Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
Really I, who have almost lived in public meetings for the last three years, feel well nigh daunted at this astonishing spectacle. Is there any friend or acquaintance of the Duke of Richmond here? If there be, I hope he will describe to his Grace this scene in Covent Garden Theatre to-night. I do not know how he may be impressed, but I am quite sure that if the Duke of Richmond could call such a meeting as this—ay, even one—in the metropolis, I should abandon in despair all hope of repealing the Corn-laws. But this is only one of many; and when we look back at the numerous gatherings we have had of a similar kind, and when we remember that not one discordant opinion, violation of order, or even breach of etiquette, has occurred at any of our meetings,—why, there is an amount of moral force about these great assemblages which I think it is impossible for any unjust law long to resist.
I appear before you to-night as a kind of connecting link—and a very short one—between two gentlemen who have not so recently presented themselves here as I have: the one (Mr. Milner Gibson) a most able and efficient fellow-labourer in the House of Commons, whose speech you have just heard; and the other (Mr. W. J. Fox) one of the most distinguished and accomplished orators of the age, who will follow me; and I promise you, that, on this occasion, I shall endeavour, in deference to your feelings and in justice to myself, to be very brief in my remarks. Indeed I scarcely know that I should have had any pretence for appearing before you at all, had it not been that we are now preparing for our Parliamentary campaign, and probably, unless I took this occasion, it would be some time before I should have a similar opportunity. And, as we are preparing for our Parliamentary labours, it may be as well, if we can possibly dive into futurity, to try to speculate, at least, upon what the course of proceeding may be, in connection with our question.
Now, I think I can venture, without any great risk of failure, to tell you what will be the course which the Prime Minister will pursue on this question. He will attempt his old arts of mystification. He has acquired somehow, we are told, a great character as a 'financier.' Well, that is a distinction which, amongst men of business, does not place a person always on the very highest grade of respectability. 'A clever financier!' 'He has put the revenue of the country in a satisfactory state!' Yes, he has done so; and how? Why—I hope, to your satisfaction, through the medium of the income-tax. We, as Free-traders, have nothing to do with fiscal regulations here, nor with systems of taxation for revenue; but as I foresee that it will be the policy of the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, to raise a dust, shuffle the cards, and mix up revenue, taxation, and Free Trade together, I think we cannot do better than begin this year 1845, even at the risk of repetition, by letting the country know what we, the Anti-Corn-law League, really want, and that we are not to be made parties to this or that system of taxation, inasmuch as we ask for nothing which involves any change of taxation of any kind.
I have said again and again—and I reiterate the statement—that Free Trade means the removal of all protective duties, which are monopoly taxes, paid to individuals, and not to the Government; and that, in order to carry out our principle of Free Trade, to realise all the League wants, and to dissolve our association to-morrow, it does not require that one shilling of taxation should be removed, which goes solely to the Queen's exchequer; but that it will increase the national revenue in proportion as you take away those taxes which we now pay to classes and to individuals. We are told that there is a surplus of revenue; and there is a great boast made of it. The income-tax has been productive. Those men with sharp noses, and ink-bottles at their buttons,—who have gone prying about your houses and at your back-doors, to learn how many dinner-parties you give in a year, and to examine and cross-examine your cooks and foot-boys as to what your style of living may be,—these men have managed to make a very respectable surplus revenue. Now, there seems to be a great contest among different parties who is to have this surplus revenue; that is, what are the taxes which are to be removed? The parties dealing in cotton goods say, 'We must have the tax taken off cotton-wool?' another class says, 'We want the tax off malt;' and a third party steps in and says, 'Let us have half the duty taken off tea.' But, although there may be many parties wanting a reduction of taxes, you do not find any class of the community organising themselves against taking off any one tax. Then, how is it that we, who simply desire to remove the tax on bread, meet with such a mighty opposition in the land? Why, because, as I have just said, the tax that we pay on bread is a tax that goes to the tithe and the landowner, and not to Queen Victoria. Do you think it will do us any more harm to take off a tax that is paid to the squires, that to take off one which goes to her Majesty's exchequer? It seems to be a principle universally admitted, that when you come to reduce a tax paid to the Queen, it will be a benefit to the community at large—the only question being which party shall get the most; but when you propose to reduce the duty on bread, a thousand imaginary dangers are immediately raised.
Talk to a gentleman about the bread-tax, and he says, 'That is a very complicated question.' Speak about that other ingredient of the tea-table—tea—and there is not a gentleman, or gentlewoman, who will not say immediately, 'I think it would be a very good thing indeed to reduce the tax on tea.' Propose the removal of the tax on bread, and visions of innumerable dangers rise up directly. 'Why,' it is said, 'you want to lower the wages of the working man, and to make us dependent for food on foreigners' Take the case of sugar: we, as Free-traders, do not desire to diminish the Queen's revenue on that article; we simply want to bring the tax down to a level with the colonial impost on sugar, that we may have the same duty paid on all, and that the whole proceeds shall go to the Queen, and none of it to the owners of estates in the West Indies. Nobody opposes the reduction of duty on sugar, so far as the Queen gets it; but if we propose to take away the tax for the protection of the colonial interest, as it is called, we have a powerful body arrayed against us, and all the same dangers apprehended which we find alleged in the case of bread. Gentlemen, this may serve to illustrate very clearly, to those who are not in the habit of reasoning upon these matters very closely, what our object really is. We propose to reduce the taxes paid to monopolists; and I put it to any person whether it can be less injurious to the country to pay taxes to individuals who make no return in the shape of services to the State—who neither provide army nor navy, nor support police, church, or any other establishment—to pay taxes to these irresponsible individuals, than to the Queen's Government, which makes some return for them? What I wish to guard ourselves against is this—that Sir Robert Peel shall not mix up our question of Free Trade with his dexterity in finance. If he likes to shift the cards, and make an interchange between tea, cotton, tobacco, malt, and the income-tax, and ply one interest against the other, it is all very well; let him do so; it may suit his purpose as a feat in the jngglery of statesmanship. But let it be understood that we have nothing to do with all this mystification and shuffling. Ours is a very simple and plain proposition. We say to the right hon. 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 that he will make great professions of being a Free-trader notwithstanding.
Oh! I am more afraid of our friends being taken in by plausibilities and mystifications than anything else. I wish we had the Duke of Richmond or his Grace of Buckingham in power for twelve months, that they might be compelled to avow what they really want, and let us have a perfect understanding upon the matter. We should not then be long before we achieved the object of our organisation. Sir Robert Peel will meet Parliament under circumstances which may perhaps call for congratulation in the Queen's speech. Manufactures and commerce are thriving, and the revenue is flourishing. Was that ever known when corn was at an immoderately high price? The present state of our finances and manufactures is an illustration of the truth of the Free-trade doctrines. As the chairman has told you, I have been, during the last two months, paying a visit to nearly all the principal towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and have seen much prosperity prevailing in those places, where, four years ago, the people were plunged in the greatest distress; and I am glad to tell you that I have everywhere met larger and more enthusiastic meetings than I did in the time of the greatest crisis of distress. We have passed through that trying ordeal which I had always dreaded as the real and difficult test of this agitation; I mean the period when the manufactures of this country regained a temporary prosperity. We are proof against that trial; we have had larger, more enthusiastic, and more influential meetings than ever we had before; and I am happy to tell you, that, so far as the north of England goes, the present state of prosperity in business is merely having the effect of recruiting the funds of the Anti-Corn law League.
There is not a working man in the manufacturing districts who has not his eyes opened to the enormous falsehoods which have been told by the monopolists during the last four or five years. You know that the operatives do not deal learnedly in books: they are not all of them great theorists, or philosophers; but they have, nevertheless, a lively faith in what passes under their own noses. These men have seen the prices of provisions high, and they have then found pauperism and starvation in their streets; they have seen them low, and have found the demand for labour immediately increase, and wages rising in every district of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and a state of things prevailing the very opposite of that which was told them by the monopolists. In fact, in some businesses the men now have their employers so completely at their mercy, that they can dictate their own terms to them. We have heard of one gentleman in the north—not one of the Leaguers, but a large employer of labour—who remarked, 'My hands will only work four days a-week now; if we have free trade in corn, and business is as prosperous as you say it would then be, I should not be able to manage them at all.'
I was at Oldham the other day, and, during our proceedings at a public meeting in the Town-hall, a working man rose in the body of the assembly, and begged to say a few words upon the subject for which we were convened; and his statement put the whole question as to the effect of high and low prices on the wages of the operative into so clear a form, that I begged it might be taken down; and I will now give it you verbatim as he delivered it. I think it is the whole secret given in the compass of a nutshell:—
'Joseph Shaw, a working man, in the body of the meeting, said:—Mr. Chairman and gentlemen, I rise for the purpose of making a few remarks on the subject of the Corn-laws. I have but once before spoken before a Member of Parliament, viz. Mr. Hindley, at a public meeting at Lees. I have spoken once at Ashton and Saddleworth, but never before in Oldham. I have thought on the subject of the Corn-laws for the last twenty years and more, and I have ever seen great reason to condemn them. As there is no probability that I shall ever see Sir Robert Peel, as he never comes down into this neighbourhood, and I being not able to bear the expense of going to London, I wish you (addressing Mr. Cobden) to be so kind as to tell him what you have heard a working man say on the subject of the Corn-laws in a large and respectable public meeting in the town of Oldham. I am now and have been long of opinion that the Corn-laws are very injurious to the working classes, and I will tell you how I prove it. I have been in the habit of observing that when the prices of food have been high, wages have been low, which sufficiently accounts for the dreadful state of Stockport and the other manufacturing towns and districts two or three years since. At that time, when wheat was up to about 70s. a quarter, the working man would have 25s. per quarter to pay for it more than now when it is down to 45s., and consequently would have 25s. less to lay out for clothing and other necessaries for his comfort during the time he was consuming a quarter of wheat. I have further to state that, since the prices of eatables have come down, I have seen a deal more new fustian jackets in our village of Lees than I have seen for four or five years during the time of high prices; and I will also tell you how I account for that. When provisions are high, the people have so much to pay for them that they have little or nothing left to buy clothes with; and when they have little to buy clothes with, there are few clothes sold; and when there are few clothes sold, there are too many to sell; and when there are too many to sell, they are very cheap; and when they are very cheap, there cannot be much paid for making them: and that, consequently, the manufacturing working man's wages are reduced, the mills are shut up, business is ruined, and general distress is spread through the country. But when, as now, the working man has the said 25s. left in his pocket, he buys more clothing with it (ay, and other articles of comfort too), and that increases the demand for them, and the greater the demand, you know, makes them rise in price, and the rising in price enables the working man to get higher wages and the masters better profits. This, therefore, is the way I prove that high provisions make lower wages, and cheap provisions make higher wages. (Cheers.)
Now, it is not possible that there can be one intelligent man like this, rising up in a public meeting, and giving so clear a view of the workings of this system, without there being a tolerable share of intelligence among his fellowworkmen in that neighbourhood. One by one these fallacies of our opponents have been by the course of experience cut from under the feet of the monopolists. Now, I do not see that we can do better, at the beginning of the year, than reiterate the grounds on which we advocate our principles, and state again what our profession of faith is. The gentlemen below me, with their pens in their hands, may drop them for the present, for I have stated them over and over again. We do not want free trade in corn to reduce wages; if we, the manufacturers (I speak now of them 3s a class, but the observation applies to all), wanted to reduce wages, we should keep up the Corn-law, because the price of labour is the lowest when the corn is highest. We do not want it to enable us to compete with foreigners; we do that already. You do not suppose that the Chinese give the manufacturer or merchant who comes from England a higher price for his goods than they will to any other people. Suppose one of the manufacturers who votes for the Corn-law here, sent out his goods to China, and said—'You will give us a little higher price for our longcloths than you give to these Germans or Americans, for we have a Corn-law in England, and I always vote for that side which keeps up the bread-tax; and I hope, therefore, you will give me a higher price.' What would the man with a pigtail say? He would reply, 'If you are such blockheads as to submit to have your bread taxed in your own land, we are not such fools as to give you a higher price for your longcloths than we can get them at from the Germans and Americans.' You compete with foreigners now; and all we say is, that you will be able to do so better if you have your bread at the same price as your competitors have. Then the object of free trade in corn is simply this—to have more trade; and the Oldham operative has shown you how more trade will raise wages. We want increased trade, and that in the articles which will minister most to the comfort of the working man. Every cargo of corn which comes in from abroad in exchange for manufactured goods, or anything else—for you cannot get it unless you pay for it with the produce of labour—will serve the working man in two ways. In the first place, he will eat the corn which is thus imported; inasmuch as we of the middle, and those of the upper classes, already get as much as we require, and the poor must eat it, or it will not be consumed at all. But it must be paid for as well as eaten; and therefore every cargo of corn that comes to England will benefit the working men in two ways. They and their families must eat it all; and it can only be paid for by an increased demand for their labour, and that will raise their wages, whilst it moderates the price of their provisions. Doubtless it will also be of advantage to other portions of the community, but it can only benefit them through the working class—that is, through those who now do not get enough to eat.
Then we have the farmer's objection to meet, and he says: 'If you bring in foreign corn, for every quarter of corn that you so import, we shall have a market for one quarter less in England.' That statement proceeds upon the old assumption, that the people of this country are now sufficiently fed. The middle classes, I admit, have enough; and a great many of the upper classes get much more than is good for them; but the working men of this land,—and in that term I include the Irish, Welsh, Scotch, and the agricultural poor of England,—I maintain that all these are not half fed: I mean to say they are not half as well fed as the class to which I belong, nor as the working classes are in the United States of America. I have seen them on both sides of the Atlantic, and I will vouch for the fact We have all heard of the anecdote of the Irishman in Kentucky: the poor fellow had gone out to America; he did not know how to write, and he asked his master to write a letter for him. He began it thus:—'Dear Murphy, I am very happy and comfortable, and I have meat once a-day.' His master said—'What do you mean? Why, you can have meat three times a-day, and more if you like.' 'Ah, sure! your honour, that's true; but they will not believe it at all, at all.' Now, why should not the working people of this country be allowed to have as much meat and bread, if they can get it by the produce of their industry, as the people of America enjoy? It is a hard penalty to be obliged to send 3, 000 miles for food; but it is an atrocity—ay, a fearful violation of Nature's law—if, in addition to that natural penalty which the Creator himself has imposed upon us, of sending across the Atlantic for a sufficient supply of food, men—the owners of the soil in this country—step in, place obstacles in the way, and prevent the poorest people in the land from having that food which their fellow-creatures 3,000 miles off are willing to send them. Then let the people be sufficiently fed, and the introduction of more corn, cattle, butter, and cheese, will not hurt the farmer in this country. We of the middle classes, who now eat his good provisions, and those who are now sufficiently fed, will continue to be his customers; and all we say is, let those who now do not obtain enough, get it from abroad in exchange for the produce of their own honest labour.
The reduction of duty on wool is an illustration of the truth of what I am now saying. During the last year there have been about twenty million pounds weight more of foreign and colonial wool brought into this country than there was the year before; the penny duty was abolished totally and immediately, and here is this vast influx of that article from abroad: and yet the farmers of this country have been getting from twenty to thirty per cent. more for their home-grown wool than they did previously. Now, why is this? Simply because the extension and prosperity of our manufactures have gone on even in a greater ratio than this largely-increased importation of wool. So I maintain that, if you will give freedom to the commerce of this country, and let loose the energies of the people, their ability to consume corn and provisions brought from abroad will increase faster than the quantity imported, whatever it may be. I really feel almost ashamed to reiterate these truisms to you; but that they are necessary, the present position of our question proves. Gentlemen, my firm conviction is, that this measure cannot be carried in-doors within the House of Commons; that the next session of Parliament will see no progress made by that body. We, Free-traders, there, may expose their utter futility in argument—make them ridiculous, cover them with disgrace, in debate; they may talk such stuff that children would be ashamed of out of the House of Commons; but they will, notwithstanding, vote for the Corn-law. Yes, it will be like drawing the kid out of the maw of the wolf, to extort the repeal of that law from the landowners of this country.
I remember quite well, five years ago, when we first came up to Parliament to petition the Legislature, a certain noble earl, who had distinguished himself previously by advocating a repeal of the Corn-laws, called upon us at Brown's Hotel. The committee of the deputation had a private interview with him, during which he asked us what we came to petition for? We replied, for the total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws. His answer was, 'My belief is, that the present Parliament would not pass even a 12s. fixed duty; I am quite sure they would not pass a 10s.; but as for the total repeal of the Corn-law, you may as well try to overturn the monarchy as to accomplish that object.' I do not think any one would go so far as to tell us that now; I do not suppose that, if you were to go to Tattersall's, 'Lord George' would offer you very long odds that this law will last five years longer. We have done something to shake the old edifice, but it will require a great deal of battering yet to bring it down about the ears of its supporters. It will not be done in the House; it must be done out of it. Neither will it be effected with the present constituency; you must enlarge it first. I have done something towards that end since I last saw you. I have assisted in bringing four or five thousand new 'good men and true' into the electoral list—four or five thousand that we know of in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire; and I believe there are five or ten times as many more throughout the country, who have taken the hint we gave them of getting possession of the electoral franchise for the counties. Some people tell you that it is very dangerous and unconstitutional to invite people to enfranchise themselves by buying a freehold qualification. I say, without being revolutionary or boasting of being more democratic than others, that the sooner the power in this country is transferred from the landed oligarchy, which has so misused it, and is placed absolutely—mind, I say 'absolutely'—in the hands of the intelligent middle and industrious classes, the better for the condition and destinies of this country.
I hope that every man who has the ability to possess himself of the franchise for a county, will regard it as his solemn and sacred duty to do so before the 31st of this month. Recollect what it is we ask you to do: to take into your own hands the power of doing justice to twenty-seven millions of people! When Watt presented himself before George III., the old monarch asked him what article he made; and the immortal inventor of the steam-engine replied, 'Your Majesty, I make that which kings are fond of—power.' Now, we seek to create a higher power in England, by inducing our fellow-countrymen to place themselves upon the electoral list in the counties. We must have not merely the boroughs belonging to the people; but give the counties to the towns, which are their right; and not the towns to the counties, as they have been heretofore. There is not a father of a family, who has it at all in his power, but ought to place at the disposal of his son the franchise for a county; no, not one. It should be the parent's first gift to his son, upon his attaining the age of twenty. There are many ladies, I am happy to say, present; now, it is a very anomalous and singular fact, that they cannot vote themselves, and yet that they have a power of conferring votes upon other people. I wish they had the franchise, for they would often make a much better use of it than their husbands. The day before yesterday, when I was in Manchester (for we are brought up now to interchange visits with each other by the miracle of steam in eight hours and a half), a lady presented herself to make inquiries how she could convey a freehold qualification to her son, previous to the 31st of this month; and she received due instructions for the purpose. Now, ladies who feel strongly on this question—who have the spirit to resent the injustice that is practised on their fellow-beings—cannot do better than make a donation of a county vote to their sons, nephews, grandsons, brothers, or any one upon whom they can beneficially confer that privilege. The time is short; between this and the 31st of the month, we must induce as many people to buy new qualifications as will secure the representation of Lancashire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Middlesex. I will guarantee the West Riding of Yorkshire and Lancashire; will you do the same by Middlesex?
I am quite sure you will do what you can, each in his own private circle. This is a work which requires no gift of oratory, or powerful public appeals; it is a labour in which men can be useful privately and without ostentation. If there be any in this land who have seen others enduring probably more labour than their share, and feel anxious to contribute what they can to this good cause, let them take up this movement of qualifying for the counties; and in their several private walks do their best to aid us in carrying out this object. We have begun a new year, and it will not finish our work; but whether we win this year, the next, or the year after, in the mean time we are not without our consolations. When I think of this most odious, wicked, and oppressive system, and reflect that this nation—so renowned for its energy, independence, and spirit—is submitting to have its bread taxed, its industry crippled, its people—the poorest in the land—deprived of the first necessaries of life, I blush that such a country should submit to so vile a degradation. It is, however, consolation to me, and I hope it will be to all of you, that we do not submit to it without doing our best to put an end to the iniquity.
Return to top