Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
[On March 13, 1845, Mr. Cobden moved for a Select Committee to inquire into the causes and extent of the alleged agricultural distress, and into the effects of legislative protection upon the interests of landowners, tenant-farmers, and farm-labourers. This motion was opposed on the part of the Government by Mr. Sidney Herbert, on the ground that several such Committees had sat, and had never led to any useful result. The motion was lost by a majority of 92 (121 to 213).]
I am relieved on this occasion from any necessity to apologise to the other side of the House for this motion having emanated from myself; for I expressed a hope, when I gave my notice, that the subject would be taken up by some one of the hon. Members opposite. I hope, therefore, that in any reply which may be offered to the observations I am about to submit to the consideration of the House, I shall not hear, as I did in the last year, that this motion comes from a suspicious quarter. I will also add, that I have so arranged its terms as to include in it the objects embraced in both the amendments of which notice has been given (Mr. Woodhouse's. and Mr. S. O'Brien's), and therefore I conclude that the hon. Members who have given those notices will not think it necessary to press them, but rather will concur in this motion. Its object is the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the condition of the agricultural interests, with a view to ascertain how far the law affecting the importation of agricultural produce has affected those interests.
Now, that there is distress among the farmers I presume cannot be established upon higher authority than that of those who profess to be 'the farmers' friends.' I learn from those hon. Gentlemen who have been paying their respects to the Prime Minister, that the agriculturists are in a state of great embarrassment and distress. I find one gentleman from Norfolk, Mr. Hudson, stating that the farmers in Norfolk are paying rents out of capital; while Mr. Turner from Devonshire assured the right hon. Baronet (Sir R. Peel) that one half of the smaller farmers in that county are insolvent, that the other half is rapidly hastening to the same condition, and that, unless some remedial measures are adopted by the House, they will be plunged into irretrievable poverty. These accounts from those counties agree with what I hear from other sources, and I will put it to hon. Members opposite whether the condition of the farmers in Suffolk, Wiltshire, and Hampshire is any better. I will put it to county Members whether, looking to the whole of the south of England, from the confines of Nottinghamshire to the Land's End, the farmers are not in a state of embarrassment—whether, as a rule, that is not their condition. Then, according to every precedent in the House, this is a fit and proper time to bring forward this motion; and I will venture to say, that if the Duke of Buckingham had a seat in this House, he would do what he, as Lord Chandos, did—move such a resolution.
The distress of the farmer being admitted, the next question that arises is, What is the cause of this distress? Now, I feel the greater necessity for a committee of inquiry, because I find a great discrepancy of opinion as to the cause. One right hon. Gentleman has said that the distress is local, and moreover that it does not arise from legislation; while the hon. Member for Dorsetshire (Mr. Bankes) declared that it is general, and that it does arise from legislation. I am at a loss, indeed, to understand what this protection to agriculture means, because I find such contradictory accounts given in this House by the promoters of it. For instance, nine months ago the hon. Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Villiers) brought forward his motion for the repeal of the Corn-laws; and the right hon. Gentleman then at the head of the Board of Trade (Mr. Gladstone) stated in reply to him, that the last Corn-law had been most successful in its operation, and he took great credit to the Government for the steadiness of price obtained under it. As these things were so often disputed, it is as well to give the quotation. The right hon. Gentleman said,—
'Was there any man who had supported the law in the year 1842, who could honestly say that he had been disappointed in its working? Could any one point out a promise or a prediction hazarded in the course of the protracted debates upon the measure, which promise or prediction had been subsequently falsified?'
Now, let the House recollect that the right hon. Gentleman was speaking when wheat was 56s. 8d.; but wheat is at present 45s. The right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government said that his legislation on the subject had nothing to do with wheat being 45s.; but how is the difficulty to be got over, that the head of the Board of Trade, nine months ago, claimed merit to the Government for having kept up wheat to that price? These discrepancies in the Government itself, and between the Government and its supporters, render it more necessary that this 'protection' should be inquired into.
I must ask, What does it mean? We have prices now at 45s. I have been speaking within the last week to the highest authority in England—one often quoted in this House—and I learned from him that, with another favourable harvest, it was quite likely that wheat would be at 35s. What does this legislation mean, if we are to have prices fluctuating from 56s. to 35s.? Can this be prevented by legislation? That is the question. There is a rank delusion spread abroad among the farmers; and it is the duty of the House to dispel that delusion, and to institute an inquiry into the matter.
But there is a difference of opinion on my own side of the House, and some Members, representing great and powerful interests, think the farmers are suffering because they have this legislative protection. This difference of opinion makes the subject a fit and proper one for inquiry in a Committee; and I am prepared to bring evidence before it, to show that farmers are labouring under great evils—evils that I can connect with the Corn-laws, though they appear to be altogether differently caused.
The first great evil they labour under is a want of capital. No one can deny it; it is notorious. I do not say it disparagingly of the farmers. The farmers of this country are just of the same race as the rest of Englishmen, and, if placed in the same situation, would be as successful men of business and traders and manufacturers as their countrymen; but it is notorious, as a rule, that they are deficient in capital. Hon. Gentlemen acquainted with farming will probably admit that 10l. an acre, on arable land, is a competent capital for carrying on the business of farming successfully; but I have made many inquiries in all parts of the kingdom, and I give it as my decided conviction, that at the present moment the farmers' capital does not average 5l. an acre, taking the whole of England south of the Trent, and including all Wales. Though, of course, there are exceptions in every county—men of large capital—men farming their own land—I am convinced that this is true, as a rule, and I am prepared to back my opinion by witnesses before a Committee. Here, then, is a tract of country comprehending probably 20,000,000 of cultivable acres, and 100,000,000l. more capital is wanted for its cultivation.
What is the meaning of 'farming capital'? It means more manuring, more labour, more cattle, larger crops. But let us fancy a country in which there is a deficiency of all those things which ought to be there, and then guess what must be the condition of the labourers wanting employment and food. It may be said that capital would be there, if it were a profitable investment. I admit it; and thus the question comes to be,—How is it, that in a country overflowing with capital—where there is a plethora in every other business—where every other pursuit is abounding with money—when money is going to France for railroads, and to Pennsylvania for bonds-when it is connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific by canals, and diving to the bottom of Mexican mines for investment—it yet finds no employment in the most attractive of all spots, the soil of this country itself?
Admitting the evil, with all its train of fearful consequences, what is the cause of it? There can be no doubt whatever,—it is admitted by the highest authorities, that the cause is this,—there was not security for capital on the land. Capital shrinks instinctively from insecurity of tenure, and we have not in England that security which will warrant men of capital investing their money in the soil. Is it not a matter worthy of consideration, how far this insecurity of tenure is bound up with the 'protection' system of which hon. Members opposite are so enamoured? Suppose it could be shown that they are in a vicious circle; that they have made politics of Corn-laws; that they wanted voters, to retain Corn-laws; that they think the Corn-laws a great mine of wealth, and therefore will have dependent tenants, that they may have votes at elections, and so retain those laws. If they will have dependent voters, they cannot have men of spirit and of capital. Then their policy reacts upon them; if they have not men of skill and capital, they cannot have protection and employment for the labourer; and then comes round the vicious termination—pauperism, poor-rates, county-rates, and all the evils from which they are asking the Prime Minister to relieve them.
But here I have to quote authorities, and I shall quote some of the highest consideration with the opposite side of the House. I will just state the opinion of the hon. Member for Berkshire (Mr. Pusey), delivered at the meeting of the Suffolk Agricultural Society. That hon. Gentleman said:—
'He knew this country well, and he knew there was not a place from Plymouth to Berwick in which the landlords might not make improvements; but when the tenant was short of money, the landlord generally would be short of money too. But he would tell them how to find funds. There were many districts where there was a great superfluity not only of useless but of mischievous timber; and if they would cut that down which excluded the sun and air, and fed on the soil, and sell it, they would benefit the farmer by cutting it down, and they would benefit the farmer and labourer too by laying out the proceeds in under-draining the soil. There was another mode in which they might find money. He knew that on some properties a large sum was spent in the preservation of game. It was not at all unusual for the game to cost 500l. or 600l. a-year; and if this were given up, the money would employ a hundred able-bodied labourers in improving the property. This was another fund for the landlords of England to benefit the labourers, and the farmers at the same time.'
Again, at the Colchester agricultural meeting—
'Mr. Fisher Hobbes was aware that a spirit of improvement was abroad. Much was said about the tenant-farmers doing more. He agreed they might do more: the soil of the country was capable of greater production; if he said one-fourth more, he should be within compass. But that could not be done by the tenant-farmer alone; they must have confidence; it must be done by leases—by draining—by extending the length of fields—by knocking down hedge-rows, and clearing away trees which now shielded the corn.'
But there was still higher authority. At the late meeting at Liverpool, Lord Stanley declared—
'I say, and as one connected with the land I feel myself bound to say it, that a landlord has no right to expect any great and permanent improvement of his land by the tenant, unless that tenant be secured the repayment of his outlay, not by the personal character or honour of his landlord, but by a security which no casualties can interfere with—the security granted him by the terms of a lease for years.'
Not only does the want of security prevent capital from flowing to the soil, but it actually hinders the improvement of the land by those who already occupy it. There are many tenants who could improve their land if they were made secure; they either have capital themselves, or their friends can advance it; but with the want of leases, with the want of security, they are deterred from laying out their money. Everything was kept 'from year to year.' It is impossible to farm properly unless money is invested in land for more than a year. A man ought to begin farming with a prospect of waiting eight years before he can see a return for what he must do in the first year or two. Tenants, therefore, are prevented by their landlords from carrying on cultivation properly. They are made servile and dependent, disinclined to improvement, afraid to let the landlord see that they could improve their farms, lest he should pounce on them for an increase of rent. The hon. Member for Lincolnshire (Mr. Christopher) is offended at these expressions; what said that hon. Member on the motion of the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Gibson) last year on agricultural statistics?—
'It was most desirable for the farmer to know the actual quantity of corn grown in this country, as such knowledge would insure steadiness of prices, which was infinitely more valuable to the agriculturist than fluctuating prices. But to ascertain this there was extreme difficulty. They could not leave it to the farmer to make a return of the quantity which he produced, for it was not for his interest to do so. If in any one or two years he produced four quarters per acre on land which had previously grown but three, he might fear lest his landlord would say, "Your land is more productive than I imagined, and I must therefore raise your rent." The interest of the farmers, therefore, would be to underrate, and to furnish low returns.'
Here is a little evidence of the same kind that is to be gathered from the meeting of the South Devon Agricultural Association, where the Rev. C. Johnson said,—
'He knew it had been thought that landlords were ready to avail themselves of such associations, on account of the opportunity it afforded them of diving into their tenants' affairs and opening their eyes. An instance of this occurred to him at a recent ploughing match, where he met a respectable agriculturist whom he well knew, and asked him if he was going to it. He said, "No." "Why?" Because he did not approve of such things. This "why" produced another "why," and the man gave a reason why: Suppose he sent a plough and man, with two superior horses; the landlord at once would say, "This man is doing too well on my estate," and increase the rent.'
I will ask the landed gentry of England what state of things is this, that the farmer dares not appear to have a good pair of horses, or to derive four quarters where the land had formerly produced only three. Hon. Members cheer, but I ask, is it not so? I must say, that the condition of things indicated by those two quotations brings the farmer very near down in point of servility to the ryot of the East. The one takes the utmost care to conceal the amount of his produce; the other suffers the bastinado, rather than tell how much corn is grown. The tenant, indeed, is not afraid of the bastinado, but he is kept in fear of a distress for rent.
This is the state of tenant-farming without a lease, and in England a lease is the exception and not the rule. But even sometimes, when there is a lease or agreement, the case is still worse, for the clauses and covenants are of such an obsolete and preposterous character, that I will defy any man to carry on the business of farming properly under them. I will just read a passage from a Cheshire lease—an actual lease—to show in what sort of way the tenant-farmer is bound down:—
'To pay the landlord 20l. for every statute acre of ground, and so in proportion for a less quantity, that shall be converted into tillage, or used contrary to the appointment before made; and 5l. for every hundredweight of hay, thrave of straw, load of potatoes, or cartload of manure, that shall be sold or taken from the premises during the term; and 10l. for every tree fallen, cut down, or destroyed, cropped, lopped, or topped, or willingly suffered so to be; and 20l. for every servant or other person so hired or admitted as to gain a settlement in the township; and 10l. per statute acre, and so in proportion for a less quantity of the said land, which the tenant shall lot off or underlet, such sums to be paid on demand after every breach, and in default of payment to be considered as reserved rent, and levied by distress and sale, as rent in arrear may be levied and raised; and to do six days' boon team work whenever called upon; and to keep for the landlord one dog, and one cock or hen; and to make no marlpit without the landlord's consent first obtained in writing, after which the same is to be properly filled in; nor to allow any inmate to remain on the premises after six days' notice; nor to keep nor feed any sheep, except such as are used for the consumption of the family.
What is such an instrument as this? I will tell the House what it is. It is a trap for un wary men—a barrier against capital and intelligence, and a fetter to any free man. No one can farm under such a lease. The hon. Member for Shoreham (Sir C. Burrell) cheered; but if hon. Members would look into their own leases, though there may not be the 'cocks and hens, and dogs,' and probably not the 'team-work,' they will find almost as great absurdities. These documents are generally taken from old dusty, antediluvian remains, that some lawyer's clerk drew from a pigeon-hole, and copied out for every in-coming tenant; something that had been in existence perhaps for five hundred years. You give men no credit for being able to discover any improvements; in fact, you tie them down from improving; you go upon the assumption that there will be no improvement, and do your best to prevent it. I do not know why we should not have leases of land upon terms similar to those in leases of manufactories, and places of business; nor do I think farming can be carried on as it ought to be until then. A man may take a manufactory, and pay 1,000l. a year for it. An hon. Member near me pays more than 4,000l. a-year rent for his manufactory and machinery. Does he covenant as to the manner in which that machinery is to be worked, and as to the revolutions of his spindles? No; his landlord lets to him the bricks and mortar and machinery. The machinery was scheduled to him, and, when his lease is over, he must leave the machinery in the same state as when he found it, and be paid for the improvements. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Goulburn) cheers that. I want to ask his opinion on a similar lease for a farm.
I am rather disposed to think that the Anti-Corn-law League will very likely form a joint-stock association, having none but Free-traders in that body, to purchase a joint-stock estate, and have a model farm, taking care to have it in one of the rural counties where they all think there is the greatest need of improvement—perhaps Buckinghamshire; and there establish a model farm, and a model homestead, and model cottages (and I will tell the noble lord, the Member for Newark [Lord J. Manners] that we shall have model gardens, without any outcry about it); but the great object shall be to have a model lease. We shall have as a farmer a man of intelligence, and a man of capital. I am not so unreasonable as to say that you ought to let your land to a man without capital, and to one who is not intelligent; but select such a man, with intelligence and capital, and you cannot give him too wide a scope. You will find such a man, and let him have a farm, and such a lease as my hon. friend took his factory with. He shall do what he likes with the old pasture; if he can make more of it with ploughing it up, he shall do so. If he can grow white crops every year, he shall do so. I know persons who are doing that in more places than one in this country. If he can make any improvement he shall make it. We will let him the land with a schedule of the state of tillage on the farm, and will bind him to leave the land as good as he found it. It shall be valued; and if in an inferior state when he leaves it, he shall compensate us for it: if it be in a superior state, he shall be compensated accordingly by the association. You will think this something very difficult, but the association will give him possession of the farm, with everything on the soil, whether wild or tame. We will give him absolute control; there shall be no gamekeeper prowling about, and no sporting over his farm. Where is the difficulty? You may take as stringent means as you please to compel the punctual payment of rent; you may take the right of re-entry if the rent be not paid; but take the payment of rent as the sole test of the well-doing of the tenant, and so long as he pays that uniformly, it is the only test you need have; and if he be an intelligent man and a man of capital, you will have the strongest security that he will not waste your property.
I have sometimes heard hon. Gentlemen opposite say, 'It is all very well to propose such leases, but we know many farmers who will not take them.' An hon. Member cheers that. What does that argue? That by a process which the hon. Member for Lincolnshire (Sir John Trollope) has described—that degrading process which renders these tenants servile, hopeless, and dejected—they are satisfied to remain as they are, and do not want to be independent. Hear what Professor Low says on this subject:—
'The argument has again and again been used against the extension of leases, that the tenants themselves set no value on them; but to how different a conclusion ought the existence of such a feeling amongst the tenantry of a country to conduct us! The fact itself shows that the absence of leases may render a tenantry ignorant of the means of employing their own capital with advantage, indisposed to the exertions which improvements demand, and better contented with an easy rent and dependent condition, than with the prospect of an independence to be earned by increased exertion.'
But whilst you have a tenantry in the state described and pictured by the hon. Member for Lincolnshire, what must be the state of our population? The labourers can never be prosperous where the tenantry is degraded. You may go through the length and breadth of the land, and you will find that, where capital is most abundant, and where there is the most intelligence, there you will find the labouring classes the most happy and comfortable. On the other hand, show me an impoverished tenantry, and there I will show you a peasantry in the most hopeless and degraded condition; as in the north of Devonshire, for instance. I have proved that the want of capital is the greatest want among the farmers, and that the want of leases is the cause of the want of capital. You may say, 'You have not connected this with the Corn-laws and the protective system.' I will read to you the opinion of an hon. Gentleman who sits on that (the Opposition) side of the House; it is in a published letter of Mr. Hayter. He said:—
'The more I see of and practise agriculture, the more firmly am I convinced that the whole unemployed labour of the country could, under a better system of husbandry, be advantageously put into operation; and, moreover, that the Corn-laws have been one of the principal causes of the present system of bad farming and consequent pauperism. Nothing short of their entire removal will ever induce the average farmer to rely upon anything else than the Legislature for the payment of his rent, his belief being that all rent is paid by corn, and nothing else than corn; and that the Legislature can, by enacting Corn-laws, create a price which will make his rent easy. The day of their (the Corn-laws) entire abolition ought to be a day of jubilee and rejoicing to every man interested in land.'
I do not stay to collect the causes affecting this matter, and to inquire whether the Corn-law and our protective system have caused the want of leases, or have caused the want of capital. I do not stop to prove this, for this reason:—we have adopted a system of legislation by which we propose to make farming prosperous. I have shown you, after thirty years' trial, what is the condition of the farmers and labourers, and you will not deny any of my statements. It is, then, enough for me, after thirty years' trial, to ask you to go into Committee, and to inquire if something better cannot be devised. I am going, independently of protection, and independently of the Corn-law, to contend that a free trade in corn will be more advantageous to the farmers, and with the farmers I include the labourers; and I beg the attention of the hon. Member for Gloucestershire (Mr. Charteris) and the landowners. I am going to contend that free trade in corn will be more beneficial to these classes than to any other classes. I should have contended so before the tariff, but now I am prepared to do so with ten times more force.
The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir R. Peel) has passed a law to enable fat cattle to be imported, and there have been some foreign fat cattle selling in Smithfield Market at 15l. or 16l and 1l. duty; but he has not taken off the duty on the raw material. He did not do so with regard to manufactures. Mr. Huskisson had not done so: but, on the contrary, he began by taking off the duty on the raw material, without taking off the duty on foreign manufactures. You (the Ministers) have begun, on this question, at the opposite end. I would admit grain free, which should go to make the fat cattle.
I contend that by this protective system the farmers throughout the country are more injured than any other class of the community. I will begin with clover. The hon. Member for North North-amptonshire (Mr. Stafford O'Brien) put a question to the right hon. Baronet the other night, and looked so alarmed whilst doing so that I wondered what was the matter. He asked the right hon. Baronet 'if he was going to admit clover-seed free?' That is to be excluded; and for whose benefit? I ask that hon. Member or his constituents, are they in the majority of cases sellers of clover-seed? I will undertake to say they are not. How many counties are protected by the sale of clover-seed being secured to them? I will take Scotland; that country imports it from England; it does not grow it. I will undertake to say that not ten counties in the United Kingdom are interested in exporting clover-seed out of their own borders. There is none in Ireland.
Take the article of Egyptian beans. I see the hon. Member for Essex (Sir J. Tyrell) in his seat: in that county they can grow beans and wheat and wheat and beans alternately, and send them to Mark-lane; but how is it with the poor lands of Surrey, and with the poor lands of Wiltshire? Take the country through, and how many counties are exporters of beans to market? You are taxing the whole of the farmers who cannot export beans for the benefit of those few counties that can grow them. And mark, where you can grow beans. It is where the soils are better; it is not in one case in ten that a farmer can grow more than for his own use, or be able to send any to market; and when that is the case, the farmer can have no interest in keeping up the price to prevent importation.
Take oats. How many farmers have oats on the credit side of their books, as an item to rely on for paying their rent? They grow oats for feeding their horses; but it is an exception where they depend on their crop of oats for the payment of rent. Ireland has just been mulcted by the tax on clover-seed. Is it a benefit to the farmers who do not sell oats to place a tax on their import, they having no interest in keeping up the money price of oats?
Take the article hops. We have a protective duty on hops for the protection of particular districts, as Kent, Suffolk, and Surrey; but they in return have to pay for the protection on other articles which they do not produce.
Take cheese. There is not a farmer but makes his own cheese for the consumption of his servants; but how many send it to market? The counties of Chester, Gloucester, Wilts, and part of Derbyshire and Leicester, manufacture this article for sale. Here are four or five counties having an interest in protecting cheese. But you must recollect that those counties are heavily taxed in the articles of oats and beans and corn; for these are the districts where they most want artificial food for their cattle.
Take the whole of the hilly districts. I hope the hon. Member for Notting-hamshire (Mr. Knight) is present. He lives in Derbyshire, and employs himself in rearing good cattle on the hills; but he is taxed by protection for his oats, or Indian corn, or beans. That hon. Member told me the other day that he would like nothing better than to give up the protection on cattle, if he could only go into the market and purchase his thousand quarters of black oats free from protective duty. Take the hilly districts of Wales, or take the Cheviot hills, or the Grampian hills; they are not benefited by their protection on these articles; they want provender for their cattle in the cheapest way they can get it. The only way in which these parts of the country can improve the breed of their stock, and bring their farms into a decent state of fertility, is to have food cheap.
But I will go further, and say that the farmers on the thin soils—I mean the stock farmers in parts of Hertfordshire—farmers of large capital, arable farmers—are deeply interested in having a free importation of food for their cattle, because they have poor land which does not contain or produce the means for its own fertility; and it is only by bringing in artificial food that they can bring their land into a state to grow good crops. I have been favoured with an estimate made by a very experienced and clever farmer in Wiltshire: it is from Mr. Nathaniel Atherton, of Rington. I will read this to the House; and I think that the statements of such men—men of intelligence and experience—ought to be attended to. Mr. Nathaniel Atherton, Rington, Wilts, estimates,—
'That upon 400 acres of land he could increase his profits to the amount of 280l., paying the same rent as at present, provided there was a free importation of foreign grains of all kinds. He would buy 500 quarters of oats at 15s., or the same amount in beans or peas at 14s. or 15s. a sack, to be fed on the land or in the yard; by which he would grow additional 160 quarters of wheat and 230 quarters of barley, and gain an increased profit of 300l. on his sheep and cattle. His plan embraces the employment of an additional capital of 1000l., and he would pay 150l. a-year more for labour.'
I had an opportunity, the other day, of speaking to an intelligent farmer in Hertfordshire—Mr. Lattimore, of Wheathampstead; he stands as high in the Hertfordshire markets as any farmer, as a man of skill, of abundant capital, and of unquestionable intelligence. He told me that he had paid during the last year 230l. in enhanced price on the beans and other provender which he had bought for his cattle, in consequence of the restrictions on food of foreign growth, and that this sum amounted to 14s. a quarter on all the wheat which he had sold off his farm. With regard to Mr. Atherton and Mr. Lattimore, they are as decided advocates of free trade in grain as I am.
I have before told hon. Gentlemen that I have as wide and extensive an acquaintance with farmers as any Member in this House. In almost every county I can give them the names of first-rate farmers who are as much Free-traders as I am. I told the Secretary of the much-dreaded Anti-Corn-law League to make me out a list of the names of subscribers to the League amongst the farmers. There are upwards of a hundred in England and Scotland, and they comprise the most intelligent men that are to be found in the kingdom. I have been into the Lothians myself—into Haddingtonshire. I went and spent two or three days amongst the farmers there, and I never met with a more intelligent or liberal-minded body of men in the kingdom. They do not want restrictions on corn; they say, `Let us have a free importation of linseed-cake and corn, and we can bear competition with any corn-growers in the world. But to exclude provender for cattle, and to admit fat cattle duty free, was one of the greatest absurdities in legislation that ever was.' We have heard of absurdities in commerce—of sending coffee from Cuba to the Cape of Good Hope, to bring it back to this country under the law; but in ten years' time people will look back with more amazement at our policy,—that whilst we are sending ships to Ichaboe for manure, we are excluding oats, and beans, and Indian corn for fattening our cattle, which would give us a thousand times more fertilising manure than this which we now send for.
On the last occasion on which I spoke on this subject in this House I was answered by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Gladstone), and that gentleman talked of the Free-traders throwing poor land out of cultivation, and throwing other land out of tillage into pasture. I hope that the Anti-Corn-law League will not be reproached again with any such designs. My belief is, that the upholders of protection are pursuing the very course to throw land out of cultivation and to make poor land unproductive. Do not let the Free-traders be told again that they desire to draw the labourers from the land that they may reduce the labourers' wages in factories. If you had abundance of capital employed on your farms, and cultivated the soil with the same skill that the manufacturers conduct their business, you would not have population enough to cultivate the land. I had yesterday a letter from Lord Ducie, and he has given the same opinion, that if the land were properly cultivated there would not be sufficient labourers to till it. And yet, whilst that is the fact, you are chasing your population from village to village, and passing a law to compel the support of paupers. You are smuggling the people away and sending them to the antipodes, whereas if your lands were properly cultivated you would be trying to lure them back, as the most valuable part of your possessions. It is by this means only that you can avert very serious disasters in the agricultural districts.
On the last occasion of my addressing this House, a great deal was said about disturbing great interests. It was said that this inquiry could not be gone into, because it would disturb a great interest. I have no desire to undervalue the agricultural interest. I have heard it said that the agricultural classes are the greatest consumers of our goods, and that we had better look after our home trade. Now what sort of consumers of manufactures do you think the agricultural labourers could be with the wages they get? Understand me, I am arguing for a principle which I solemnly believe will raise the wages of the people. I believe there would be no men starving on 7s. a week if there were abundance of capital and skill employed in cultivating the soil. But, I ask, what is this home consumption of manufactures? I have taken some pains to ascertain the amount laid out by agricultural labourers and their families for clothing. It may probably startle hon. Members when I tell them that we have exported more goods to Brazil in one year than has been consumed in a year by the agricultural peasantry and their families. You know, by the last census, that there are 960,000 agricultural labourers in England and Wales, and I can undertake to say, from inquiries I have made, that each of these men does not spend 30s. a year in manufactures for his whole family, if the article of shoes be excepted. I say that, with the exception only of shoes, the agricultural labourers of England and Wales do not spend 1,500,000l. per annum in the purchase of manufactured goods, clothing, and bedding. Then, I would ask, what can they pay, on 8s. a week, to the revenue? I am satisfied, and hon. Members may satisfy themselves, from the statistical returns on the table, that agricultural labourers do not pay per head 15s. a year to the revenue; the whole of their contributions to the revenue do not amount to 700,000l. a year; and, I ask, when hon. Members opposite have by their present system brought agriculture to its present pass, can they have anything to fear from risking a change, or, at any rate, from risking an inquiry?
On the last occasion that I addressed the House on this subject, I laboured to prove that we have no reason to fear foreign competition if restrictions were removed, and I stated facts to show that. On the present occasion I shall not dwell on that topic; but still, as many people are possessed with the idea, that if the ports were opened corn will be to be had for nothing—and that is one of the favourite fallacies—I may be allowed to offer a few remarks upon the subject. People continue to hold this doctrine, and they argue, `Now that prices are low, corn is coming in; but if you had not a duty of 20s. a quarter, is it possible to say what would be the quantity that would come in?' This is said; but I hope it is not dishonestly said; I hope the argument is founded on a confusion between the nominal and the real price of corn. The price of wheat at Dantzic is now a nominal price. In January, 1838, wheat at Dantzic was at a nominal price, there being no one to purchase from England; but in July and August of that year, when a failure of the harvest here was apprehended, the price at Dantzic rose, and by the end of December in the same year the price at Dantzic was double what it had been in January, and wheat there averaged 40s. a quarter for the three years 1839, 1840, 1841. Now, I mention this for the purpose of asking the attention of hon. Members opposite to it, and I entreat them, with this fact before them, not to go down and alarm their tenantry about the danger of foreign competition. They ought to take an opposite course—the course which would enable them to compete with foreigners. Their present course is the worst they could take, if they wish to compete with foreigners.
I was about to allude to a case which referred to the hon. Baronet the Member for Shoreham (Sir C. Burrell), who has lately let in a new light upon agricultural gentlemen. The country was now told that its salvation is to arise from the cultivation of flax. This was stated by the Flax Agricultural Improvement Association, Lord Rendlesham president, of which I have in my hand a report, wherein, after stating that Her Majesty's Ministers were holding out no hopes of legislative assistance to the agricultural body, they then called upon the nation to support them, on the ground that they were going to remedy the grievances under which the agricultural interest laboured. I observe that Mr. Warner, the great founder of this association, was visiting Sussex lately, and at a dinner at which the hon. Baronet (Sir C. Burrell) presided, after the usual loyal toasts, 'Mr. Warner and the cultivation of flax was proposed. Now, when the hon. Baronet did this, probably he was not aware that he was furnishing the most deadly weapon to the lecturers of the Anti-Corn-law League. The country is told that unless they have a high protective duty the farmers cannot get a remunerative price for the wheat they grow. They have a protective duty of 20s. a quarter on wheat, and one quarter of wheat was just worth a hundredweight of flax; yet, although against Polish wheat they have a protection of 20s., the protective duty on a hundredweight of flax is just 1d. Now, I did not hear a murmur when the right hon. Baronet proposed to take off that tax of 1d. But we are told that the English agriculturist cannot compete with the foreigner, on account of the abundance of labour he has the command of, especially in the case of the serf labour which is employed somewhere up the Baltic. Now, flax comes from up the Baltic, and yet they have no protection upon it. Then it is insisted that we cannot contend against foreign wheat, because it takes so much labour to raise wheat in this country; yet it takes as much labour to raise flax. How, then, are we to contend against foreign flax? Nevertheless, the hon. Baronet undertook to restore prosperity to the country by means of his flax, which was in this helpless state for want of protection.
The hon. Baronet will forgive me—I am sure he will, because he looks as if he will—while I allude again to the subject of leases. The hon. Baronet, on the occasion I have alluded to, complained that it was a great pity the farmers did not grow more flax; but it is curious that I should have since seen it stated in a Brighton paper—the hon. Baronet's county paper—I do not know how truly—that the hon. Baronet's own tenants have leases which forbid them to grow flax. However, it is quite probable the hon. Baronet does not know what covenants there are in his leases; but, be that as it may, at any rate it is very common, I know, to insert in leases a prohibition to cultivate flax. This just shows the manner in which the landlords carry on the agriculture of the country. The original notion of the injury done by flax to the land was derived, I believe, from Virgil, who stated something to the effect that flax was very scourging to the land. I have no doubt it was from this source that some learned lawyer has derived the usual covenant on this subject in leases.
I have alluded to the condition of the agricultural labourers at the present time; but I feel bound to say, that whilst the farmers are in a worse position than they have been for the last ten years, I believe the agricultural labourers have passed the winter, though it was a five-months' winter, and severe, with less suffering from distress than the previous winters. I mention this because it is a remarkable proof of the degree in which a low price of food is beneficial to the labouring classes. I can demonstrate that in the manufacturing districts, whenever food is dear, wages are low; and that whenever food is low, wages rise. That the manufacturers can prove. Then I stated it as my own opinion, that the agricultural labourers are in a better state than they were in previous winters. But does not that show that the agricultural labourers, having only just so much wages as will find them in subsistence, derive benefit from the plenty of the first necessaries of life? Their wages do not rise in the same proportion as the price of food rises, but then neither do their wages fall in the same proportion as the price of food falls. Therefore in all cases the agricultural labourers are in a better state when food is low than when it is high.
Now, I am bound to state, that whatever is the condition of the agricultural labourer, I believe the farmer is not responsible for that condition while he is placed as at present. I have heard many exhortations to the farmer that he must employ more labour. I believe the farmer is very unjustly required to do this. The farmer stands between the landlord and the suffering peasantry. It is rather hard in the landlord to point the farmer out as the cause of the want of employment for labour—as the man to be marked. Lord Hardwicke has lately made an address to the labourers of Haddenham, in which he said,—
'Conciliate your employers, and, if they do not perform their duty to you and themselves, address yourselves to the landlords; and I assure you that you will find us ready to urge our own tenants to the proper cultivation of their farms, and, consequently, to the just employment of the labourer.'
That is the whole question. I think the duty rests with the landlords, and that it is the landlords, and not the employers, who are in fault. The landlords have absolute power in the country. There is no doubt about it—they can legislate for the benefit of the labourers or of themselves, as they please. If the results of their legislation have failed to secure due advantages to the labourer, they have no right to call on the farmers to do their duty, and furnish the labourers with the means of support. I lately saw a labourer's certificate at Stowupland, in Suffolk, placed over the chimneypiece in a labourer's cottage. It was this:—
'West Suffolk Agricultural Association, established 1833, for the advancement of agriculture, and the encouragement of industry and skill, and good conduct among labourers and servants in husbandry. President, the Duke of Grafton, Lord Lieutenant of the county.—This is to certify, that a prize of 2l. was awarded to William Birch, aged 82, labourer, of the parish of Stowupland, in West Suffolk, September 25, 1840, for having brought up nine children without relief, except when flour was very dear, and for having worked on the same farm twenty-eight years. (Signed) Robert Rushbrooke, Chairman.'
After a severe winter, with little employment to be had, I congratulate the country that we have fewer agricultural labourers in the workhouses, and fewer pining in our streets from want, than in former years; but a bad case at the best is the condition of the agricultural labourer, and you will have to look out, before it is too late, how you are to employ him. The last census shows that you cannot employ your own labourers in the agricultural districts. How, then, are you to employ them? You say, there are too many of them. That is an evil which will press on you more and more every year: what, then, are you to do? Are you, gentry of England, to sit with your arms folded, and propose nothing? I am only here tonight because you have proposed nothing. We all know that the allotment system has been taken up; it is a plaything; it is a failure, and it is well for some of you that you have wiser heads to lead you than your own, or you would shortly be in precisely the same situation as they are in Ireland; but with this increase to the difficulty of that situation, that they do contrive to maintain the rights of property there with the aid of the English Exchequer and 20,000 bayonets; but bring your own country into the same condition, and where will be your rents?
What, then, do you propose to do? Nothing this year to benefit the great mass of the agricultural population! You admit the farmer's capital is diminished—that he is in a worse state than he was. How to increase the confidence of capitalists in the farmers' power of retrieving themselves? How this is to be done is the question. I cannot believe you are going to make this a political game. It was well said that the last election was an agricultural election; and there are two hundred members sitting behind the right hon. Baronet; that is the proof of it. Don't quarrel with me because I have imperfectly stated my case; I have done my best; I ask what have you done? I tell you this 'protection,' as it is called, has been a failure. It failed when wheat was 80s. a-quarter, and you know what was the condition of the farmer in 1817. It failed when wheat was 60s., and you know what was the condition of the farmer in 1835. And now it has failed again with the last amendments you have made in the law, for you have confessed to what is the condition of the agricultural tenantry. What, then, is the plan you propose? I hope that this question was not made a pretence—a political game—at the last election; that you have not all come up as mere politicians. There are politicians in this House who look with ambition—and probably in their case it is a justifiable ambition—to the high offices of the State; there may be men here who by thirty years' devotion to politics have been pressed into a groove in which it is difficult for them to avoid going forward, and are, may be, maintaining the same course against their convictions. I make allowance for them; but the great body of you came up not as politicians, but as friends of the agricultural interest; and to you I now say, what are you going to do? You lately heard the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government say, that if he could restore protection, it would not benefit the agricultural interest. Is that your belief? or are you acting on your convictions, or performing your duty in this House, by following the right hon. Baronet into the lobby when he refuses an inquiry and investigation into the condition of the very men who send you up here? With mere politicians, I have no right to hope to succeed; but give me a committee, and I will explode the delusion of agricultural protection; I will produce such a mass of evidence, and call authorities so convincing, that when the blue-book shall be sent out, I am convinced that protection will not live two years.
Protection is a very convenient vehicle for politicians; the cry of 'protection' won the last election; and politicians looked to secure honours, emoluments, places by it; but you, the gentry of England, are not sent up for such objects. Is, then, that old, tattered and torn flag to be kept up for the politicians, or will you come forward and declare that you are ready to inquire into the state of the agricultural interests? I cannot think that the gentlemen of England can be content to be made mere drum-heads, to be sounded by the Prime Minister of England—to be made to emit notes, but to have no articulate sounds of their own. You, gentlemen of England, the high aristocracy of England, your forefathers led my forefathers; you may lead us again if you choose; but though—longer than any other aristocracy—you have kept your power, while the battle-field and the hunting-field were the tests of manly vigour, you have not done as the noblesse of France or the hidalgos of Madrid have done; you have been Englishmen, not wanting in courage on any call. But this is a new age; the age of social advancement, not of feudal sports; you belong to a mercantile age; you cannot have the advantage of commercial rents and retain your feudal privileges too. If you identify yourselves with the spirit of the age, you may yet do well; for I tell you that the people of this country look to their aristocracy with a deep-rooted prejudice—an hereditary prejudice, I may call it—in their favour; but your power was never got, and you will not keep it, by obstructing the spirit of the age in which you live. If you are found obstructing that progressive spirit which is calculated to knit nations more closely together by commercial intercourse; if you give nothing but opposition to schemes which almost give life and breath to inanimate nature, and which it has been decreed shall go on, then you are no longer a national body.
There is a widely-spread suspicion that you have been tampering with the feelings of your tenantry—you may read it in the organ of your party—this is the time to show the people that such a suspicion is groundless. I ask you to go into this committee—I will give you a majority of county members—you shall have a majority of members of the Central Agricultural Protection Association in the committee; and on these terms I ask you to inquire into the causes of the distress of our agricultural population. I trust that neither of those gentlemen who have given notice of amendments will attempt to interfere with me, for I have embraced the substance of their amendments in my motion. I am ready to give those hon. Gentlemen the widest range they please for their inquiries. I only ask that this subject may be fairly investigated. Whether I establish my principle, or you establish yours, good must result from the inquiry; and I do beg and entreat of the honourable, independent country gentlemen in this House, that they will not refuse, on this occasion, to sanction a fair, full, and impartial inquiry.
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