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Chapter LVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 6


Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 <6>

He then told the House that the case of the straw-plait manufacturers had called for the serious attention of the Government, as one in which they had found it impossible to resist the appeal for protection at the expense of the consumer. " They were," he said, mostly women and children living in country districts, and on representations made on their behalf, the duty had been increased in the amended tariff from 5s. to 7s. 6d. in the pound; " but I wish," he continued, "to convince them of the delusiveness of that security they ask. At present the duty on the raw material in straw, to be used in plaiting, is not more than Id. per pound; the duty on the manufactured article is the extravagant one of 17s. 6d. per pound. It is so light an article, that there are great facilities for introducing it. I give the House a practical proof of the manner of introducing it. There is the straw introduced for manufacture, and this is subjected only to Id. per pound on its introduction." Sir Robert Peel here exhibited a small bundle of bleached and cut straw, about eight inches in length, and of the thickness of a man's wrist, neatly bound up, such as is seen in the straw bonnet shop-windows. " In this straw," he continued, "intended to be introduced at such a very low rate of duty, is enclosed the article which is charged on its admission with a duty of 17s. 6d. a pound. Now observe," and with these words he tore the binding from one end of the bundle of straw, and from the centre of it took out a neat small roll of straw- plait, about the thickness of the thumb, which had been concealed inside the bundle, a proceeding which caused some surprise and mirth in the House. Such, he said, were the grounds of the change which it was his intention to carry through; adding, "I know that many gentlemen who are strong advocates for free trade may consider that I have not gone far enough. I believe that on the general principle of free trade there is now no great difference of opinion, and that all agree in the general rule that we should purchase in the cheapest market, and sell in the dearest." Loud cheers from the opposition benches here interrupted him. Turning in the direction of the cheerers, he said, " I know the meaning of that cheer. I do not now wish to raise a discussion on the corn laws or the sugar duties. I have stated the grounds, on more than one occasion, why I consider these exceptions to the general rule, and I will not go into the question now. I know that I may be met with the complaints of gentlemen opposite of the limited extent to which I have applied the general principle to which I have adverted to these important articles. I thought after the best consideration I could give to the subject that if I proposed a greater change in the corn laws than that which I submitted to the consideration of the House, I should only aggravate the distresses of the country, and only increase the alarm which prevailed among important interests. I think that I have proposed, and the Legislature has sanctioned, as great a change in the corn laws as was prudent, considering the engagements existing between landlord and tenant, and also the large amount of capital which has been applied to the cultivation of the soil. Under these circumstances, I think that we have made as great a change as was consistent with the nature of the subject." In conclusion, he cited the wise and just words of Mr. Huskisson in 1825, against the needless application of new principles. He and his colleagues, he said, "had removed prohibitions, reduced duties, balanced between conflicting interests, and endeavoured to make their measures as effective as possible, with as small an amount of individual suffering as was compatible with regard to the public good. He trusted that their measure would act as an example to the whole of Europe, showing that, in the midst of financial difficulties, they were not afraid to attempt a reduction of the import duties, looking to other means to meet those difficulties. Those countries would soon find how profitless was the expense of establishments to keep down the smuggler in the support of their high duties. Comparisons would be drawn between England and the countries where monopolies exist - as Spain, where the system existed in perfection; and there they would see eternal contests, and yet no revenue. It was his belief that Russia would shortly be compelled by the loss of revenue to abandon her attempts to force manufactures. The example of England would insure the general application of just principles, with benefit to herself and to those who were wise enough to follow."

The free trade journals did not fail to observe that what they called "this remarkable lecture on free trade, protection, and smuggling, delivered from the Tory Treasury bench," was wound up by the avowal that the principles of free trade were now beyond a question, and that the rule to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest was the only valid theory of commerce. In fact, that rule means only that the merchant should be at liberty to take commodities from where they are cheap, that is, abundant, to dispose of them where they are scarce and dear, and, of course, by so doing, to equalise prices to the ultimate benefit of consumers. In the House some opposition was offered to the reduction of duties on pigs, apples, butter, fish, and other articles; but the Government proposals were in every case affirmed by large majorities. The opposition, however, raised the old question of the sugar duties which had been omitted from the list of changes. The Tariff Bill passed the Commons amid some enthusiastic signs on the 28th of June. The best proof of the philanthropic intentions of the Minister was the dissatisfaction evinced by the more thoroughgoing of his own party. In the House of Lords, Earl Stanhope said the Government had, by this new tariff, thrown open the floodgates of a torrent, which they would find it utterly impossible to stem. He taunted the Minister with having used arguments which appeared to have been taken from one of the " Anti-Corn-Law Circulars," or some speech of the Anti-Corn-Law League, and pronounced his scheme "an ignisfatuus, which would destroy the political power of the man who introduced it." Great meetings were held in Kent, convened by the high sheriff of the county, to denounce the changes in the duty on hops; and similar great meetings were held in other counties, at which resolutions strongly condemnatory of the new tariff, the corn bill, and the income tax, were passed.

The Corn-Law Leaguers were grateful for the great impetus given by the Minister to free trade principles, but were not to be turned aside from the task they had undertaken. Free trade in corn - the great reform which the country was beginning to understand - was still far off, but the question was never for a moment allowed to rest. Early in the year a droll circumstance, related in the papers, served to remind the people still more forcibly of the Premier's embarrassments on this point. A Lancashire manufacturer had forwarded to the Minister, as a New Year's present, a beautiful specimen of printed velveteens, produced at the Ancoats Vale works, the fabric being entirely of cotton, but so ingeniously dressed as to appear like silk. Sir Robert immediately acknowledged the gift in the following letter to the giver, dated Drayton Manor: - "Sir, - I am much obliged by your kind attention in sending a specimen of the beautiful manufacture which accompanied your letter. Lady Peel admires it so much, that she will convert one of the pieces into a cloak for her own wearing. The other I will apply to my own use."

Not many days, however, had elapsed ere the Minister, who evidently had not examined the present which he had received with so much enthusiasm, made the alarming discovery that the velveteen had been converted into a vehicle of political ideas. It appeared that the design represented "a stalk or ear of wheat, grouped, or rather thrown together very tastefully, with a small scroll peeping from beneath, and bearing the fatal word, Free.' " The dismay of the Minister, on finding his acceptance of this present mentioned in the Manchester papers as a political fact, caused some merriment. He returned the velveteen at once to the giver, with a note, stating that he was "not aware that the specimen of manufacture, which his correspondent had requested him to accept, bore any allusion to matters which were the subject of public controversy." "Peel's velveteens " were seized upon by the satirists of the day as a text for ridicule. They associated the "Velveteen Plot" with the Gunpowder Plot and the Rye House Plot of other days. Punch declared that Lady Peel, like a good wife, had ordered her cloak to be made of the objectionable stuff, simply because she knew that Sir Robert had at the last election "used a cloak with some sort of corn law device upon it, and because she could do no better than follow the example of a beloved husband; " and added, "Great, indeed, would have been the triumph of the League, if the Minister had donned the insidious trousers, and taken his seat in them in the House of Commons."

The question of the sugar duties was not allowed to rest. The West India interest strongly urged that now slavery was abolished in the British possessions, they ought not to be expected to compete with the slave-grown sugar of other countries. On the other hand, it was contended that the system of slavery was not really any cheaper than that of paid service, forced labour being necessarily stupid and inefficient. It was shown that sugar had become with the poor almost a necessary of life, and it was argued that the planters' cry was but the old selfish cry for protection of particular interests of which we had so many examples. Honest advocates of the abolition of slavery certainly took a different view; but on the whole free traders, not behind them in their love of liberty, and hatred of the slavery system, were of opinion that the attempt to combat slavery by differential duties was not only futile, but productive of much mischief. These conflicting arguments were heard again and again in Parliament, but as yet they brought no change. On the 3rd of June the Chancellor of the Exchequer declared that the Government was unable to reduce the sugar duties that year. On the whole, though the distress was still terrible, the Government measures were a success, and the people looked forward to some relief from the new laws which came into operation in October; while on the eve of the prorogation, Sir Robert Peel, with some degree of exultation, asked those who blamed the Government for the distress of the people, "if the evils under which the country suffered were to be remedied by the removal of restrictions, had they not done more to that end during the past session than any other administration had effected for many years? "

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Pictures for Chapter LVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 6

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