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distress; and its continued pressure had led, in the month of April, to a series of disgraceful riots in Lancashire, which led to the destruction of machinery, more particularly of steam looms, to a large extent.* It may be observed, that the delusion of the Lancashire artizans, that machinery deprived them of employment, was scarcely to be wondered at; when, at a meeting of the noblemen and freeholders of the county of Lanark, men of high rank and liberal education, apparently smarting under the necessity of making a public subscription for the relief of the unemployed manufacturers of Glasgow, were found to express and to maintain the same doctrine. The riots were speedily repressed by the military,' although not without some sacrifice oflife. They arose fromUgnorance; but that ignorance had been stimulated by a state of suffering—of almost absolute starvation —which the feelings of no man could overlook, and which it was impossible to meet by merely local subscriptions. Ministers were adverse to making any grant of public money for the relief of local distress, on the same principle on which they had refused to issue Exchequer bills for the relief of the merchants; but there were other means both of giving immediate assistance, and of providing against its increase during the long interval which must elapse between the dissolution of the present, and the sitting of the new parliament. In the immediate neighbourhood of the scene of distress, in Hull, Liverpool, and other ports, there were in bond between 250,000 and 300,000 quarters of wheat,
* The detail of these outrages will be found in the Chronicle, p. 63f
which, under the existing regulations, could not come into the market. The admission of this quantityinto the market could have no material effect upon the agriculture of the country, whilst it was thought it would be sufficient to diminish that suffering which was actually felt, and which, it was to be feared, was more acutely felt in consequence of the approximation of so much food in the neighbourhood, and the contrast thus presented; for the very fact of the co-existence of two such states of things, want and plenty, tended to exasperate the evil. It was therefore proposed to allow bonded corn to come into the market. As again, it was impossible to foretel what the result of the coming harvest might be (and from the then aspect of the crops, fears were entertained that the harvest might be far from productive), it was proposed, as a measure of precaution against the continuance or the recurrence of the existing distress, to vest government, during the recess, with a discretionary power of permitting, generally or partially, as the necessity of the case might require, the importation of foreign corn, on payment of a fixed duty.
Accordingly Mr. Canning, on the 2nd of May, moved that the House should go into a committee on the 3, Geo 4th, c. 6o. But even the Speaker's leaving the chair was opposed, and pressed to a division. The motion, it was argued, was in downright contradiction to the vote of the House upon the motion of Mr. Whitmore. On that occasion there existed the same reasons for entering upon the consideration of the Corn-laws which existed now; but the loudly-expressed opinion of the House had been that this was a most inconvenient crisis for such. a discussion: with what consistency then could it now be called upon to rescind that very vote—now that inconveniencies, if they ever existed, had only been augmented. It was vain to say that the proposed measures did not involve the whole question of the Corn-laws: they necessarily opened up the whole discussion, for ministers were to have the power of opening the ports at their discretion, while it was altogether uncertain how the harvest might turn out. Either these discretionary importations were to take place under a certain duty, and when the home price was at a certain point, or there was to be no fixed point, and no fixed duty. If the latter, who would venture to lodge such an absolute discretion in government for any length of time, or how could the creation of such a power be even thought of, without a thorough investigation of the whole system? If again, there was to be a fixed price to regulate this discretion, and a fixed duty to burthen the importations, what this price and this duty ought to be, must necessarily be investigated, and such an investigation comprehended the whole essence of the corn question. Moreover, the price and the duty which might be now fixed for this temporary measure would assuredly be ultimately adopted as the price and the duty on the final decision of the general question, and when fixed for the purpose of giving low prices to the distressed consumer, they must necessarily be unfair and unjust to the no less distressed producer. The measure, too, proceeded upon this principle as their basis, that the distresses of the manufacturers were occasioned by the price of corn, a principle
which ministers themselves had always denied. If the pouring in of new quantities upon the market is to benefit the sufferers at all, it must be, either by furnishing them with employment and wages, or by lowering the price of then- food, for nobody alleges that the food does not exist. To say that it can do the former is manifestly absurd; and to say it can do the latter, and yet to maintain that the Corn-lawshave no connection with the existence of the distress, is still more clearly illogical. It comes to this, thatimportations of grain, contrary to the Corn-laws, are to increase comfort, and are to do so bylowering prices. The evil arose from want of employment, from inability to purchase; and, therefore, there ought to be a grant of public money. If the state of things was such, that individuals were called upon to subscribe for the relief of their fellow-subjects, then a case was made out why parliament should interfere with a grant of pecuniary assistance. On these grounds of general opposition to the whole spirit of the proposed measures, sir Thomas Lethbridge, seconded by Mr. Benett, moved "That a select committee be appointed to inquire into the causes of the distress in the manufacturing districts." Upon a division, the original motion was carried by a majority of 214 to 82.
The first resolution, allowing wheat in bond to come into the market, on payment of a duty of 10*. per quarter, and other corn at inferior rates, met with no resistance, excepting that Sir Thomas Lethbridge was anxious to add to the duty; but the wishes of the House on the other side were so loudly expressed, that he withdrew his opposition.
The second resolution, giving ministers a discretionary power of admitting foreign grain during the recess, was much more stubbornly opposed. In the first place, it was an irregular and unconstitutional power, and was asked without any good reason being assigned why it should be bestowed at all. Even allowing the possibilities on which it entirely rested, of such a failure of the harvest as might render it adrisable, in the present state of 'he country, to admit foreign grain, why should that be determined beforehand when parliament can still be in existence to meet the emergency? Parliament has still twelve months of its duration remaining ; and if the state of the country be such as to require the investing of government with unconstitutional power, much more does it require that parliament should continue to exist to exercise its constitutional authority. But neither was there any foundation, in point of fact, for what was proposed; the whole case proceeded upon possibilities, the possibility that there might be a bad harvest, a»3 a famine price, during the recess; and the whole argument proceeded on apprehensions of this imaginary, danger—notindeed absolutely imaginary, because perfectly possible, but yet so far imaginary, that it would furnish a reason for vesting the Crown with a dispensing power over the Cornaws at the commencement of every long adjournment, as on the present occasion. Now, likewise, that the quantity which was allowed to be imported was to be limited to 500,000 quarters, the power asked would be futile even in its operation; forit would never be pretended that the lowering of the price of the loaf by a single halfpenny >
could justify the establishment of such unnecessary and unconstitutional power, and such dangerous tampering with laws on which so many interests depended. It was, in some measure, a breach of faith towards all connected with the corn trade, and a breach arising from that very frankness in declaring their intentions, of which ministers boasted highly. At the opening of the session, they had declared, that the question of the Corn-laws would not be stirred. Trusting to this, and that for a year, at least, they would be safe, farmers and corn dealers had entered into contracts, the relations under which would now be altered to the disadvantage of one of the parties; and on the merchant who had purchased grain on the faith of these declarations that no foreign grain would be admitted, excepting under the existing regulations, was inflicted a loss equal to the depression of price which the quantity of grain to be brought into the market under these temporary regulations might occasion. Some members said, that they would have given a decided preference to a discussion of the whole matter; others accused ministers of inconsistency, in having, during the adjournment of the committee since the first resolution was agreed to,* brought down their demand from an unlimited importation to the comparatively insignificant quantity of 500,000 quarters, which, if the danger really
* Only the first resolution, for taking out bonded corn, was agreed to on the 2nd of May. The resistance to the second was so stubborn, that the committee divided again and again. It again came before the committee on the 5th ; and then was mentioned the limitation of the quantity to 500,000 quarters. » arose, would be insufficient to meet it; and Mr. Portman was of opinion that it was the duty of ministers, instead of applying to the House for special powers, in the prospect of mere contingencies, to have waited for the occurrence of these contingencies, and then, by their own act, if necessity existed, to have opened the ports, under the weight of their constitutional responsibility. The declaration involved in these measures, that the Corn-laws were insufficient, and that extraordinary enactments were required to guard against a probable mischief, had already done much harm, and produced much agitation.
Ministers maintained, that it was a solecism to accuse them of bringing forward an unconstitutional, measure, when they were purposing to do nothing but by the authority of parliament, and had come expressly to ask the permission of parliament. They might have acted without this authority; that would have been unconstitutional, and could have been covered only by a bill of indemnity; but to wish to avoid the necessity of requiring an indemnity was to wish to avoid taking an unconstitutional step. The consequences of doing otherwise had been seen in 1756, when lord Chatham was minister, and lord Camden attorney-general, and the administration the most popular which this country had ever seen. During the recess of parliament, famine stared the country in the face, and corn could legally be exported up to a certain price. Ministers closed the ports; but, when parliament met, the most violent debates ensued, although the necessity had originated only after parliament had separated; and, although there
was not a single opinion against the necessity of the measure, the minister was exposed to the most bitter censures, because he had not acted with a proper sense of his duty to parliament. But, in the present instance parliament was still sitting to provide constitutionally for any emergencies, and breach of duty would have consisted in ministers wilfully neglecting to clothe themselves with that authority which parliament alone could give. They had indeed been told that they ought to have acted on their own discretion under the weight of their responsibility; but the example of 1756 was a warning; and, in the support which ministers were receiving in this very measure, they had an impressive earnest of the sort of reception with which they would have met, if they had so acted; for was it to be believed that those same gentlemen who believed ministers to be committing treason against the landed interest, by asking permission to act under the authority of parliament, would, if they had acted on their own responsibility, without the authority of parliament, have given them their votes, when they came to ask for pardon? Ministers might, after all, be obliged to act upon their own authority still, if they were thrown back on themselves; but then they would do so no longer on their own responsibility, but on that of those who had refused to invest them with power to meet the emergency.
It was complained, that there were no facts to lead to the conclusion, that corn would, during the recess, reach a price inexpediently high. But the measure was not one of positive legislation founded on special facts; it was a
measure of precaution to meet probable contingencies. During .sixteen of the last twenty-five years, the average price of corn had been 75s.; and during eight of them, it had been 90*. If, therefore, corn should rise to 90*. in the present circumstances of so large a portion of the population, theconsequences must be miserable; and when this had actually happened eight times out of twentyfive, it was impossible to look upon it as being so remote a contingency, thataprudentgovernment oughtnot to provide against it. Prices have been regularly rising for the last six weeks; the harvestof last year began a month earlier than usual; the harvest of the present year might, very probably be a month later than usual; and so, between both, the produce of the year may have to supply the consumption of fourteen months. In ordinary times we might risk the inconvenience which would result; but there was something in the present state of the country, which would make this a matter of more than ordinary hazard. The rise might happen so suddenly, that, within a very short period of time, a relaxation of the Corn-laws might become absolutely necessary, and scarcely time for deliberation remain. Since, then, in such circumstances, to be able to use a discretionary power would be desirable, the simple question was, whether it were better that government should use this discretion of itself, and trust to the subsequent approbation of parliament, or should first receive it as a trust deposited in their hands by parliament?—And surely the latter was the safer and more constitutional course to pursue. Mr. Phillips said, that if the power of admitting foreign grain was actually carried into exercise, it would not only cure any inexpedient rise in price, but the importation would effect still greater good by reviving industry. "A person", said the hon. member, "extensively engaged in the commerce of Manchester, told me this morning, 'we are prepared to go on again immediately, even under the present circumstances, if we could get our returns from abroad. But, in the present state of the exchanges, that is a matter of great difficulty, unless we incur a very serious loss. If, however, we were enabled to import foreign grain, we could immediately set to work.' This difficulty was universally felt; and the importation of even 500,000 quarters would be beneficial to a much greater extent than merely lowering the price of grain." The motion, "that it is the opinion of this committee, that it is expedient to empower his majesty, by any order or orders in council, to permit, under certain circumstances, and for a time limited, the entry of corn for home consumption, subject to the duties which may be agreed on," was carried without a division. The opposition of the most stubborn champions of the landed interest had been soothed down by the intended limitation of the quantity to 500,000 quarters, and of the time to two months after the ports should have been opened. The quantity, which, in such cases, must be, in a great measure, arbitrary, was taken, as equalling, when added to the bonded corn to be let loose, one half of the greatest importation ever made. This limitation of the quantity, leaving unfixed the price and duty at which it might be imported, had for its object to meet the views,