could have than to raise the price of corn. But another question was, what effect it would have on the wages of the labourer? The House should proceed to inquire what would be the effect of an increase of the price of labour? If the price of bread increased, and the price of labour did not increase, what then would be the condition of the labourer? The wisest thing, in his opinion, would be to abstain from legislating at all. He would never assent to any doctrine which separated the manufacturing from the agricultural interests; and if there was any one interest that could be more injured by the measure than another, he would say that this was the body of landholders, on whom it would entail the greatest mischief. It was, therefore, a matter that ought to be looked at and sifted to the very bottom. He would wish to propose an inquiry into the causes which have kept corn at the high prices at which it so long had been; and if it should appear owing to the difficulty of importing corn at any period from abroad, on what principle could it be argued that this high price would not continue when importation was prohibited? Importation ought, on the other hand, to be entirely free from Ireland; if not, where was the justice of the Union? Nothing could be more just or important than the knitting together the interests of Great Britain and Ireland. 146 Yet, when all the ports of the world were to be shut against the British consumer, except Ireland, it then became the House to consider that they had a duty to perform as British subjects. He objected to the very imperfect and inaccurate statements of the averages on which it must be utterly unsafe to found a permanent measure, and insisted that the market price bore no regular proportion to the standard price. That the Bill was meant to have the effect of raising the price of corn was plain, else why uniformly put this question—to what price must corn rise to give it protection? That it must also have the effect of keeping out of this country the foreign corn which formerly came into it, till it reached 80s. was equally clear. He should ask a question, which he was surprised had not been put in this report, What had been the cause of the exceeding high price of grain for many years past? And if that question was answered—the difficulty of getting corn from abroad—which he was sure it would be, that should certainly deter the House from proceeding farther. With regard to foreign supply, he much doubted whether, under any circumstances, France could now supply this country with any considerable quantity of corn, so long as that law continued in force which prohibited the exportation of corn from that country when it was at 49s. the quarter. Upon the general question of dependence, the present was not the time for entering; but when that time did arrive, he should be prepared to maintain the opinion, that a more pernicious maxim than the vain imagination that a commercial country could keep itself wholly independent of foreign supply,—in other words, that we should cut ourselves off from commercial intercourse with Europe to a certain extent,—never entered into the policy of any state. There was another subject which had been altogether omitted in every discussion of the present measure, both in another place, and in the opening speech of his noble friend: he alluded to the distilleries. Had they no connexion with the proposed measure? and how would its operation affect the revenue, by increasing the price of the raw material? Not a word had been said upon that subject, and yet their lordships would be surprised to hear the amount of revenue which was put to hazard by legislating on it. He implored their lordships from every consideration, in justice to themselves, in justice to their 147 country, not to precipitate a question affecting the vital interests of the whole nation, whether agricultural, manufacturing, or commercial. As yet they had the evidence only on one side, and they had no evidence to prove what would be the effect of the measure upon the manufacturing classes of the community. For himself he had no possible motive that could bias him in the judgment he had formed. If he had interests, they were interwoven with those of the agriculturists of the country; if he had connexions that might influence him, they were to be found among the landed proprietors; nay, if he looked higher, and had any public prejudices, he did not blush to say that they also pointed the same way, for to the landed interest this country owed its present greatness among the nations of the world. Yet, with all those feelings about him, he most solemnly pronounced it as his opinion, that the intended measure would be an impolitic one; and he therefore again entreated their lordships to pause, to inquire, to reflect, if they hoped to discharge their duty to themselves, and to their country.
The Earl of Liverpool
said, that whatever differences might subsist between himself and the noble baron who had just sat down, he would frankly confess that he had never heard a question discussed with more candour and fairness than the present had been, not only by that noble baron, but also by the noble earl who opened the question. The question they had to determine was, whether they had or had not a sufficient body of evidence before them to entertain the Bill that had been brought up that day from the House of Commons; and he should proceed very briefly to state his reasons for thinking that they had enough. Were the measure one which stood upon the narrow ground of affording relief to a particular class of the community, he would not support it; not from any want of feeling towards the sufferings of any separate body of men, nor from any indisposition to alleviate those sufferings, but because, from long expeperience, he had come to the conclusion that you cannot relieve one class of people without injuring some other class more or less. Upon that subject there was a great deal of mistaken legislation in our statute books; but with regard to the present measure, it was so far from being one which looked only to the relief of a particular class, that it embraced the interests 148 of all, and of the poor above all. What had been the course of the question now before them? It had occupied the attention of Parliament for three years; and dining the last session the subject was renewed; but nothing was done respecting it, except a partial act of legislation, because it was thought necessary that more inquiry should be instituted, and more information obtained. That inquiry had been gone into, and the result of it was the mass of evidence now upon the tables of both Houses of Parliament. One thing was most certain, that whatever it might be thought necessary to do, should be done without delay. If they meant to legislate, they should legislate at once; but their pace ought neither to be quickened nor retarded by the clamour out of doors. The injury which the country was sustaining from indecision and procrastination was great. Many estates could not be sold, many farms could not be let, and many landlords who were disposed to lower their rents, could not do so, till it was known decisively what course Parliament intended to pursue. Neither land nor labour could stand upon its true footing in the present uncertainty of this measure. The next question was, whether the noble earl had laid any sufficient ground for inducing the House to demand further inquiry; and after the most attentive consideration which he had been able to give to the speech of that noble earl, he was decidedly of opinion that no such ground had been shewn. One of the arguments urged by the noble earl, was the contradictory evidence which had been given: but surely he could not suppose that by continuing the inquiry he would be able to get rid of that contradiction in the testimony. Such contradiction must inevitably exist. If a farmer were asked at what expense he could cultivate his farm, his replies must depend upon the country in which it might be situated, the nature, of the soil, and whether it happened to be in a manufacturing or agricultural district. Upon the whole, he really did not see how further inquiry could throw new light upon the subject. Upon the question of averages, he should merely say, that those averages having been the existing ones for the last twenty years, it would be more expedient to legislate upon them than to proceed to make any alteration in them. He had been at great pains to examine that subject, and the result of all his investigations was, that he felt fully 149 persuaded they were not liable to any fraud or trick, as they were now taken. If they altered the averages at the same time they altered the prices, they would not be able fairly or fully to judge of the effects of the present measure. Another question connected with the Bill was the assize; and undoubtedly as long as the assize continued as at present, the people of this metropolis would eat their bread dearer than those who resided in parts which were beyond the operation of that regulation. His opinion upon the subject was, that under certain modifications it would be better to get rid of the assize altogether. With respect to the petitions which had been presented, he felt most thoroughly disposed to pay every respect to them, as containing the wishes of a great portion of the people of this country; but he was persuaded that accidental circumstances alone had prevented their lordships table from being loaded with petitions from Ireland, in support of the measure; and he mentioned it only to impress upon their attention, that they had to legislate for the population of the whole empire. It was undoubtedly a question of great difficulty, and one which had created great difference of opinion; but he believed, if the united kingdoms were canvassed throughout, more would be found favourable than adverse to the measure. It was the duty of Parliament to legislate deliberately, and, having formed its opinion to proceed with that measure which it might, in its wisdom, deem most expedient for the benefit of the whole empire.
§ Their lordships divided on earl Grey's motion.
|List of the Minority.|
§ Earl Spencer was obliged to leave the House before the division, on account of indisposition. The duke of Somerset paired off with lord Cassilis.