Abbildungen der Seite
PDF

and soothe the apprehensions of the landed interest. The repeated asseverations of ministers, that the present measures were not to be considered as having any connection with the final adjustment of the question, could not convince the defenders of agriculture, that any duty or price which might be attached now, was not intended to be the one that should be finally adopted, or, at least, that the people would not view it in that light— regard it as a tacit legislative declaration of what was right and proper—and thus disable the landowners, when the great question came to be discussed, from claiming a higher price, and a higher duty, without exposing themselves to popular odium. The dread of this measure operating, and being regarded, as an incidental decision upon the Corn-laws themselves, was the origin of all the hostility of the land-owners, and the reason why, rather than agree to it, they were willing to enter into a full investigation and revision of the whole system. Accordingly when colonel Wood moved a clause, that importation should not commence till the price had reached 65*., and then only under a duty of 12*., the land owners successfully joined in prevailing him to withdraw it, on the ground that no mention whatever should be made of fixed prices or fixed duties. They were better pleased that it should be a matter of pure discretion, for which ministers alone shouldbeliable. "If ministers are to have the discretion they wish for," said sir Thomas Lethbridge, "I do not wish them to state the price at which corn is to be imported. The measure is theirs, and it is right that they should take all the responsibility. J am. glad, therefore, that they

have said nothing regarding either the price or the duty." In this spirit they continued their opposition till opposition was hopeless, and there was occasionally even some bitterness in the taunts which they directed against ministers, for what they call this undermining of the Corn-laws. One adherent of government declared, that, since such were to be their measures, he for one, should feel himself bound, if he had the honour of a seat in the next parliament, to take care, that all the public establishments were brought down to the lowest possible point. In short, as in the case of the small-note bill, ministers were opposed by some of their friends who did not wish the Cornlaws to be touched at all, and were supported by some of their opponents who wished to see them removed altogether. The bill passed by large majorities, without alteration ; and to the bill for letting out the bonded corn no serious opposition had been made.

The same difference of opinion prevailed in the House of Lords. There the bill for permitting the importation of 500,000 quarters of foreign grain, was met by lord Malmesbury with an amendment to the effect "that their lordships, though always anxious to contribute to the alleviation of the sufferings of the labouring classes, do not think it expedient that any alteration or modification of the existing Corn-laws should take place, so far as relates to the admission of foreign corn, without a previous inquiry into the probable effects of such a measure on the interests of the grower and consumer of British produce." The noble lord contended that the bill was both unnecessary and mischievous; and, at all events, in

suiry was indispensable before adopting it as being necessary and useful. There was no scarcity of corn in the country, nor any prospect of such a scarcity. The alleged small stock of grain in the hands of the dealer was no proof whatever of the smallness of the stock in the country; it only shewed that the farmers had not yet sold their stock at under prices, but, according to the old custom, carried it to market, month by month as they happened to need money. Empty warehouses were no evidences of a want of grain in the country. During the last eleven months 528,000 quarters of foreign corn had been imported, viz. 433,000 let out of bond, and95,000 imported from Canada. The result of this had been, that the price which, in Nov. 1825, had been 65s. 4d., was now, in May, 1826, only 60*. 4rf.; and if 800,000 quarters additional were thrown into the market by the measures now in progress, the farther depression of prices must be ruinous to'the farmer. The bill, therefore, was not only unnecessary but mischievous. The Corn-laws had not the remotest connexion with the existing distress; but the very introduction of these measures had unwittingly countenanced and supported the vulgar prejudices against that system. To know that 500,000 quarters of wheat might be poured into the market before the 1st of June, was of itself sufficient ground for apprehension, and for inquiry, were it with no other view than that the measure might be so modified, as to remove the grounds of alarm. The discretionary power asked by government, can be justified only by necessity; and government, therefore, is bound to go into a due course of inquiry to

prove that such necessity exists, while both the stock in the country, the falling price, and the 300,000 quarters which are immediately to come out of bond, prove the reverse.

Lord Ellenborough said, that it seemed to him impossible to oppose the motion, for it just meant this —that having only four years ago passed a certain act relative to the corn trade, they would now enter into an inquiry of the same sort, before they proceeded to alter the provisions of that act. Even the letting out of the bonded corn last year furnished no precedent for letting it out this year. The corn let out last year had been a long time in bond, and was limited to what had been bonded within a certain time; in the present instance, the privilege was unlimited; it let out, not only all corn actually warehoused, but likewise all corn "reported to be entered" to be warehoused before the 2nd of May. Last year, also, prices had been rising, not for a few weeks, but for two years. Ministers were insidiously creeping on against the Cornlaws. Last year they made an attack upon them, though it was a justifiable one. This year, however, they were making another; and their lordships ought to remember, that, in public affairs, what was innovation in one year, became precedent the next, and rule the year after: nor would he be astonished, if it should be established next year, upon this measure as a precedent, that bonded corn should always be let out into consumption.

The Earl of Liverpool entreated their lordships not, by a hasty decision, to prejudge the measures which might shortly come up to them from the other House; and, above all, not to act under the m* pression, that it was not competent for their lordships to introduce whatever alterations they might think fit into the two bills, except as to the amount of duty. The grounds of the proposed measures, he thought, could not be resisted by any fair and reasonable mind, or by any person who was not prepared to shut his eyes to the dreadful consequences which might result from a scarcity of corn during the recess. He never believed, nor insinuated, that the high price of corn was the cause of the present distress. But, without stopping to determine what the cause was, could it for a moment be said that the price of food was not a great aggravation of it? It was well known to such of their lordships as had read the documents on that subject laid on the table, that the average growth of this country was not more than sufficient for its consumption; but when they considered that fact, and looked at the effect which the quality of the harvest might have on the subsistence of the people—on the agricultural, too, as well as on the manufacturing classes—their lordships ought to bear in mind, that, if an unfavourable season should come on, the crop would fall far short of our wants. He had looked over documents relating to the state of the harvests for thirty-two years; and he found that, between 1790 and 1822, there had been eleven defective harvests, during which a great importation of grain became necessary. The question, too, of plenty or scarcity, was often that of a day or a week: and it might happen, that though in June our prospects were the brightest, all our hopes might, in one day, fall to the ground. This had occurred in June, 1816. In the beginning of that year the

price of wheat was 53*., and before the end of the year it was as high as 110*. Should such a circumstance now occur in June or July, it would be impossible to open the ports before the 14th of August; and if the averages were not then sufficiently high, the ports would continue closed until the 14th of November. Such a calamity it became parliament to guard against. Whatever objections might be urged against the measures in another year, was it right, with present distress before our eyes, to leave the country in such a state, that, if we did not admit foreign grain, the price of wheat might be up to 140s. or 150*., before three months? It was no argument to say that this might occur in any year, for we were not now legislating for ordinary times, but for a present emergency. He had heard it said, that the people wanted work, not bread. He feared that they were without work, and many, he knew, worked at the lowest rate possible. He did not allude to those who were usually paid high or extravagant prices, but to those whose wages were from seventeen to eighteen shillings a-week: those poor men were now reduced to subsist on seven or eight shillings. Could it then be said that it mattered not to men, under such circumstances, whether the price of the quartern loaf was high or low, when it was clear that their situation was more or less bad, according as they could procure more or less of food for their support? What, then, did his majesty's ministers ask?—a power which, if it was unpleasant to their lordships' to give, it was not less disagreeable for ministers to receive. Why not place the same confidence in the present ministers as in any other? For if ministers did not enjoy the confidence of parliament, they must cease to hold their offices. Let them therefore not be tried by the confidence which was generally reposed in them, not by their characters, but by their own interest; for ministers must in the end come to parliament, as there was no discretionary power for which they were not responsible.

Lord Bathurst opposed the motion, and moved as an amendment, that their lordships do now adjourn. On a division, the amendment was carried by a majority of 166 to 67, and both bills passed the House on the 26th of May.

That depression of manufactures which universally prevailed, had been felt in some branches more heavily than in others; and it had naturally acted with greater effect upon the silk trade than on those which were more exclusively native. The poverty, which existed, among the weavers of Spitalfields, had attracted much notice; large sums had been liberally subscribed for their relief, anda particular committee had watched over their distribution. But neither the mere artisans themselves, noryet their bettereducated masters, were willing to find the causes of their distress and embarrassment merely in pre-existing relations, which affected the whole kingdom and all its interests. In 1824, the legislature had begun the application of what are called the principles of free trade, by removing the absolute prohibitions which prevented the entrance of foreign silks, and enacting that they might lawfully be imported for home use, upon payment of a certain duty, which was thought sufficient for every purpose of prudent protection to the native

manufacturer. This enactment was to come into operation in the month of July of the present year; and the manufacturers and their workmen found, in the supposed tendency of this enactment, what was to them a much more popular and feasible explanation of the decline of their trade, than in the tracing of causes more universal, but which did not come so readily within the reach of vulgar comprehension. Perhaps, too, in point of fact, some manufacturers may have actually limited their operations, thinking it prudent to wait till something should be known of the "untried state of being"—while still more of them joined in saying that it ought not to be tried. The truth is, that little opposition had been made to the measure when it passed ; and, if other circumstances, which that measure in no way affected, had not brought distress, that measure would never have been blamed. A decay of the trade, however, having taken place, nothing was easier, and nothing more consonant to old opinions, or more congenial to inveterate prejudices, than to ascribe this decay to the impossibility of meeting a cheaper foreign competitor—cheaper by his paying a lower price for the raw material, and for the labour employed in working it up. Accordingly many petitions were presented from the persons and districts interested in the silk manufacture, praying for a repeal, or at least some further modification of the provision of 1824, for a total prohibition of foreign fabrics, or a higher duty upon their importation. On the 23rd of February, Mr. Ellice, one of the members for Coventry,moved,that the petitions, which had been presented on this subject, should be referred to a select committee; and the motion led to a debate, which, by adjournment, continued during two evenings. The mover disclaimed every idea of being an opponent of the principles of free trade, to the introduction of which he himself had lent his assistance; but, in their application, an error had been committed in beginning at the wrong place. The currency ought to have been rectified, steadiness of prices ought to have been secured by a revision of the Corn-laws, and the price of labour diminished by a reduction of taxation, before venturing on an interference with any particular manufacture. Even as the matter now stood, he did not argue that the allegations of the petitioners should be taken for granted ; but he certainly thought, that, when made so distinctly, and of so much importance, if they were true, they were most proper subjects of investigation for a committee. The throwsters, one essential department of the manufacture, while they fairly allowed that, knowing the state of machinery on the continent, they felt no apprehensions from competition on this head, yet firmly asserted, that the quantity of human labour required, independent of machinery, was so great, and the price of that labour, when compared with its value in continental countries, was so high, that, under the protecting duty only, it would be impossible for them to continue the trade: that their establishments must be abandoned, their capital withdrawn, and their numerous apprentices be sent upon the parish. These were allegations deliberately made by men who practically knew their business; and it was right, in all events, that their truth should be investigated,

The statements made by those engaged in another branch, the broad silk manufacturers, were, it was argued, if true, equally conclusive; and to have an opportunity of ascertaining their truth or falsehood, was the only object of the motion. They positively stated, that the additional expense to the manufacturer here, over that of the French manufacturer, was equal to from fifty to sixty per cent. The protecting duty of thirty per cent, established by the act of 1824, could afford no adequate protection. That duty had been fixed principally upon the evidence of two American gentlemen, given before the committee of the House of Lords, to the effect that French silks were produced at about from twenty-five to thirty per cent cheaper than those of England. This was now averred to be altogether incorrect, and it was only right to ascertain whether or not it was so. What rendered such inquiry doubly necessary was, the fact, that one great motive in passing the bill of 1824, had been the prospect and the intention of encouraging the export of home-made silk. But the result had been the contrary. At the last sale at the India-house, the prices of Chinese silks were, as marked in the bills, damask furniture silk, from 5s. to 6s. 6d. per yard, and the duty on this article was from 2*. to Is. 6d. per yard, making the whole cost to be from seven to eight shillings. But no English manufacturer could produce the same article at double that price. Increased exportation, therefore, was out of the question, and, in point of fact, none had taken place; the English manufacture could not find.its way into foreign markets, so long as the silks of other countries

« ZurückWeiter »