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History of Free Trade page 6

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This manner of putting the case, in which the student of political economy will recognise the influence of Mr. Malthus and Dr. Chalmers, was not very likely to find favour in the ears of gentlemen nursed in all the conventional notions of the primary importance of agriculture in a state - who garnished their speeches with allusions to Cincinnatus and the plough, to Horace and his Sabine farm, and interspersed them with quotations from the " Greorgics." With the more honest of the territorial party, who for many years might still be noticed in blue coats and gilt buttons, and with prim buff waistcoats, sitting upon the benches of the House of Commons, such notions were closely allied with irreligion and moral depravity. The Marquis of Chandos, that peer to whom the landed aristocracy were indebted for the famous Chandos Clause in the Reform Bill, rose to reply. He told the House that he could perceive that nothing but a total repeal of the corn laws would satisfy honourable members opposite. But he would ask, were not the manufacturers protected? Only a few nights since Government were called on to afford protection to the Irish linen trade, and " he could not see why the agriculturist should not receive a similar favour." The speaker forgot that there was a third party to the question - the poor man, who was deprived of cheap food and clothing, and who could hardly be consoled for being starved by the landlords by being told that the legislature had taken care to place clean linen as far out of his reach as an adequate supply of bread and meat. The noble lord contended that if the corn laws were repealed, no farmer could exist, which was probably true enough, unless the landlord would reduce his rents. He then reminded Mr. Villiers that he had overlooked the fact that " about a year and a half previously there had been a great importation of foreign corn," but he did not mention that this was subject to the enormous duty imposed upon it. "He thought it would be a neglect of his duty to his constituents not to claim for the farmers a continuance of that protection to which they were so justly entitled." Mr. G. Berkeley (a younger son of the Earl of Berkeley), the reformer, and advocate of the Ballot, who had promised to resign his seat for Cheltenham when the majority of his constituents should express their dissatisfaction with him, somewhat relevantly remarked that he did not think it possible to separate the agricultural interest from the trading interest. " He was well aware that at the last election it was attempted to raise a cry that the Liberal candidates were inclined to throw over the agricultural interests for the sake of the manufacturing interests; but this cry was raised for party purposes, as it was impossible for any sensible man to entertain for a moment the notion that these interests were not completely inseparable."

The opinion of Sir Henry Pamell, who followed this speaker, had probably more weight with the House than that of any other party to the debate. Originally an advocate of protection, a supporter of the corn laws in 1813, at which time he had recommended a total prohibition until corn had risen to 80s. a quarter, his opponents professed to hear with astonishment the arguments which he put forth that night, and to hint that his intimacy with Dundee, for which borough he had sat since 1833, had wrought a wonderful change in his opinions on the corn law question. The views which he set forth, however, were simply those which he had advocated nearly ten years before in his work on " Parliamentary Reform," which we have already noticed. Sir Henry had been chairman of the Finance Committee in 1828, where the new views which he had adopted were doubtless materially strengthened. In 1833 he had been appointed a member of the Excise Inquiry Commission, and besides his best known work had published a number of pamphlets on Banking and the Currency. He had held the office of Secretary-at- War, which he quitted because the Ministry would not concur in his estimates. At that time (1838) under Lord Melbourne, he filled the offices of Paymaster- General of the Forces, and Treasurer of the Navy. Sir Henry told the noble lord (the Marquis of Chandos) that the manufacturers of the kingdom were themselves aware of the impolicy of the restrictive system which had so long been enforced, and that a short time since he had himself had the honour of presenting to Her Majesty's Government a memorial from his constituents who, although manufacturers, saw the impolicy of restrictive laws, and particularly as applied to their own peculiar branch of trade. He then exposed with masterly logic the hollowness of the landowner's pretended regard for the interests of his tenants. The noble lord (he continued) asked how the farmer was to exist if he was not protected in the sale of his produce? Now all this was a practical delusion, which kept out of sight the true character and bearing of the question. He begged most distinctly to declare his opinion that there was no one interest in the country which derived any advantage from the corn laws but the landowner's. Under the non-leasing system, which almost universally prevailed, the farmer could derive but a very small and temporary interest from an increasing price of corn. As long as the rent was proportioned to the average price, as at present, the farmer could not have any interest in the price of corn, and the landowner was the only person who profited by a rise. On the other hand, whilst the farmer gained nothing by the corn laws, he lost much in the increased prices of all the various commodities he had to purchase, and which necessarily kept pace with that of corn. If this point were properly considered, the farmer would see that his true interest consisted in having corn cheap instead of dear. He repeated that out of the vast community of this kingdom, amounting to 24,000,000 souls, there were but a few hundreds of thousands who obtained any advantage from the tax raised by means of these corn laws upon the prices of all articles of consumption.

The next speaker was the Earl of Darlington, the eldest son of the Duke of Cleveland, a lieutenant- colonel in the army, and a Conservative, who had opposed the Reform Bill even while his father, in the House of Lords, supported it. " It had," he said, "never fallen to his lot to be more astonished than he was at the speech of the right honourable baronet. He had paid the greatest attention to the arguments which had been urged on other occasions in favour of a repeal of this measure, and he had heard no new ones introduced in this discussion. Hitherto they had failed to convince any one except a few honourable members in former Parliaments, and he had no doubt such would be the result in the present. He was surprised at the statement that the manufacturers would be glad if the duty were taken off. He had never heard anything of the kind from the glovers, shoemakers, or other country manufacturers of the kingdom."

Mr. Clay, the member for the Tower Hamlets, a retired merchant and ship-owner, and an advanced reformer, called upon honourable gentlemen to point out one single manufactured article which was protected to a like degree with corn. He remarked that, bad as all these restrictions were, the protective duty on corn differed from the protective duty on manufactures, not only in its amount, but in its nature. There was no manufactured article in this country protected by a duty varying, like the duty on corn, in proportion to the price of the article. It was his intention to have proposed the substitution of a fixed duty, but, in compliance with the wishes of several gentlemen near him, he refrained from proposing it. Mr. Gaily Knight, the member for North Nottinghamshire, could not deny the distress which existed, but thought it had nothing to do with the high price of corn. The distress at Nottingham he considered to arise from over-production, or improvements in machinery, and the monetary state of America; but Sir Ronald Ferguson, the member for Nottingham, reminded the House that he had recently presented a petition from the corporation of that town praying for total repeal as a means of alleviating the distress which prevailed. Mr. Dunlop, Mr. Roche (the member for Cork county), and Mr. Mark Philips, spoke also in favour of the motion; but among those who concluded the debate were two members who demand special notice, from the conspicuous part which they played in subsequent discussions. These members were Mr. Cayley and Mr. Disraeli. Mr. Cayley said that twelve years ago there had been a cry raised throughout the country for a repeal of the corn laws, but that that cry had now almost ceased. And what was the reason? The people had become more intelligent, and they were not now carried away by the delusions which were then afloat in regard to cheap bread. If they asked the labouring classes now whether they preferred a high or low price of corn, they would answer that they were better off when the price of corn was high, because a reduction in the price of corn was always followed by a corresponding reduction in the rate of wages. The rate of wages was regulated by the price of corn, and in proportion as the price of corn increased, the rate of wages was advanced. If the corn laws were repealed, let the House consider what would be the almost immediate effect. A large quantity of the land of this country would be thrown out of cultivation, and, as a consequence, a large portion of the labourers would be deprived of employment. The rural population would, to a great extent, be deprived of wages, and reduced to the greatest misery.

Mr. Disraeli - who, whatever may have been his embarrassment on first speaking in the House, had by this time learnt to deliver with remarkable fluency the views of the country party - said that much had been spoken of the advantage which the British manufacturers would derive from the abolition of the corn laws; but he conceived it to be a delusion to suppose that, were a different state of the law to prevail in this country with regard to corn, the Continent would suffer England to be the workshop of the world. The real question for the House to inquire into was, whether or not there existed any good ground to fear competition for English industry at present in consequence of the existence of the corn laws. He had inquired of a friend, who complained of competition in Belgium, in what way the people of that country entered injuriously into competition with the British manufacturing interest; and his reply was, that "they were doing a great deal in small nails; " and so it appeared that all that the British manufacturers had to fear there was a competition " in small nails." He certainly was aware that the demand for British manufactures was declining in the Levant; but if any man were to inquire of the mercantile houses in Constantinople and Smyrna the cause of that decline, he would learn that it was in no degree owing to the influence of the corn laws, The English manufacturers, unfortunately, fancied that all they needed to do was to produce a cheap article; and the consequence was, that their cheap article was refused, while an article of a better kind, and displaying more ingenuity in the manufacture, the produce of other countries, was preferred. He did not believe that the corn laws had much effect in raising the price of the manufactured articles of this country. Their influence on wages could not, he was sure, be described by a figure greater than a fraction. In point of fact, it was British capital that enabled the manufacturers of this country to compete - in the article of cotton, for instance - with the people of America, where wages were quite as high as in this country, and with the natives of India, where the rate of wages was the lowest in the world. How, then, had the cry against the agricultural interest been raised? Whose interest was it to have the corn laws repealed? It was the interest solely of the manufacturing capitalist, who had contrived to raise a large party in favour of that repeal, by the specious pretext that it would lead to a reduction of rents, and by obtaining the co-operation of a section in this country who were hostile to a political system based on the preponderance of the landed interest. He trusted that the House would prove to the country, by the calmness of the present debate, that honourable members, on both sides of the House, came to the consideration of the question of the repeal of the corn laws fully impressed with its deep importance to all classes of the people.

Scarcely any excitement was caused by this discussion. It seems, indeed, to have been regarded rather as an exercise in political speaking of some who viewed the matter in a philosophic, rather than in a practical light, and who had no real expectation of success. Only one of the Ministers was present during a debate which was destined, in its annual re-appearance, to become so formidable to the party of monopoly; and this Minister, it was remarked by one speaker, appeared to be taking " his evening siesta," doubtless " owing to weariness induced by his close attention to official duties " - a remark which elicited loud laughter. It must be confessed, however, that the slumber of the Minister was no unfit representation of the want of faith in corn law repeal which existed out of doors. It was certain that nothing but pressure from without could obtain even a modification of those laws in the teeth of the all-powerful aristocracy and their representatives in the Commons; but as yet the country took little part in the great question of the final emancipation of British industry. For a repeal of the poor laws there had been presented to the House not less than 235 petitions, with 190,000 signatures. The agitation - chiefly supported by the Times newspaper and a few socialistic reformers, like Mr. Fielden, against the law which, harsh as it seemed, was at bottom a really wise and humane measure for raising the people from that condition of acquiescence in misery and degradation to which the bad legislation of past years had so powerfully contributed to reduce them - had assumed formidable dimensions, and stirred the country in every part; while for a repeal of the law which in every way depressed the energies of the people, only a few petitions, bearing at most about 24,000 signatures, had been presented. The debate on Mr. Villiers' motion was passed over without comment by the Times. But the final movement for the destruction of the landlords' monopoly dates from that year. The distress was increasing, and the men who were really watchful for the people's interests were already combining for a more extensive and vigorous political movement than had been known since the passing of the Reform Act; while, as we have seen, the class of operatives who were suffering most by the general distress - the weavers - - were fully alive to the true causes of that depression of trade and high price of food which had so much to da with the misery of the people.

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