HL Deb 22 March 1880 vol 251 cc1240-54

, on rising to call the attention of the House to the depressed state of agriculture and trade, and to inquire, How far it is owing to our present system of free importations? said, that he did so because he was under the apprehension that, in the hurry and turmoil of a General Election, the subject of trade and agricultural distress would be altogether overlooked. He had no desire to disguise the fact that there was a partial revival of trade. In fact, he would admit that, according to the statement of the American Consul in London, there had been a considerable increase in our trade with that country. In 1878 our exports to America showed a decrease of £2,260,000, while those of 1879 showed an increase of £3,250,000. In the six years following 1872 the decrease was continuous, amounting in the aggregate to more than£ 19,000,000. That revival of Free Trade was mainly owing to a rise in the price of iron, consequent upon an increased demand for that article in America for the construction of railways to enable the farmers in the Western States to send down their corn to the Eastern ports for exportation to Europe. When these railways were completed the price of iron would again decline, and co-incident with it would be a renewed depression of trade. In order, however, to bring his observations within a reasonable compass, he would confine his remarks to the effect of the Commercial Treaty -which was entered into with France in 18C0 at the instance of Mr. Cobden. The exports and imports of France in 1848 amounted to £72,000,000, while they amounted to £284,000,000 in 1879—a fact which showed beyond the possibility of doubt that she had largely benefited by the working of that Treaty. But how had it affected England? In 1876 the value of English goods imported into France was £26,000,000, while the value of the French goods imported into this country was £41,320,000, the value of French manufactured articles which we imported exceeding that of those which we sent her in return by £7,800,000. There was contained in the new volume of The Life of the late Prince Consort—who was anything but a Protectionist—which had been recently published, a letter written by His Royal Highness at the time that the negotiations with regard to Mr. Cobden's Treaty were being carried on, from which the following was an extract:—? The Emperor proposes to break with the French Protectionists, and to give in his adherence to English Free Trade, and from this Mr. Cobden anticipates the cessation of our defensive preparations and of our Volunteer Force. Strange to say, the Treaty will give the Emperor our coal and iron, which he will want if he should come into collision with us, and by the abolition of the wine duties we shall sustain a loss of £2,000,000 in our Revenue receipts. It was unnecessary for him to dilate at length upon the disadvantageous operation of this Treaty as far as we were concerned, because the whole matter had been fully explained the other day by the deputation from the Manchester Chamber of Commerce which had waited upon Mr. Bourke, in the absence—which all must regret—of the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. That deputation was a most remarkable one, as it expressed the opinion of the Manchester manufacturers with regard to the Treaty, which was supposed to be a Free Trade Treaty of Commerce entered into for the mutual advantage of the two countries. The gentlemen who formed the deputation stated that it was the opinion of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce that the Treaty was a most one-sided one, that the French tariffs enforced under it were not so much protective as prohibitory against English goods, and that, unless some steps were taken to have the French rates lowered, the Commercial Treaty between the two countries would be perfectly useless in the interests of Lancashire, as those rates were not only protective, but calculated to annihilate the trade in English yarns and cotton goods; while, owing to the increased skill of the French artizans, there now remained but few specialties in the textile manufactures of England, so that Lancashire did less and less every year in this branch of industry, until it was now hardly worth following. Mr. Hutton, one of the members of the deputation, told Mr. Bourke that the export of cotton and calico goods had nearly ceased. The subject, therefore, was a very serious one, and demanded the attention of their Lordships. Mr. Bourke's answer to the deputation was that he would do all he possibly could to persuade the French nation to give a more favourable tariff, and that we should try to show foreigners what an injury they were inflicting on their own people by these protective duties. He also added that the Government had that day received a communication from France which did not leave the Government without hope. This he (the Duke of Rutland) contended was childish and foolish language, and was most pitiable, inasmuch as it amounted to an admission of the justice of the complaints made to him, and expressed but feeble hope that any terms more favourable to the English manufacturer could be obtained. He wondered, in fact, that the reporter, in describing the scene, had not concluded by saying that in the end Mr. Bourke burst into tears. With the great advantage France derived from the last Treaty, it was absurd to suppose that she would be persuaded to relinquish her duties in order to benefit our manufacturers. France thought only of France, and did not care what happened to the trade of Manchester. So long as she could introduce her goods into this country free, and could charge 80, 40, or 50 per cent on our goods introduced into France, she was not likely to reduce her tariff. He knew one dressmaker alone in Paris imported ready-made dresses from France to the value of £60,000 in the mouth of October last, the dullest month of the year. Other French manufactures, such as clocks, watches, fancy goods, and other miscellaneous articles all came into this country perfectly free of duty; while our goods, no matter what the articles, were burdened by such heavy duties that every branch of industry was impoverished. The depression in trade was not confined to iron, coal, cotton, or agriculture; every single interest had been depressed, and that, not by accident, but in consequence of the insane system of free importations. If nothing were done in the shape of retaliation to force France to take off her protective duties, it was absurd to suppose that there would be a revival of English trade. It was impossible. Mr. Bright had made a speech on this subject. Mr. Bright was a great Freetrader—a very eloquent, able, and, he (the Duke of Rutland) believed, a very conscientious man. He was perfectly convinced, as they all were, of his own honesty, patriotism, and integrity; but the moment anyone differed from him in opinion he believed him to be the most selfish, unpatriotic, and ignorant man that ever existed. What did Mr. Bright say? He said that those who opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws created a famine in the land and starved the people, and did it purposely, with malice prepense.Why, those who opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws believed that, with a sliding scale, admitting corn free when prices rose and storing it up in the warehouses of the country, they were doing their best to keep a steady supply of food for the people. Mr. Bright went on to say—"In those days—before the Corn Laws were repealed—your industry was not free. You could not exchange any article of your manufacture, so ingenious and admirable in Birmingham, with the farmer in the far West of America for his barley or flour; but it was directed by law that you should exchange it with Warwickshire, or Norfolk, or Lincolnshire." But had they Free Trade with America now? He (the Duke of Rutland) would ask whether the manufactures of Birmingham could be exchanged for produce with the farmers of the far West of America now? Why, they were obliged to pay in hard cash, with extravagant duties, on nearly everything they took from her. Mr. Bright himself, when writing to Mr. Gray, the Secretary of the Agricultural Board of the State of Kansas, in fact, admitted this, by showing how America would be benefited by Free Trade. Mr. Bright's speech was addressed to the working classes, and he (the Duke of Rutland) would address himself to the same classes, for they knew that their industry was not free, and would not be free so long as the present system of free imports existed. Take the sugar trade, which held a meeting recently at Cooper's Hall, Commercial Road, London. That meeting put forth a statement emanating from 67,300 working men engaged in the sugar industry, urging the abolition of foreign sugar bounties. From that statement it appeared every branch of labour connected with the sugar industry of Great Britain had suffered, and was still suffering, a grievous wrong by the foreign manufacture being admitted duty free and the English manufacture being prohibited the foreign markets. Instead of Free Trade, they were subject to unfair hostile competition. The workmen who signed this document concluded by calling on all Parliamentary candidates to declare that they would vote for countervailing duties as a means of redressing the grievous and insufferable wrong to which we were exposed by the foreign export bounty. If we were to have a revival of trade that was to be lasting, we must alter our present unfair, unjust, and unequal arrangements. He need not detain their Lordships by proving the reality of the distress in agriculture, for there was hardly one of them who would not come forward as a witness of that reality. It was not the men with capital who were suffering most; they were able to bide their time, and to tide over the difficulties of the situation; but it was the small landowner and the small occupier, the men without capital, thousands of whom were quitting an ungrateful country for the shores of America, where they could enjoy the advantage of Protection. He might be told that, if they talked of Protection, the working classes would not listen to them; but they were becoming more educated; they thought more for themselves; they knew that cheap food and cheap raiment were not all they required; they knew that before they could buy the cheap loaf, or cheap coal, or a cheap hat, they must have the money to pay with. An Irishman in Liverpool grumbled at being asked Is. for a basket of eggs which he said he could buy for 6d. in Ireland. "Then, why don't you go back to Ireland?" said the shopkeeper. "Faith, where should I get the 6d.?" was the answer. The Radical candidate at Grantham had called attention to an advertisement inserted in the paper by a gentleman who wanted to sell his false teeth, because, as he said, he had nothing to eat, and, therefore, they were of no further use to him. We were all rapidly coming to a condition in which we should be able to sell our false teeth for the same reason. The candidate who told the story at Grantham was trying to get the votes of the workpeople of the large manufacturers of agricultural implements, whose trade had fallen off so much that they had been obliged to accept lower wages. The other day Lord Harrington made merry over the candidature of Mr. Eckroyd, and declared he did not know what Reciprocity was; but he (the Duke of Rutland) would try to enlighten him. If the noble Lord had read the published letter of Mr. Eckroyd he could not have feigned such ignorance. Mr. Eckroyd wrote that he wished to see the United Kingdom, its Colonies, and Dependencies, formed into one great Free Trade Empire, supplying all its essential wants, and resorting to Protection only as against those nations that imposed duties on our productions. No duties, it was said, should be levied on the raw materials of our industries, from whatever quarter they came; but, in the matter of food, our own Colonies were capable of supplying five times all that we required, so that we were under no necessity to take food from those who would not receive our manufactures. Mr. Eckroyd went on to say that a large field for emigration would thus be opened, and that our Dependencies, bound to the Mother Country by the material ties of serious advantages, would be more ready to meet our wishes and to establish Free Trade with us and one another. He (the Duke of Rutland) maintained that the policy which he advocated was an intelligible policy; but if they should deem it impossible to follow it, he would ask them to fall back upon another remedy—namely, real Free Trade, in accordance with which they would not only obtain food from abroad free of taxation, but would allow the British farmer to raise food also free of taxation, and especially from the tax on malt. He held that it would only be fair and patriotic to place English and foreign food on the same footing. They could not tax English food and not tax foreign food. He would be told that if his views were adopted the Revenue would suffer. But if they were to put a tax upon goods coming from France, Germany, and America, they would easily recoup their losses. He was obliged to the Government for what they had done in the shape of remission of local taxation; but if British agriculture were to be kept alive, and if they should refuse to accede to his proposals, it would be necessary to relieve the country to a greater extent from the rates which burdened it. Before sitting down, he wished to refer to Ireland. A noble Marquess on the other side of the House had lately shown how fearful was the present distress; but added, he saw no Royal road to remedy it. The people were unfitted for emigration; they could only rely on the spread of education and of sound opinions; but he (the. Duke of Rutland) would like to ask whether their Lordships did not think that the condition of Ireland might be improved by making an attempt to revive industrial enterprize, and to restore the manufactures which once existed there, while, at the same time, protecting the people from foreign imports? If the result of their present policy was that their trade was paralyzed and their agriculture ruined, he would have the satisfaction that, previous to the Election, he had done his best to inform his countrymen of what would happen; and he hoped that men would be returned to the next Parliament who would not repeat the cuckoo cry of the great advantages derived by this country from Free Trade, but who would endeavour to pass measures likely to increase the well-being of the industrial classes.


said, that he was always loth to occupy their Lordships' time, because he was a great admirer of the manner in which a vast amount of real business was done in that House with as few speeches as possible; but the subject before their Lordships was one that particularly interested him, and he must ask their indulgence for a short time. He should confine himself to the first part of the noble Duke's Motion—namely, the depressed state of agriculture, of which he had, unfortunately, personal experience, and he should leave the vexata questioof "Protection" to those more competent to discuss it. He lived in one of the Midland counties, which had been more seriously prostrated than any other part of Great Britain by the disastrous seasons of the last four years. It only required a glance at the advertisement sheet of the local papers, especially of The Farmers' Gazette,to see how wide-spread the distress was. Whole columns were taken up with notices of farms to let and of auctions to be held on the premises of outgoing tenants. He trusted, however, that the present dry, genial weather was the harbinger of a bounteous harvest; but it would take two, if not three, years to get back to where we were before, even in the most favourable circumstances. The murrain, which had rotted whole flocks of ewes, and which had been the last straw that had broken the back of many a poor struggling tenant, would make its results felt for long; and this from no fault of the farmers, except, perhaps, in a few instances, for they had gallantly contended against adversities of no common order, and had won the respect and esteem of those who had had opportunities of judging. And he must also stand up for the landlords as a class, for, except in a small number of instances, they had done their duty and had tried to help their tenantry through their troubles as far as their diminished rents permitted; and he never spoke to a brother landlord without hearing expressions of kind sympathy with the tenants as a class. It was sometimes said that the only cause of this distress was the continuous bad weather, and, undoubtedly, it was chiefly due to that visitation of the Almighty; but the farmers had much right on their side when they complained of increased local burdens. A few years ago, when they were somewhat less, and when prices were better, they did not feel these so much; but when the pocket was touched all other grievances, however small, were intensified, and now the local rates were considered unendurable. He would instance the highway rate. Since turnpikes were abolished—why, he never could make out—farmers had to see the roads, for which they paid heavy rates, increasing every year, cut up by the heavy traffic of timber merchants, brewers, coal merchants, and others, who did not pay one sixpence towards their maintenance. Surely that was an anomaly that must be remedied, and all property should be taxed and made to bear its fair share. Then, again, the education rates pressed very heavily upon the land, especially in those unlucky parishes where there were school boards. The farmers found their labourers did not care about the education so expensively bestowed upon their children, because they wanted them to be earning their bread early; and they, therefore, grudged having to pay high rates, especially when it prevented their obtaining boys to work, except at men's wages. Surely, these schools were for national objects, and ought to be chiefly paid for out of the national purse, and not out of the local rates. He was not finding fault with the present Government, for the head of it had been the only Prime Minister in his recollection who had ever evinced a real desire to help the tenant farmer. Among other measures having this object in view, he might mention the considerable saving occasioned to the ratepayers by the repayment of a portion of the pauper lunatic charges, also the Prisons Act and the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act, which was a most valuable measure, not only to farmers, but to the whole community. Again, the Agricultural Holdings Act was a step in the right direction, and the official recognition of their Chambers of Agriculture by the Government would give the agricultural classes a better statusfor promoting or opposing measures as they believed them to be good or bad. Those measures, and, above all, the Royal Commission, proved that the Government were fully alive to the exigencies of that important interest; but he urged that more relief in the same direction was much needed, and he did not doubt that if they remained in Office they would do their best, even before the Report of the Royal Commission was presented, to carry out the measures to which he had called their attention. The Government would thus make the British farmer a far happier man, because he would then feel that strict justice had been done him, and that he was no more taxed than his neighbours. He would, at all events, feel that proper sympathy for his troubles had been shown him; and if this unjust American competition went on, he would, perhaps, bear with more equani- mity the sight of cargoes of American beef conveyed by our Railway Companies for little more than half what he had to pay for his home-grown bullocks; and even of his neighbour, the brewer, buying Californian barley, which, whether it was the case or not, he must look upon as so much out of the pocket of the British farmer.


My noble Friend the noble Duke (the Duke of Rutland), when he last brought this subject before your Lordships' consideration, had to dilate upon the commercial depression which then prevailed. On the part of Her Majesty's Government, I expressed our opinion that that commercial depression would not last long, and told your Lordships that we saw signs which, though they might be deceptive, still, in our opinion, indicated a remedial rally in our commercial relations. I am glad to hear from my noble Friend the noble Duke a recognition of the fact that there is a considerable improvement in our commerce. It is true that my noble Friend based his consolation upon the increased commercial relations between this country and the United States; and though it is impossible for anyone to deny that there has been a great improvement in our trade with America, and although it is impossible to deny that our commercial relations with the United States amount at present to several millions more than they did 12 months ago, still the noble Duke wished to impress upon your Lordships that it was a sudden demand for one particular article which alone occasioned this improvement. Now, there I differ from my noble Friend. The demand of the United States for iron has, no doubt, been very great, and it has been for objects which, according to the noble Duke, may in time be exhausted; but I venture to say it is an error to suppose that the commercial improvement comes only from the advance which has been effected in our trade with the United States. The commercial improvement is a general improvement, and I think it is one which applies to almost every country, and now to almost every article. It is also an error to suppose that our commerce as regards iron is confined to the United States, for there are other States with whom we are now carrying on an active commerce in iron. Well, then, the noble Duke having acknowledged the improvement in our trade, and having rested his illustration of our present position in that respect mainly upon one very important article of commerce—namely, iron—the noble Duke went on to warn us that we could not depend upon a continuance of our commerce in that respect, and to endeavour to enforce those views which he always so consistently upheld, and which he has expressed with so much ability to-night. Upon that subject, the noble Duke, wishing to show the fallacy of what he regarded as the principle on which our commercial system is now established, took the case of France, and endeavoured to show that our Commercial Treaty with France had been one of immense benefit to France, but very slightly beneficial to this country. But that, I venture to say, is an error of my noble Friend. I have no doubt that the Commercial Treaty with France has been a vast advantage to this country. If it has not been of equal advantage, as I hope it has, to both countries, I maintain that it has been of vast advantage to this country. But I must stop for a moment to remark that if my noble Friend wishes to advocate a commercial system, based upon protection of native industry, he ought, to a certain degree, to be a supporter of the Commercial Treaty with France, because it is a Treaty entirely of Reciprocity; and there is no doubt that if that principle had not been adopted in the negotiations which led to the Treaty the commercial relations between France and this country would have remained probably much in the same state and of the same amount as they were before that Treaty was entered into. The question of Reciprocity and the question of Protection are utterly different questions. I have previously made remarks on the question of Reciprocity, and it is quite unnecessary that I should now say anything on the principle of the protection of native industry. If the nation chose to adopt a protective policy, nothing could resist that policy being carried into effect. But, with regard to Reciprocity, I have always impressed upon those who brought it forward as a remedial measure that it was now practically impossible; that we had diminished our tariff to such an extent that it was only by chance that the British Government were able to carry the French Treaty into effect; and, in fact, if the French Treaty were continued, as I believe is the wish of many who are good judges of what is advantageous to this country, there would be no materials by which we could adopt this principle of Reciprocity, on which my noble Friend so much dilated, and which, it appears, from some cheers, would be very popular in this House. Popular or not, it is impossible. Now, the noble Duke, after having admitted that commercial depression had disappeared, brought before your Lordships the real subject under consideration—the depressed state of agriculture; for the commercial depression has so far subsided that I do not think, had there been no agricultural depression, we should have been called upon to consider this Motion. No one can deny that there is great distress and depression in our agricultural condition. I think that is universally admitted; hut the question is, How far is it in our power to relieve this distress? Well, that is a question from which we do not and ought not to shrink. My noble Friend who spoke just before me (the Marquess of Hertford) said the remedy was that there should be a further diminution of local taxation. Well, if it can be shown to Parliament that there is still local taxation which is unjustly imposed upon real property, and not equally on all kinds of property, nobody who has confidence in the wisdom of Parliament and in its sense of duty can doubt that, if a fair case be made out, Parliament will give relief in that respect. Parliament has already shown that it sympathizes with that class of property in this country which was subject to taxation from which all other classes of property were exempt. And if it can be fairly demonstrated that there are still taxes levied, not on agricultural land only, be it remembered, but on real property which may exist in towns, I have no doubt that, General Election or not, the sense of duty which influences Parliament will induce it to do what is right in that matter. But I must say that I do not think any further remission of local taxation, though it may be just, could be offered as a remedy at all adequate to the distress from which the agricultural world is now suffering. Now, it appears to me that there are many things which may be done, which require consideration, no doubt, but the principles of which appear to me to be accepted by the general opinion of the country as the result of discussion, debate, and public writing, which may very much facilitate the improvement of the soil, and, by facilitating the improvement of the soil, may benefit the occupiers of the soil. Whether we consider the question of removing the restrictions on its cultivation, or that most important point as to which I introduced in the other House of Parliament a measure—namely, the securing for a tenant a complete protection for the capital which he has invested on the farm which he occupies, whether it takes that form or any other, I think myself that before we can beneficially act to relieve and improve the agriculture of this country, the agriculture of this country must be in a normal condition, and that it would be most unwise in a moment of distress to hurry through some measure when we are not dealing with the land of England in its usual state. I think it must be at once acknowledged by all that it is not so much competition, it is not so much unjust local taxation, but what is infinitely more injurious and more powerful—namely, an almost unprecedented series of disastrous seasons, which has brought about the present unfortunate state of agriculture in England. That condition of the cultivators of the soil, however, is not a permanent one, and, as far as I can see, matters are tending towards improvement. I will not pretend to say I can foresee what may occur; but all the evidences of nature that can guide us rather make us hope that we are about to enjoy a season of prosperity and abundance; and should this promise be fulfilled, the agricultural mind will be relieved from a great deal of the despondency and distress which, at this moment, paralyze to a great degree the energies of the farmer. Then will be the right time for us to consider whether we cannot alter many things in the relations of the farmer with the landowner, and deal with other matters which do not now beneficially act upon his condition. Among the measures which might then be introduced are those which will place the local taxation of the country upon a just basis, should it be found unequal, and secure to the tenant complete protection for the capital which he has invested, and which the Agricultural Holdings Act endeavoured, at least, to procure for him—an Act of which almost every day I hear something that shows me that very scant justice was done to it by those who opposed it. And again, if we find that a change in the normal condition of English agriculture has been brought about by a series of bad seasons, we may venture, at the same time, to come to some accurate estimate of what the degree of competition is which it has to encounter with the produce of foreign countries. I must say that, although I have myself read all those estimates and accounts of production of the American Continent which have, of late, been so much circulated, I cannot myself say that I feel much anxiety upon the subject, or that I have arrived at those conclusions which some of my friends have. We want more data; we want more opportunities of examination, and more experience, before we can come to any decided opinion as to the effect of the importation of foreign-grown corn upon our home produce. When the English farmer has been blessed with a harvest worthy of his industry, and when we have gained greater experience of the effect of the produce of other countries upon our own, then will be the time for us to consider a variety of measures which, undoubtedly, may not appear very important in themselves, but which will in the aggregate place him in a more advantageous and improved position than he now occupies. By adopting that course we shall be able to look back with satisfaction, when these times of depression are passed, to the fact that we were guided by the dictates of prudence and did not rush into hasty legislation. I know that it may be said that it is very easy to preach patience to those who are suffering. Nobody can esteem more than I do the character and endurance of the British farmer. I think that the patience and the high spirit with which he has borne up against a series of disastrous seasons, the few complaints he has made notwithstanding the great suffering he has experienced, exhibit his conduct in a light in which it is impossible to view it without a feeling of admiration. Whatever may happen, the cultivator of the soil still forms the largest class of our industrial world; he is the greatest employer of labour; and your Lordships especially and the country are bound to him by those ties which the traditions and the pleasantness of his occupation and his good conduct and loyalty have rendered so strong. Aristotle says that the agricultural class is the least given to sedition. That we have found in England; and we have, at the same time, found among that class some of the best exemplars not only of moral life, but of that devotion to the Sovereign and that strict performance of public duty which have given such a high character to this country. Therefore, my Lords, when we meet again, I hope we shall do so with a less gloomy feeling with regard to the fortunes of our agricultural friends. I could not recommend at this moment any change in our law affecting the agricultural interests that might be brought about by hasty legislation. Her Majesty has appointed a Royal Commission, which is now engaged in examining into the subject, and from the labours of that body I augur considerable results. I think that from them we shall obtain much information as to the productive powers of the American Continent which may guide us in our decision with advantage, and that they will also lay before us the opinions of some of the most experienced and practical men in England as to the conditions under which the cultivation of the soil can be most beneficially carried on. My Lords, I shall be deeply disappointed if one result of the labours of that Commission is not to afford the farmer the most complete and absolute security for the capital which he has invested in the cultivation of the land which he occupies.