Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden
Cobden, Richard
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James E. Thorold Rogers, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
Pub. Date
Collected speeches, 1841-1864. First published as a collection in 1870. 3rd edition. Includes biographical "Appreciations" by Goldwin Smith and J. E. Thorold Rogers.

Volume I


[Mr. Cobden was returned to Parliament for the first time in August, 1841, as Member for Stockport. He had previously, in 1837, contested this borough. In the debate on Mr. Baring's Budget, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Melbourne's Government, Lord John Russell avowed that it was the intention of the Government to propose a moderate fixed duty on corn, in lieu of the sliding-scale. These duties were announced on the 7th of May, to be 8s. on wheat, 5s. on rye, 4s. 6d. on barley, and 3s. 6d. on oats. On May 27th, Sir Robert Peel moved a resolution of want of confidence. This resolution was carried by a majority of 1 (312 to 311). On this, Lord Melbourne appealed to the country. When the new Parliament met, Mr. Wortley moved and Lord Bruce seconded an amendment to the Address, to the effect that the Administration did not enjoy the confidence of the country. The amendment was carried by a majority of 91 (360 to 269), and Sir Robert Peel came into office. This statesman continued in office till he repealed those Corn-laws which he took office to maintain.]


I feel some difficulty in attempting to treat the question before the House, as there does not seem to be a good understanding of the position in which the House stands with regard to it. Different opinions have been expressed as to the object for which hon. Members have been sent here, and as to the nature of the late general election. It has been said that the elections were not a test of public opinion in reference to the monopolies, but merely in reference to the question of confidence in her Majesty's Ministers. That opinion has been expressed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tamworth (Sir R. Peel), and a disposition has been evinced by his followers to take it as his dictum. But we are not then sent here to represent monopoly, and strange would it be did the majority of this House authentically announce that they have been sent here for such a purpose by what is called the 'people of England.'


A recommendation has been made by the Executive to this House, advising us to set about the immediate reduction of taxation; and it is accompanied by an assurance that not only will that reduction not impair the revenue, but increase the resources of the national Exchequer. That, after all, is the nature of the message upon which the late Parliament was dissolved. But how can Gentlemen opposite, notwithstanding what has been said for them, come to this House to maintain taxation in all its inordinate vigour and mischievousness, because they wish for taxation in order to protect monopoly, as well as for the purposes of the State? It is really well that all people have not become enamoured of monopoly.


There is another difficulty in addressing the House on the present occasion. We are told that the question is not whether the Corn-laws shall be repealed or monopoly abated, but whether the amendment upon the Address shall be agreed to; and hon. Gentlemen opposite, in discussing that question, talked of the wars in Syria and China, and of the affairs of Canada and New York, but never once touched upon those questions which had been recommended to their consideration, and with a view to a diminution of the burdens of the people. But while I give hon. Gentlemen opposite credit for their discretion in excluding those important topics from the discussion, I see no reason why hon. Gentlemen on my side of the House, who feel that such questions as the Corn-laws are of greater interest to the people than the Chinese or Syrian wars, or any other remote subject of the kind, should not declare their views upon those questions; or why, if the speeches from my side of the House are to meet with no response on the other, we should not discharge our duty towards the people, and pay that respect and deference to her Majesty to which she is entitled, by calmly considering those questions and stating our opinions upon them. I believe it was customary, under the old régime, particularly with the Conservative party in this House, to treat the Speech from the Throne as something very nearly appertaining to monarchical dignity. I do not think it was customary, unless with very great reason, to drag in the Ministers of the day, but rather to respond to the Speech from the Throne as something connected with royal dignity, and entitled to that calm discussion which hon. Gentlemen opposite are not willing to accord to the most gracious and, since the time of Alfred, the most popular monarch of these realms.


It has been said that the people of England are not sincere in seeking for a total repeal of the food tax. With all sincerity, I declare that I am for the total repeal of those taxes which affect the price of bread and provisions of every description, and I will not allow it to be said without denying it, that the three millions of people who have petitioned the House for the total repeal of those taxes are not sincere in their prayer. What are those taxes upon food? They are taxes levied upon the great body of the people, and hon. Gentlemen opposite, who show such sympathy for the working classes after they have made them paupers, cannot deny my right to claim on their behalf that those taxes should be a primary consideration. I have heard them called protections; but taxes they are, and taxes they shall be in my mouth, as long as I have the honour of a seat in this House. The bread-tax is a tax primarily levied upon the poorer classes; it is a tax, at the lowest estimate, of 40 per cent. above the price we should pay if there were a free trade in corn. The report upon the handloom weavers puts down 10s. as the estimated weekly earnings of a family, and states that in all parts of the United Kingdom that will be found to be not an unfair estimate of the earnings of every labourer's family. It moreover states, that out of 10s. each family expends 5s. on bread. The tax of 40 per cent. is, therefore, a tax of 2s. upon every labouring man's family earning 10s. a week, or 20 per cent. upon their earnings. How does it operate as we proceed upwards in society? The man with 40s. a week pays an income-tax of 5 per cent.; the man of 250l. a year pays but 1 per cent.; and the nobleman, or millionaire, with an income of 200,000l. a year, and whose family consumes no more bread than that of the agricultural labourer, pays less than one halfpenny in every 100l. [Laughter.] I know not whether the laugh is at the monstrous character of the case, or the humble individual who states it; but I repeat that the tax upon the nobleman is less than one half-penny per cent., while upon the poor man's family it was 20l. per cent. I am sure there is not an hon. Member in the House who would dare to bring in a bill to levy an income-tax on all grades of society upon a scale similar to this, and yet I maintain that the bread-tax is such a tax, and is levied not for the purposes of the State, but for the benefit of the richest portion of the community. That is a fair statement of the tax upon bread. I can sympathise with the incredulity of hon. Gentlemen opposite, but if they knew the case as it really is, and felt it as they would if they did know it, they would also feel that they could not lie down to rest in comfort or safety if they voted for such a tax. With the exception of England and of Holland, in no country has any Government, however distressed, ever yet resorted to the monstrous injustice of levying a tax upon bread. Gentlemen will point to the laws affecting the importation of corn in France, Spain, and the United States of America; but in those countries they export corn upon an average, one year with another, and therefore no import duty could operate with them as with us.


But it is said that the working classes have some compensation—some protection extended to them by this law. Hon. Gentlemen on the other side have talked largely at the hustings of their determination to protect the poor; and the noble Lord (Stanley) opposite, at the election for North Lancashire, eagerly propounded this doctrine of protection. I have heard the noble Lord with my own ears; his case of protection to the labourer was that which I will now unfold. The noble Lord said that the manufacturers wanted to repeal the Corn-laws because they wanted to reduce the rate of wages; that, unless by the repeal of the bread-tax they reduced wages, they could not be better able to compete with foreigners; and that if they did, it could be no benefit to the working man. Let me remind the House, that the parties who have so patiently struggled for three years past for a hearing at your bar, have never been allowed to state their case; that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Charles Villiers)—for whose great and incessant services I, in common with millions of my fellow-countrymen, feel grateful—when he proposed that the case of those millions should be heard at the bar, had the proposition scouted and spurned; and that, when they had denied them a hearing, they proceeded to misrepresent their motives. I will state the case as given by the noble Lord himself. If he can be in error in appreciating the merits of the question, with all his brilliant talents, other hon. Gentlemen opposite will excuse me if I believe that they also are in error. The case was stated by the noble Lord thus:—Those who advocate a repeal of the Corn-laws have again and again announced that their object is to exchange the produce of their industry for the productions of all other countries, and that all duties for protection (so called) levied upon articles in the manufacture of which they are engaged, should be likewise removed, and a free and unfettered intercourse established between all the countries of the earth, as was clearly the design of nature. But we were told by the noble lord the Member for North Lancashire that this means the reduction of wages. If I know anything, it means increased trade, and the claim of a right, besides, to exchange our manufactures for the corn of all other countries, by which we should very much increase the extent of our trade. How can this be done, unless by an increased amount of labour? How can we call into requisition an increased demand for labour without also increasing the rate of wages?


Another prevailing fallacy was mixed up with the noble Lord's statement. The object, he said, was to reduce wages, so as to enable our manufacturers to compete with foreigners. I maintain that we do now compete with them; that we now sell our manufactures in neutral markets in competition with other countries; that we now sell them, in New York, for instance, in competition with all the other countries of the earth. You talk of protection to the home producer, but it should ever be remembered that it is the foreign market which fixes the price of the home market. Would any man think of sending to a distance of 3,000 miles articles for which he could find a better market at home? I see in this fallacy of wages that which is at the bottom of all the opposition to the repeal of the Corn-laws. There are many conscientious upholders of the present system who support them in the supposition that they maintain the rate of wages. I see no relation between the price of food, or of any other article of consumption, and the price of labour, in its wholesome, natural state. In Cuba, or in the slave-holding states of America, I can imagine the price of labour to be affected by the price of food. I can imagine the slave-holder sitting down and estimating the value of herrings and rice. In his case, the price of labour at his command is affected clearly by the price of provisions.


There is another stage in the labour market—I refer to labourers in the agricultural districts—where the amount of wages has reached the very minimum, according to their habits of life. These unfortunate men are told that their wages will rise as the price of provisions advances. Why? Is it because the high price of provisions increases the demand for labour, or is it done from pure charity? But I come to that state of the labour market under which—and God knows how long it will continue under such legislation—the various products of our manufacturing industry are called into existence, and there, I assert, without fear of contradiction, that the rate of wages has no more connection with the price of food than with the moon's changes. There it depends entirely on the demand for labour; there the price of food never becomes an ingredient in testing the value of labour. There the labour market is, happily, elastic, and will become more so, if you leave it unfettered. But if you continue to legislate in the spirit by which you have so long been animated, you will succeed at last in bringing our commercial and manufacturing population down to the same pitch to which you have reduced our agriculturists, and then these merchants and manufacturers may come forward and give alms to the wretched men in their employment; then it will perhaps be said that 'with the increase in the price of food arises an increase in the rate of wages.' It will be doled out as an alms, as a mere act of charity, and not because the working man, as a free agent, is entitled, in return for his labour, to a decent subsistence.


I will now dismiss the question of wages, though it is one which I must say should be again and again mooted in this House. I now come to the consideration of that all-important subject—the existing state of our manufacturing and agricultural labourers—which has already called forth your sympathy, and to which I must again direct your attention. I have lately had an opportunity of obtaining, by peculiar means, access to a report about the state of the labouring population in all parts of the country. A highly important Convocation was held in Manchester a week ago, consisting entirely of the ministers of religion. [Ironical cheers.] I understand those cheers. I will not pause in my statement of facts, but will say a word upon that subject when I have done. I have seen at Manchester a body of ministers of all religious persuasions—not 620, as has been stated, but 650 in number—assembled together from all parts of the country, at an expense of from 3,000l. to 4,000l., which was borne by their respective congregations. Those clergymen gathered, not from Yorkshire or Lancashire only—not from Derby or Cheshire only—but from every county of Great Britain—from Caithness to Cornwall,—and stated the most important facts relating to the labouring population in their various districts. I have had an opportunity of examining those statements. I will not trespass on the time and attention of the House by going into those statements in detail; but I will state generally, that, from both the manufacturing and agricultural districts, there was the most unimpeachable testimony that the condition of the great body of her Majesty's labouring subjects had deteriorated wofully within the last ten years, and more especially so within the three years last past; and furthermore, that in proportion as the price of the food of the people had increased, just so had their comforts been diminished. I have seen statements derived from the reports of infirmaries and workhouses, from savings' banks and prisons; and all alike bore testimony, clear and indubitable, that the condition of the great mass of her Majesty's subjects in the lower ranks of life is rapidly deteriorating; that they are now in a worse condition, and receiving less wages; and that their distress and misery result in a greater amount of disease, destitution, and crime than has ever been witnessed at any former period of the history of this country.


One word in reference to the jeers with which the mention of this Convocation has been received. I do not come here to vindicate the conduct of those Christian men in having assembled to take this momentous subject into their consideration. The parties who will more fitly judge them are their own congregations. At that Convocation we had members of the Established Church and of the Church of Rome, Independents, Baptists, members of the Church of Scotland, Seceders, Methodists, and every other denomination with which I am acquainted. If hon. Gentlemen are disposed to impugn the character of those reverend individuals, they will be at the same time casting a reproach and a stigma on the great body of dissenting Christians in this country.


It may be thought that these reverend persons were travelling out of their province. But when I heard these worthy men telling their tales of saddening misery—when I heard them state that members of their congregations would keep away from their places of worship in the morning, and steal out to the house of God at night, wrapped up in a cloak or an outside coat, when a shade was thrown over their misery—when I heard that others were unfitted to receive spiritual consolation because of their being so plunged in physical destitution; that the Sunday-schools were falling off, because their congregations could not attend—when I heard these things, and was further assured that the provisions monopoly is at the bottom of all the misery under which these poor people labour, I cannot conscientiously say that those ministers were out of their place. When they who sit in high places are oppressive and unjust to the poor, I am glad to see that there are men amongst us who, like Nathan of old, can be found to come forward and exclaim, 'Thou art the man!' The religious people of the country have revolted against the infamous injustice of that bread-tax, which is condemned by the immutable morality of the Scriptures. They have prepared and signed a petition to this House, in which they declare that these laws are a violation of the will of the Supreme Being, whose providence watches over His famishing children. You may rely upon it that the time abounds with momentous signs. It is not those 650 ministers only, but 1,500 ministers of the Gospel, whose letters have been read at the Manchester meeting, and who send up their prayers to Heaven daily and hourly that it may be the will of Him who rules both princes and potentates to turn their hearts to justice and mercy.


And now, having told you what has been done by these men, and in what spirit they have proceeded, we cannot for a moment doubt that these men were in earnest; neither can we doubt that these are men to make very efficient emissaries in this great cause. Remember what has been done in the Anti-Slavery question. Where is the difference between stealing a man and making him labour, on the one hand, or robbing voluntary labourers, on the other, of the fruits of their labour? The noble Lord opposite (Lord Stanley) knows something of the ability of these men to give efficacy to their strong convictions. When the noble Lord proposed his Emancipation Bill in 1833, he broadly stated, that from the moment that the religious community took up the question, from that moment it was settled. I believe that the result will be the same here.


Let me remind hon. Members of the qualities which pervade the minds of their countrymen. They have great deference for power and rank, and respect for wealth—perhaps too much; they have a most profound attachment to the laws and institutions of the country. But it must be remembered that there is another attribute peculiar to the minds of Englishmen—a veneration for sacred things, far beyond their deference to human authority. Once infringe upon that, and their respect for you and yours will vanish like chaff in the whirl-wind. What must be the feeling of the country when they find upon this occasion that the most kind, and benevolent, and generous recommendation of her Majesty, that you should take the Cornlaws into your wise consideration, with a view to relieving the heavy burdens under which her poor people suffer, of diminishing labour and insufficient food—what will be said by the country at large when they find this gracious recommendation from the Crown scouted and scorned by the majority of this House? What will be their feelings of indignation when they find a question of this magnitude treated as of secondary importance to the question whether a gentleman with a white hat, on that side, or a gentleman with a black hat, on this side of the House, shall hold the patronage of office? The people of this country will regard the transaction—if Parliamentary language will permit me to say so—as the most factious proceeding which has ever characterised the conduct of this House.


If I turn to a declaration made elsewhere—in a place which, in conformity with the rules of the House, I will not particularise—when I find an illustrious Duke stating that the condition of the labouring population in this country is enviable compared with that of any other population in Europe, and that every labouring man in this country, who has industry and sobriety to recommend him, can attain to a competence—what, I ask, will be the feelings of the country at large upon hearing such a declaration? Are hon. Gentlemen disposed to respond to that sentiment, and accept it as their own? Let them remember that about ten years since the same illustrious individual stated that the old borough-mongering Parliament, under which we then suffered, was the perfection of human wisdom. Yes; and I shall not be surprised if this doctrine of yesterday, meeting a similar and still more remarkable fate, may be the forerunner of a far greater change than that contemplated by her Majesty's Ministers.


Let me, before I sit down, say one word to the right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) opposite. I have heard some allusions made here to the opinions of Mr. Huskisson. The right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth is fond of appearing under the sanction of that distinguished statesman. I am most anxious that he should not fall into the error of appearing in his cast-off garments, and fancying himself arrayed in his mantle—that when he gives us the last will and testament of that distinguished statesman, he should know that an important codicil was added to that will, which I will now present him. I heard Mr. Huskisson's opinion in 1828 quoted. It is deeply to be lamented that after that period he sanctioned, by joining the Duke of Wellington's Administration, a line of policy to which he had strongly objected. But when he spoke last in the House on the subject of the Corn-laws, on the 25th of March, 1830, upon the occasion of Mr. Poulett Thomson's motion on the subject, Mr. Huskisson gave his opinion in these terms—'It is my distinct conviction that we cannot maintain the present Corn-laws, and at the same time maintain the permanent prosperity and prevalent contentment of the country. That these laws may be repealed without injury to our landed interests is my firm belief.' Here is the last codicil to the will of Huskisson. I protest in his name, in many respects illustrious, though not of uniform brightness, against the misrepresentation of his opinion. When Mr. Huskisson spoke in 1830—and I would strongly recommend the whole of that speech to hon. Members' attentive perusal—there was by no means the same amount of distress prevalent as that from which the country is now suffering, nor was there anything like the same gloom in her prospects. But if Mr. Huskisson spoke so despondingly then, what would he have said had he lived in 1841, and seen the accumulated difficulties under which the country now labours,—if, instead of the Bank of England, with 10,000,000l. or 12,000,000l. of treasure, and money in abundance at 3 per cent., he saw scarcely half that amount of treasure, and the interest raised to 5 per cent.? What would have been his opinion of the Corn-laws, had he lived to see all these things accomplished? I am earnestly impressed by a desire to record his solemn conviction on this subject.


The right hon. Baronet opposite possesses at this moment the power to do immense service to his country. Let the right hon. Baronet refer back to 1830, and consider what were then the circumstances of the country, compared with what they are now. What is the cause of our elevation from that prostration to which the country had fallen in 1830? It was clearly not a natural or legitimate trade which then sprung up. From 1831 to 1836 the increase of our exports, compared with our imports, amounted to 20,000,000l. official value. But all these goods were sent to America, where they were neither sold nor consumed, but despatched in exchange for bank and railway shares, and State bonds. That is not legitimate trade; it is over-speculation; the goods are not paid for.


It should be borne in mind, too, that from the period of 1831 to 1836 there was an extension of the banking system in this country, increasing the number of banks by nearly 100, and extending their capital by nearly 60,000,000l. The increase of the export and home trade thus factitiously created, accompanied with a fortuitous series of unexampled harvests, created a state of prosperity which enabled the Government of the day to move tranquilly on in carrying the Reform Bill and amending the Poor-law; but it was a fictitious prosperity.


Has the right hon. Baronet, then, any plan—I will not ask him to divulge it at present—but has he any plan by which, in 1841, he can raise up a real prosperity in the country? If not, can he hope even to raise up a factitious prosperity? If so, it will only lead to a recoil which will be infinitely more disastrous than that under which we are now suffering.


Thank God, Ministers in this country require money, and glad I am that they cannot get it but through the prosperity of the trading and manufacturing interests. The landholder who spends his money in Paris or Naples cannot find revenue for the Minister. The revenue flourishes when the trading and commercial community are prosperous, and when the farmers are crying out under excessive distress; and, on the other hand, just in proportion as the land-owner feels prosperous on account of the starvation of the millions, the revenue of the State falls off.


Having made these few remarks, though not, I must be allowed to say, in a party spirit (for I call myself neither Whig nor Tory; I am a free-trader, and such I shall always be ready to avow myself), I have only, in conclusion, to observe, that while I am proud to acknowledge the virtue of the Whig Ministry in coming out from the ranks of the monopolists, and advancing three parts out of four towards my own position, yet, if the right hon. Baronet opposite advances one step farther, I will be the first to meet half way and shake hands with him.

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