The Earl of Rosebery
presented a petition from Stirling, praying for the immediate and entire abolition of Corn-laws. He could not present that petition without stating to their Lordships his opinion that the evils of which the petitioners complained was by them grossly exaggerated, and that the remedy which they desired would be impracticable. The total abolition of the Corn-laws would be a fearful shock to the landed and other property, and it would produce most injurious consequences to the labouring population. He thought, however, that a change ought to be made which would benefit the commercial and manufacturing classes, without injuring the agricultural. He thought that an alteration in the scale of duties to the schedule proposed by Mr. Canning in 1827, would remove all the evils properly and reasonably complained 1255 of. The greatest inconveniences of the present system were its uncertainty. A lower and fixed scale of duties would prevent the fluctuations which were equally injurious to the agricultural and commercial classes. The Noble Earl also presented three similar petitions from parishes in the county of Stirling.
§ Lord Ashburton
was sensible nothing could be more inconvenient than a discussion on this important subject on so slight an occasion as the presentation of a petition, and it was not his intention to produce one. But he could not allow the statement of the Noble Earl to pass by unnoticed—that great evil had arisen from the present system of Corn-laws. He thought if anything were wanting to justify these laws, it would be what had passed in this country during the two last years. He had been by no means favourable to the present state of the law on its introduction, but it was hardly possible to conceive any artificial system that would work more advantageously. There had been less fluctuation in this country than in any other part of the world. Looking at the great quantity imported, it was a matter of surprise to him to see how fully that supply had been brought in; and when Gentlemen talked of the dangers of fluctuation, they seemed to have forgotten that the price of food, above all other articles, was that in which there was necessarily great fluctuation, and it was matter of surprise to him to see how little fluctuation had taken place. When the law was introduced, it was expected the average price would be 60s., and if they looked carefully to the prices at different periods, it would be found that it frequently had not amounted to that, while in seasons of the greatest scarcity the whole extent of the advance had been from 60s. to 66s. If they looked at other parts of the world they would find that the fluctuation had been still more considerable—on the shores of the Mediterranean, for instance—while those which might be more particularly called the Low Countries of the world—he meant the plains of the Ukraine—had, only two years ago, suffered from the most fearful famine, and yet these persons expected, notwithstanding the fluctuations of the seasons, which were constantly occurring, that the articles of human food—of all articles the most liable to fluctuation—should not fluctuate at all. But let them compare 1256 the fluctuations in the price of corn with the fluctuations which had taken place in the prices of other articles of commerce. In the price of iron, of wool, and of cotton, fluctuations infinitely more extensive had taken place than in the price of corn. It was, therefore, a fallacy to say that the Corn-laws were in fault, or that they had not worked well, and if the subject should be properly brought before their Lordships, he should be in a condition to prove that the Corn-laws had worked better than the proposers of them could have possibly supposed. It was said, that the operation of the Corn-laws had produced the difficulties at present existing with regard to the currency. Nothing could be more fallacious. No person could say that the necessity of sending six or seven millions sterling abroad had not contributed to those difficulties; but if they passed any law limiting the home production, they would find that when that year of difficulty came, and come it assuredly would, instead of seven millions, they would have to send abroad twice seven millions, and it was impossible but what many of those able persons who were now agitating on the subject of the Corn-laws, as they last year agitated the question of the penny postage must be perfectly aware of the fallacy of this argument. He apologised for intruding himself on their Lordships, but he felt that this was a question not fit to be agitated in large bodies, where people were always ready to lay the fault of their difficulties on somebody or other, but he felt that a subject which if fully, freely, and calmly discussed, would be demonstrated to have suffered greatly from the fallacies which had been used in discussing it before large public bodies.
§ Petition laid on the table.