Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
[The first indications of the potato disease of 1845, were noticed in the month of August. On Oct. 13, Sir Robert Peel, in a letter to Sir James Graham, said that there was no effectual remedy to impending scarcity, except the removal of 'impediments to import.' On the 31st, a meeting in Dublin, presided over by the Duke of Leinster, memorialised the Lord Lieutenant, to the effect that the Government should, without hesitation or delay, take the most prompt measures for the relief of the Irish people. On Nov. 1, Sir Robert Peel declared that it was impossible 'to maintain the existing restrictions on the free importation of grain.' The majority of the Cabinet were opposed to this step. In consequence, Sir Robert Peel resigned office on Dec. 5, and Lord John Russell was instructed to form a Government. On Dec. 20, Lord John Russell announced that he was unable to form a Government, and Sir Robert Peel resumed office. Lord Stanley (the late Lord Derby) declined to take part in this new Government, the basis of which, though not yet declared, was the gradual abolition of the Corn-laws. Parliament opened on Jan. 22, and on Jan. 27, Sir Robert Peel proposed his plan of a total repeal at the end of three years.]
I feel deeply indebted to you for the kind manner in which you have received the announcement of my name, and I may add that I am truly encouraged and gratified by the aspect of the meeting, and the numbers which have assembled here this evening. The greatest gratification next to that which I received from the manner in which the electors of Wolverhampton returned my friend, Mr. Villiers, to Parliament, is that such a tribute has been paid to him by the men of Birmingham on this occasion, because it will put into his hands additional weapons in the House of Commons, which I am sure he will use right manfully for the common benefit of us all. I did not come here for the purpose of making an argumentative speech on the subject of commercial freedom, for all now are made aware, from experience of the results, how injuriously the restriction of commercial freedom acts, and the poorest and least informed can see that those consequences which were predicted from the existing system are approaching. We are now near a state of famine, and this, as my friend, Mr. Villiers, has already stated, is one of the results which were frequently predicted as to be expected from the law which prevented the importation of corn. It was a prediction which had been made by every enlightened speaker and writer on the subject, from the time of Lord Grenville's protest in the House of Lords, in 1815, down to the last pamphlet which had been written in relation to the question. We have to expect, from time to time, amidst occasional gleams of happiness and prosperity, such seasons of gloom as that which we now witness in consequence of the operations of the Corn-law, for that is its necessary result. A consequence, which has been well described by my friend, Col. Thompson that veteran champion of Free Trade, in one of those graphic comparisons for which he is so remarkable, when he said the country, under the influence of the law, was like a bird fastened with a spiral spring—it might wing its way aloft for a short time, but only to be again inevitably drawn back to where it ascended from.
What, then, is to be done? It seems that we have been deluding ourselves, when we thought that the Government was going to do something. We, it seems, have not a Government such as several continental nations enjoy. Are you not exceedingly gratified that you are not deemed worthy of as good treatment at the hands of your Government as the Russians, Turks, and Dutch receive from theirs? When these Governments find that there is likely to be a scarcity, they do that which common sense would dictate to any one; which any community out of Bedlam would do at once, if left to their own unbiassed judgment. Seeing that there was a prospect of an insufficient supply of food at home, they opened wide their ports to admit the needed supply from any part of the world from which it might come. This was precisely what we expected from our rational Government. What have thirteen noblemen and gentlemen been lately meeting in Cabinet Council to discuss? I wish I had the names of the thirteen notables, for they would be historic curiosities to be handed down to posterity. What have they been deliberating upon? Was it whether they, from their own rents and revenues, should make a large purchase of grain or potatoes abroad, in order to supply the wants of the people at home? Was it whether they should vote a subsidy out of the public taxes, with which to buy food for a starving people? It was none of these. The difficulty upon which they solemnly deliberated was this—whether they should allow the people of this country to feed themselves?—and it seems they have decided that they shall not. Rumours reach you—we cannot tell you how well founded—that there is in the Cabinet a division on this matter. You are told that Sir Robert Peel and Sir James Graham have ranged themselves on the one side, and the Duke of Wellington and Lord Stanley on the other—that they are thus at variance with one another on this question, and that the Duke and his party have decided that you, the people of England, shall not be allowed to feed yourselves. Now this is the question on which we are at issue with these mighty personages. If I mistake not, you have tried the metal of the noble warrior before in Birmingham. He is a man whom we all like to honour, as possessing those qualities which entitle men to our esteem wherever possessed—high courage, firmness of resolve, and indomitable perseverance. But let me remind the noble Duke, that, notwithstanding his victories on the field, he never yet entered into a contest with Englishmen in which he was not beaten. I say we shall feed ourselves. And, now that this battle must and shall be fought, I hope the veteran Duke will live long enough to test the quality of his countrymen again.
But, after all, it is not the Duke who is the Government—it is Sir Robert Peel. We hear in the House of Commons, in the palmy days of prosperity, when Peel brings forward his measures, and dictates to his servile colleagues what his policy shall be, the little word 'I,' repeated over and over again, reminding us that 'I, as Premier, act upon my own responsibility'—that 'I' do this, and 'I' do that. If he is the Prime Minister, we hold him responsible for his acts. Now, I see many attempts made to shirk that responsibility, and sometimes in a very shabby manner, by trying to make it appear that we who cry out against this responsibility mean to do him some personal violence. Was ever such a schoolboy trick as that resorted to by a man in his situation? He is fairly ashamed of it now, as are all who sit behind him, and who faithfully supported him in it. But we find the news papers still dealing with this hypocritical and absurd argument. Why, for my own part, I would not touch a hair of his head, were he ever so much in my power. But what is the meaning of this responsibility on the part of a Minister? The Queen, with us, is not responsible. If we were governed by a Czar, or by a Grand Turk, we would then hold the sovereign responsible. In a system of constitutional government like ours, however, it is the Minister alone who is responsible. None but the Queen can issue an Order in Council for the opening of the ports, and the Queen would have done this long ago, but that she has to wait until Sir Robert Peel chooses to inform her that the Cabinet have consented to her doing so. We, then, as loyal subjects, are only pursuing a constitutional course when we bring him to the bar of public opinion, and declare him responsible for the acts of the Government.
We are told, to be sure, by those who still put forth their daily nonsense in defence of monopoly, that to admit foreign corn is not to hit the right way, by which the present difficulties can be surmounted. Instead of enlarging the supply of food, we are told that certain great public works are to be undertaken. Railroads are to be constructed and lands to be drained in Ireland, and the fisheries are to be promoted, and all these devices are to be carried through by the instrumentality of the public purse. Anything will be done but the right thing. That reminds me of the old story of the man who had a horse, which was in the last stage of decline, for want of sufficient nourishment, and who told his friend that the horse would not thrive, although he had given him old shoes, chips, and even oyster-shells. His friend replied to him, 'Suppose you try corn.' Now we say to those gentlemen who want to feed the people with pickaxes, shovels, fishing-nets, and draining-tiles, 'Suppose you try a little corn.' You, who do not sit in the House of Commons, would be astonished how reluctantly we bring our opponents' noses to the corn-crib. Now, mark me. Be prepared in the present emergency, and constantly on your guard. There will be an effort made to extract some enormous jobbery out of the anticipated famine. The landlords in Ireland have not cultivated their lands, their bogs, and wastes, as they should have done; and now they will get the Government to do it for them out of the public taxes of all which, of course, they will reap the benefit. Now, be on your guard. I have no objection, after everything else which should first be resorted to has been done—after the ports have been thrown open, without let or hindrance—if charity is to be administered to the Irish people, that it should rather be bestowed in the shape of payment of wages than as eleemosynary grants.
I read in the papers of to-day the speech of the King of Belgium to the Chambers in that country, in which he congratulated them that they have opened the ports for the admission of foreign corn, and that being done, they are enabled, by a vote of public money, to execute certain public works, to make up for the deficiency in employment, and thereby supply the people with food. In Belgium, you see, they do not expect to feed their people with mere pickaxes and shovels. They first let in the needed supply of foreign corn, and then, by supplying funds for the execution of public works, provide the people with the means of feeding themselves without resorting to charity. Was ever a people so insulted as are the English people by the arguments of the monopolists? What is our present dilemma? It is neither more nor less than the want of food. Now what do people work for? Not for work itself, certainly, but for the food which they are enabled to procure by it. The monopolist writers think, or so pretend, that it is work that is wanted at present. Now work is never wanted but as a means of getting something out of it. We have the highest authority—that of sacred writ itself—for considering work a curse, but a curse which is mercifully sweetened by the rewards of labour. But where are the rewards to come from if there is an insufficient supply of food to meet the wants of the people? The Irish are about to suffer from a famine. It will not confine its effects to those who can work upon railroads, but will also, in all probability, affect every man, woman, and child scattered over the face of that country, and, with the exception of the wealthy portion of the population, the mass of the inhabitants of towns. Those able to work, and those not able, will equally suffer. Are these the people into whose hands, with your supply of food manifestly deficient, you can put pickaxes and shovels, and expect them to work, without holding out to them the prospect of receiving the ample and legitimate reward of labour?
What happened in the spring of 1822, I am afraid, is very likely to happen again. Mark my words, and I speak them in sorrow, that next spring will develope the calamitous result of our present suicidal policy. It was only in the spring after the harvest of 1821 that the evil to which I have just alluded was felt. In the spring of 1822, when the country people had eaten up the potatoes which were left them, they flocked in crowds to the towns for subsistence; for it is in towns that you find ample supplies of food generally accumulated, and in the towns the starving masses had to be fed from the charity of their fellow-countrymen. Depend upon it you will have to feed large masses of the people of Ireland in a like manner out of a public fund before midsummer. But where is the subsistence to come from which you are to administer to them? It is not in this country, and must be procured elsewhere. But does it not behove the Minister of the Crown to see, in the present emergency, that not a moment is lost in accumulating in this country such a stock of food as may not be procurable next spring, when famine presses heavily upon us, for less than double the price which some time ago we would have been called upon to pay for it? Mark how our present rulers are tampering with the existing alarming condition of the country. You behold the organs of the Government giving vent to statements, the object of which is to induce us to believe that the evil does not exist to the extent which has been assigned to it. Is there, then, a deep-laid conspiracy on the part of any one to lead us falsely into the anticipation of evils which there is no real ground to apprehend? That cannot be. Have we not seen that solemn masses have been offered up in Roman Catholic chapels, beseeching the Disposer of all Events that He would graciously avert the impending calamity? Did we not see in yesterday's paper that the primate and bishops of Ireland had ordered prayers to be offered up, to arrest, if possible, the progress of the threatened evil? Have we not had boards of guardians, on more occasions than one, memorialising Government to do what they could to moderate the severity of the apprehended famine? If all this be so, can it, then, be possible that any person or persons have entered into a wide and diabolical conspiracy, for the purpose of trifling with the most sacred feelings of humanity, or is the statement of the evil a lamentable and incontrovertible fact? That statement is unfortunately but too melancholy a truth, and yet the Government is tampering with this most critical juncture of our national welfare, and leads us to infer that it is prepared to do nothing.
Well, then, as Mr. Villiers and Earl Ducie have well advised you, it is high time for the people to speak out. There have been scarcely any demonstrations as yet in the country in favour of the immediate opening of the ports. And why? Because every one expected that every successive mail from London would carry to him the welcome decision of the Cabinet that the ports had been already opened. People did not choose to waste their strength and their energies in preparing for a demonstration, which was to take place at the end of a week's time, in favour of an object which they thought would be accomplished every twenty-four hours. It now behoves the people of every town to meet, as the people of Manchester are going to meet, and throw upon the Government the whole responsibility of the present state of things, and call upon them immediately to open the ports; and, when once opened, they will never be shut again. That is the true reason why the ports have not already been opened. If there had been no Anti-Corn-law League, they would have been opened a month ago. It is because they know well in the Cabinet, and because the landlords also well know, that the question of total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws is at stake, that they will risk, like desperate gamblers, all that may befall us during the next six months, rather than part with that law.
Well, if they won't open the ports, somebody must make them. You will be the laughing-stock of all Christendom if you do not make them: only think of the Dutchman—think of Mynheer whilst smoking his pipe, and seeing the ships coming in from America laden with corn for him. How he will laugh at your stupidity when he sees Englishmen starving, while Dutchmen are well fed! We are not sunk quite so low as that yet. But for Sir Robert Peel, what a critical moment in his fortune has now past! I say past, for let him do the act at the end of this month, which he ought to have done ten days ago, still he will not be the same man that he would have been had he done it then. There is not even a child in statesmanship that could not have then told Sir Robert Peel, 'Now is the critical period of your political fortune—this is the tide of your political life; if you take it at its flood, you go on to such a fortune as no statesman ever attained in this country before; but if you miss it—if you allow the flood to pass by you—you will prove to the world that you have been all your life a pretender, and a mere hoax on the credulity of your countrymen.'
We have all been thinking for some time past that Peel was the man—not the coming man—but the come man. Everybody began to say, 'Peel is the man for a practical statesman, to govern a practical people;' and I have no hesitation in saying, that if Sir Robert Peel had taken the course I have suggested, of boldly bearding the Iron Duke, and at once dismissing him and his tail from the Cabinet, I have no hesitation in saying, so far as Lancashire and Yorkshire are concerned, he would have rallied around him the whole of the mighty population of those counties as one man in his support. We should have buried Whig or Tory from the moment we found Sir Robert Peel had abolished the Corn-laws. There would have been a union of all men and all classes in those districts in support of the man who had the courage and the honesty to put an end to this atrocious and long-continued injustice. But he has not done it, and I venture to prophesy that he won't do it. Somebody else will have to do it, and we are not yet so badly off in England but that we may find somebody willing and able to do the will of the country whenever it is unmistakingly expressed. We are told that it would be useless to pass a law to admit foreign corn, for there is none to come in. Then what has the Cabinet been deliberating about so long? If there was no corn to come in, why did the Government hold four or five Cabinet Councils to decide whether it should come in or not? Some of the protectionists tell us, that even if our supply is deficient, the remedy is not to look to foreign countries, but to our native produce. But that is not the rule they follow in anything else but corn. I heard not long ago Mr. Gladstone expound most eloquently the great importance of permitting the free admission of foreign lard, flax, hides, and many other things, as being necessary as the raw materials for our manufactures. Though flax is grown in England, though we produce hides, and make lard, these are admitted from abroad; but with regard to corn, the argument is, that we are not to look to foreign countries for an increased or supplementary supply of that article. And so it is. It is the corn question upon which the mighty struggle will be, after all. And I will whisper in your ear the reason why;—corn is the article upon which rents are fixed, and by which tithes are regulated. Do not deceive yourselves, and suppose you will get a free admission of foreign corn—that is, wheat—except after a considerable struggle. They do not mind so much about Indian corn. Lord Sandon the other day wrote from Liverpool, that he has no objection to Indian corn coming in. And why? It does not regulate tithes, or operate on fixed rents in this country.
My noble friend, Lord Ducie, was quite right when he said that the land-owner might do as well without Corn-laws as with them, and the farmer and farm-labourer much better. But, unfortunately, everybody in the same position is not up to the light of my noble friend. The squire and land-owner in general think differently from my noble friend, and they actually hiss him at their agricultural meetings. I tell this as a specimen of their intelligence. But they only act according to their own convictions and their own ignorant prejudice. And here let me remind you, that this country is governed by the ignorance of the country. And I do not say this without proof; for amongst those Members of the majority of the House of Commons who uphold the Corn-law protective principle, there is not a man of anything like average intellect who dares to speak in their favour. You cannot appeal to a single statesman that deserves a moment's regard as such, who has uttered anything like an authoritative dictum in their favour. There is no single writer of eminence who has not repudiated the doctrines of the monopolists. They are condemned alike by all the intelligence of this and of past ages, and yet they rule this country at this time with more tyranny than even the Grand Turk himself governs with. These people, though possessing no intelligence themselves, yet find people to do their work for them. They will find Sir Robert Peel to do it, and that against his own conscientious convictions; for there can be no doubt that Sir R. Peel is at heart as good a Free-trader as I am myself. He has told us so in the House of Commons again and again; nor do I doubt that Sir R. Peel has in his inmost heart the desire to be the man who shall carry out the principles of Free Trade in this country. But he has been tampering with the question in order to adapt his policy to the ignorance of his party, and we see the state into which the country has been brought the while.
We have, however, one consolation—we have run the fox to earth at last, and know he cannot double on us again. The question cannot be dealt with in another session, as it has been when the country has been blessed with her abundant crops, and when trade was good, and the people all employed. If you had seen the jaunty airs Sir Robert Peel gave himself when we talked of Free Trade in past sessions, you would have been amused, if not astonished. But that is all at an end now, and next session we shall have him fairly pinned, and he knows it too. And I can tell you, that if there is one man who will go up to Parliament next session with a heavier heart than another, that man is Sir Robert Peel. It is my belief, that if in the mean time he does not take the step of throwing open the ports, he will not dare to face us at all next session. Of this I am quite sure, that if the leading Members of the Opposition, in another session, take the position they ought to take—in the van of the people; and, having the people at their back, stand boldly forth as the advocates of those sound principles we are met here to support, and will show themselves ready and determined to apply them as fairly, as effectually, and as permanently as my honourable friend, Mr. Villiers, would, and Sir Robert Peel takes his place in Parliament without first opening the ports, I undertake to say that they will shake him out of office in a week.
But I do not like altogether the idea of giving Peel up. He is a Lancashire man—and in my part of the country we are proud of Lancashire men. We used to think that Sir Robert cast a sheep's eye on the tall chimneys, and that he had something of a lingering kindness for Lancashire; and I can tell him it would have been a proud day for the Lancashire men, when they saw a Lancashire man, and the son of a Lancashire manufacturer, stand forward to rescue the commerce of the country from the shackles of that feudal and senseless oppression it has so long laboured under. I must not forget that I am charged with a message from Lancashire to you. You have already heard what we have done by our twelve months' labour at the registration. We have secured that county for the Free-traders; and you have also heard what we have done in the neighbouring northern counties with their constituencies of 70,000 or 80,000—constituencies greater than those of all the counties south of Middlesex put together. We sent Mr. Hickin to Staffordshire to attend the last revision—he followed the barrister to every court; and the result is, we have gained between 1,000 and 2,000 votes. The expense of this proceeding has been paid by the League out of its funds, and when we asked you to contribute your money to the League, it was with the view of spending it in the same way for your benefit. I believe South Staffordshire is safe at the next election for two Free-traders. But we must not rest there—we must do the same in other counties. In South Lancashire we have put such a majority of Free-traders on the registry, that, unless I am much mistaken, our opponents will not dare to contest another election with us. I say every man in Birmingham who can afford it must buy a 40s. freehold, and so qualify himself to vote for South Staffordshire. In Manchester, we say to every man who has a good coat on his back, 'You must buy a freehold, and qualify for the county.' But you have a county nearer here—you are partly in North Warwickshire as well as Coventry; and if you qualify, what is to prevent your returning two Free-traders for that place at the next election? Shame on you if you doubt it! Think of the beauty of the 40s. freehold! Why, it is the best part of the Reform Bill—it is an inheritance handed down to us from our ancestors five hundred years ago. A man for 50l. can buy one of these freeholds, and place himself, as regards the county franchise, upon an equality with the squire who has an estate of 5,000l. a-year.
The landowners have multiplied their 50l. tenants-at-will, and, do what they will, they cannot stretch out their land like India-rubber; but you can make every cobbler's stall, every butcher's shamble, every stable, the means of conferring the franchise, and placing its owner on an equality with the man who holds an estate of 50,000l. a-year. I say, too, if you choose, you can ensure the return of two Free-traders for Worcestershire. Worcester must also be won. There was a desultory effort made to gain North Warwickshire the other day, which ended disgracefully, and which showed the necessity of some local organisation. 'Tis votes, not meetings, that persuade Sir Robert Peel. In Staffordshire, the revising barrister acknowledged that the League had purged the registry of an immense number of fictitious votes. The finger of scorn should be pointed at any of the middle classes in the northern towns who did not become co-electors. The man is not fit to be a freeman who, when he could afford it, refuses to pay 50l. for the franchise. Having qualified every man you can, you must proceed to a systematic purging of the registers. Many silly persons object to this as disfranchising the people; but if our opponents strike off our votes, are theirs to remain untouched? ('No, no.') We should be in such a position as to be able to tell the Government, 'You must give up the Corn-laws, or give up a good deal more.'
The aristocracy of this country have the army, the navy, the colonies, and a large amount of expenditure, at their disposal. 'Tis a perfect paradise for the aristocracy in this country, if they knew only how to behave themselves—not as angels, but as decent, honest, rational men. Whom have they to govern? Practical, industrious, intelligent men, whose thoughts centred in their business, and who would gladly leave to those above them the toil of government, if those were willing to allow commerce and industry fair play. What a people for an aristocracy to govern! And yet they risk all for the sake of a miserable tax on bread, which is of no earthly benefit even to themselves. Be prepared for a crisis as to this law, which may come on even before the next dissolution. You will see by the swaying of parties, and the general agitation of the public mind in the next session, that some great change is approaching; and when you discover these symptoms, don't mind who goes out or in, but keep your eyes steadily fixed on this corn question; and when the crisis does come, let the multitudinous numbers of Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Staffordshire be prepared to act with united strength against the vile fabric of monopoly, over which, when levelled with the earth, will be driven the ploughshare of peace, that prosperity may arise out of its ruins.
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