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Chapter LIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2


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The Parliamentary session for 1845 was opened by the Queen in person, on the 4th of February. At a meeting a few days earlier, Mr. Cobden had warned his hearers that no change in the corn laws could be expected from Sir R. Peel, so long as the Ministry could avail themselves of the old excuse, the revived prosperity of manufactures and commerce. "Ours," he had said, "is a very simple proposition. We say to the right honourable baronet, Abolish the monopolies which go to enrich that majority which placed you in power and keeps you there. We know he will not attempt it; but we are quite certain he will make great professions of being a free trader, notwithstanding." The following vague passage in the Queen's speech - " The prospect of continued peace, and the general state of domestic prosperity and tranquillity, afford a favourable opportunity for the consideration of the important matters to which I have directed your attention; and I commit them to your deliberation, with the earnest prayer that you may be enabled, under the superintending care and protection of Divine Providence, to strengthen the feelings of mutual confidence and good-will between different classes of my subjects, and to improve the condition of my people" - appeared only too clearly to confirm this view; but the sequel showed that the free traders had scarcely done justice to the intentions of the Minister. The debate on the address produced a remarkable declaration from Lord John Russell of his conviction "that protection is not the support but the bane of agriculture."

The budget was brought forward on the 13th of February. It proposed to continue the income tax, which experience had shown to afford a means of supplying the place of taxes repealed, until such time as the revenue should recover itself. The Minister then unfolded his scheme, which formed no unworthy complement to his great budget of 1842. It proposed a reduction in the sugar duties, which could not be calculated at less than 1,300,000, and was expected to reduce the price to the consumer by about 1¼d. a pound. The Minister then proceeded to refer to a list of articles, 430 in number, which yielded but trifling amounts of revenue, and many of which were raw materials used in the various manufactures of the country, including silk, hemp, flax, and yarn or thread (except worsted yarn), all woods used in cabinet-making, animal and vegetable oils, iron and zinc in the first stages, ores and minerals (except copper ore, to which the last act was still to apply), dye stuffs of all kinds, and all drugs, with very few exceptions; on the whole of these articles he proposed to repeal the duties altogether, not even leaving a nominal rate for registration, but retaining the power of examination. The timber duties generally he proposed to continue as they were, with the one exception of staves, which, as the raw material of the extensive manufacture of casks, he proposed to include with the 430 articles, and to take off the duty altogether. On these articles the loss amounted to 320,000.

The next and most important relief in the whole proposition was the article of cotton wool, on which the Minister proposed also to reduce the duty altogether, and on which he estimated the loss at 680,000; and these constituted the whole of the proposed reductions of the import duties - that is, sugar, cotton wool, and the numerous small articles in the tariff. The next items of reduction proposed were the few remaining duties on our exports, such as china-stone, and other trifling things, but including the most important article of coals, on which the duty had been placed by the Government, and of the result of which Sir Robert Peel candidly avowed his disappointment. The duties he estimated at 118,000.

He then passed on to the excise duties, among which he had selected two items of great importance for entire repeal - the auction duty and the glass duties. By a repeal of the auction duty he estimated a loss of 300,000; but as he proposed, at the same time, to increase the auctioneer's licence uniformly from 5 to 15 (making one licence answer for all purposes, whereas, at that time, several licences were often necessary to the same party), he expected from 4,000 auctioneers an increased income, so as to reduce this loss to 250,000. On the important article of glass, he gave up 642,000.

These constituted the whole of his proposals; and the surplus of 2,409,000 was thus proposed to be disposed of: - Estimated loss on sugar, 1,300,000; duty on cotton repealed, 680,000; ditto on 430 articles in tariff, 320,000; export duty on coal, 118,000; auction duty, 250,000; glass, 642,000. Total, 3,310,000.

The budget excited extraordinary interest throughout the country; but the proposed sugar duties were, in the eyes of the free traders, objectionable, as maintaining the differential rates in favour of the West Indian landlords. Though well received on the whole, it was impossible not to see in the budget traces of the anomalous position of the Minister. One newspaper described his measures as combining the most glaring inconsistencies that ever disfigured the policy of any Minister, and arranged in parallel columns illustrations of its assertion. Sir Robert Peel was charged with proposing at the same time a tariff whose express object was declared to be to cheapen the necessaries of life and corn, and provision laws whose sole object was to make the chief necessaries of life dear; with professing great concern to relieve trade and commerce, for the sake of which a property tax was proposed, combined with a still greater concern to uphold the rent of land, for the sake of which trade and commerce were loaded with a bread tax; with devising taxes for the mere purposes of revenue; with taxes for the mere purpose of protection; with repealing the duty on slave-grown cotton, while imposing prohibitory duties on slave-grown sugar; with encouraging Brazilian coffee and cotton, while refusing Brazilian sugar; and with admitting cheap slave-grown sugar to be refined in England, and sold to Continental nations, while forbidding the selfsame cheap sugar to our own working people. Still, there was progress. The Corn Law was untouched, but statesmen of all parties had spoken despairingly of its continuance.

The gulf between the Minister and the landowners was widening. The debates on the budget, and on Mr. Cobden's motion for inquiry into the alleged agricultural distress, had drawn out more bitter speeches from Mr. Disraeli, and served still further to mark the distinction between the Minister and a large section of his old followers. But one of the most significant signs of the time was the increasing tendency to recognise the talents and singleness of purpose of the Anti-Corn-Law Leaguers. It became almost fashionable to compliment " the ability of Mr. Cobden." It was almost forgotten that the Minister had once carried with him the whole House in making an excited charge against that gentleman of marking him out for assassination. The bitterness of the ultra - Protectionists was certainly unabated; but neither the Quarterly nor any other review now classed the Manchester men with rick-burners and assassins, or called upon the Government to indict them for sedition.

An able writer has given a spirited sketch of the growth of the League in the estimation of the public. " Month after month, and day after day," says Mr. M'Cullagh Torrens, " that great combination of commercial wealth, energy, and intellect extended its influence. It had outgrown the silly scepticism of West-end Liberalism, and the idle interdict of Tory wrath. It had struck root palpably in the electoral soil of the country; and though the time had not come for bearing fruit, it was manifestly approaching. The Parliament was four years old - a consideration which, in times of change, outweighs most others in the minds of constitutional Ministers. It had been confidently prophesied by all, who read events in the shadows they cast behind them, when Sir R. Peel had been borne into office by a majority of ninety, that the League would die out. It was formed of vulgar stuff, of common clay, that had not the ring of gentility in it, and that must soon go to the bottom from sheer want of floating power. The idea of a mere middle-class movement succeeding, without the leadership or even the patronage of either set of hereditary legislators, was simply absurd - so absurd, indeed, that no thorough-bred politician believed in its possibility until after it had happened. Manchester might talk of raising 50,000, and might possibly do it; for was not the effort to obtain free trade a good investment, after all, for rich manufacturers, who must find new markets to employ their accumulative capital? But the clubs, and the press, and the constituencies of the kingdom, were too long accustomed to fetch and carry at the bidding of the old, recognised party leaders, to be won over or bullied by a knot of nobodies, however pertinacious or persevering. When the 50,000 had been raised and spent in holding scores of meetings, and getting up hundreds of petitions, and circulating many thousands of statistical pamphlets, Whiggery and Toryism nodded to one another across the street, and laughed each in its sleeve as it wondered 'what these people would do now.' These people said they would raise 100,000; and what was worse, they began to do it. Regardless of Lord Melbourne's saucy veto, and his having said 'that they would take the crown off Her Majesty's head,' several excitable persons, who ought to have known better, joined the League. Lord Fitzwilliam asked Mr. Cobden to Wentworth, and drove him over to Doncaster next day, to attend a great gathering there; but then the earl was so odd that sensible men would not mind him. It was certainly more provoking when Mr. Jones Loyd gave in his adhesion;' but still he was only a banker; and as for the City election, in which Mr. Pattison had beaten Mr. Thomas Baring, that was one of those caprices of large constituencies, like Mr. Hume's return for Middlesex in 1831, which could not be accounted for. But when it was ascertained for a fact that the Marquis of Westminster had subscribed 500 to the League Fund, a certain sense of misgiving began to creep over the minds of the best-bred unbelievers, and fear fell upon all who had paid dear for their seats in Parliament, and who, if they were to hold them, knew that they must pay dear for them again. The shadow of events began to be cast the other way; and every time-serving trimmer and fribble set about learning to read what was indicated thereby. Two hateful facts grew day by day more clear, alike to Whig and Tory minds - that the League would not die, and that the Parliament speedily would. Symptoms of a gradual giving way became discernible in what had undoubtedly been the prevalent faith in protection; and thousands who, above all things, dreaded commotion, and who still tried to persuade one another that they despised the League, half inarticulately began to mutter a wish that the troublesome question were settled."

The debate on Mr. Villiers' annual motion, on the 10th of June, produced still further evidences of the decline of Protectionist principles. On that occasion Sir James Graham, who was currently believed to be better acquainted with the feelings of the Premier than any other of the Ministers, said, " He would not deny that it was his opinion, that by a gradual and cautious policy it was expedient to bring our system of corn laws into a nearer approximation to those wholesome principles which governed legislation with respect to other industrial departments. But it was his conviction that suddenly and at once to throw open the trade in corn, would be inconsistent with the well-being of the community, and would give such a shock to the agricultural interest, as would throw many other interests into a state of convulsion. The object of every Government, without distinction of party, for the last twenty years, had been to substitute protecting duties for prohibitory duties, and to reduce gradually protecting duties, where it had them to deal with. He approved of this as a safe principle, and showed that it was the key-stone of the policy of Sir Robert Peel.... If they could show him that free trade with open ports would produce a more abundant supply to the labourer, they would make him (Sir James) a convert to the doctrine of free trade in corn. He confessed that he placed no value on the fixed duty of four shillings lately proposed; it would be of no avail as a protection, whilst it would be liable to all the obloquy of a protecting duty; and he therefore thought that if they got rid of the present corn law, they had better assent to a total repeal."

Sir Robert Peel spoke more cautiously; but he began by striking away a favourite maxim of his party, in observing that experience proved that the high price of corn was not accompanied by a high rate of wages, and that wages did not vary with the price of corn. He said that he "must proceed, in pursuance of his own policy, to reconcile the gradual approach of our legislation to sound principle on this subject, with the interests which had grown up under a different state of things;" but he admitted that it would be " impossible to maintain any law on the ground that it was intended to keep up rents."

Lord Howick pointed out that not one word had been said during the evening by the Government in contradiction of the resolutions of Mr. Villiers, condemnatory of the Corn Law. In fact, the Anti-Corn- Law struggle had come to this, that a Tory Ministry had made a full concession of free trade principles, and had no ground of demur to Mr. Villiers' motion, but that it was too precipitate.

Such was the position of affairs when Parliament was prorogued on the 9th' of August. The Peel Ministry appeared to be as firmly seated as any combination then possible was likely to be, and the agriculturists' monopoly seemed safe at least for another year; but the Government had already received warnings of a coming storm. The weather had been for some time wet and cold, but as yet a general failure of the wheat crop was not anticipated. The trouble approached from a quarter in which no one had looked for it. Early in the month of August, Sir Robert Peel had received an account of an extraordinary appearance in the potato crop in the Isle of Wight. On the 11th of August, Sir James Graham received a letter from a great potato salesman, indicating that the same mysterious signs were observable throughout the south-eastern counties, and he hastened to communicate the facts to his colleague. These isolated observations soon became confirmed from numerous quarters, and the account was everywhere the same. First a brown spot was observable on the skin of the potato; then the spot became black, the leaves and flowers of whole fields grew shrivelled, black, and putrid; and the crops, wherever the plague appeared, were almost entirely destroyed. From Ireland the most alarming accounts were received, and the newspapers were quickly filled with details of the progress of the "potato disease." It began to be asked what would be done with the unemployed multitudes in that country, whose stock of provisions for the next ten months was gone?

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Pictures for Chapter LIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

Lord George Bentinck
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Sir James Graham
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