Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
[On March 8th, 1849, in the House of Commons, Mr. Disraeli moved for a Committee of the whole House, to take into consideration such measures as might remove the grievances of the owners and occupiers of real property. On this motion, Mr. Hume moved an amendment; and the debate was adjourned to the 15th March, when Mr. Cobden delivered the following speech, in opposition to Mr. Disraeli's motion, which was rejected by a majority of 91 (280 to 189).]
I have been alluded to so frequently in the course of this debate, that I am not willing to allow it to cease without saying a few words. I shall not weary the House by a reference to the speech of the honourable mover of the original motion; I consider that to do so, after the able speech of the right honourable the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir Charles Wood), would be to slay the slain. I will not stop to say a word on the jocular misrepresentations which have been made of the speech of the honourable Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume); but I may say that to-morrow I shall probably refer to those misrepresentations, as to the amount of expenditure on our naval and military establishments, which I think are very much calculated to mislead the country.
The plan of the honourable Gentleman opposite has at length been resolved into this—that it is a proposal to lay on between 400,000l. and 500,000l. of additional taxation on the farmers, on the plea of benefiting them. And this is the proposal which is made in the interest of the tenant-farmers. That is, upon the assumption that it is demonstrated beyond all possible cavil or contradiction that the local burdens laid upon property are borne by the owners of property, and not by the floating capital of the country. If you deny that, of course you can go to the country with your proposition for favouring the farmer by reducing the burdens on real property; but is there a human being whose opinion is deserving a moment's consideration who will deny this proposition, that if you relieve the burdens upon real property, the relief will go into the pockets of the owners of that property? Take this case: Two farms are to let of exactly equal intrinsic value, as to quality, soil, and situation. One shall be rated at 2s. in the pound to the poor-rate; the other at 8s. Would you let the two farms for the same rent? I ask even a nod of assent from the honourable Gentleman opposite. There is not a farmer or land-agent who would say that the two farms would let for the same money. Deducting in each case the amount of the rate, the remainder is the amount of rent in each. Is not this coming before us under false pretences? It is altogether very much like a hoax. First of all, the tenant-farmers are paraded before us. You come in hot haste from Willis's Rooms with the case of the tenant-farmers. Not a man is allowed to speak there but a tenant-farmer: by the way, they are for the most part land-agents. I know the most of them, because I have met them in the country. But you come here professing to serve the tenant-farmers, and you try to raise a quarrel between them and the manufacturers. What was the peroration of the speech of the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli)? Was it not an attempt to array the tenant-farmers against the manufacturers, by the classing the former under the insidious title of the landed interest. But there is no difference between the manufacturers and the farmers in relation to the question before the House. The farmer is a manufacturer; he hires the land for manufacturing purposes. But, as farmers and landlords, your interests are antagonistic, in spite of anything that may be said to the contrary.
I do not wish to set farmers against landlords by saying that. ['Oh, oh.'] You may cry, 'Oh!' but I will be understood by the farmers as well as by the landlords in this House. As members of one community I do not say that landlords and farmers have not common interests in good and equal laws; but if you come before this House, and ask for a measure to benefit landlord and tenant exclusively, then I tell you, that as landlords and tenants your interests are antagonistic—for the interest of the one is to rent the land as cheap as he can, and the interest of the other to let it as dear as he can. I say, then, that it is impossible to combine both in one measure, so as to give an equal amount of benefit to both interests. You might as well expect to combine the cotton brokers of Liverpool and the cotton spinners of Manchester in one measure, which would be equally advantageous to both. The two cases are precisely the same. And I do hope the time is not far distant when these discussions will put the tenant-farmers in their real position in this country.
I have been accused by honourable Gentlemen with having said that I considered the farmers had been injured—nay, the honourable Member for Buckinghamshire went so far as to say that I was a party to injuring them. I wish honourable Gentlemen would have the fairness to give the entire context of what I did say, and not pick out detached words. If they did so, it would save time and my explanations. What I said at Manchester was this, that as we carried the principle of Free Trade with respect to corn, we owed it to the farmer to carry out the same principles, by removing as far as possible every impediment to the free employment of capital and labour upon the soil. The farmer complains of the interference of the malt-tax with his business, and it is not inconsistent with my principles to remove that impediment out of his way. I do this without pretending to any particular affection for the farmer above other classes. If I did so, I would follow your error, by attempting to legislate for a particular class. I said on a former occasion, that I would not enter again into the subject of Free Trade, unless a motion was laid on the table of the House for the purpose of restoring protection to corn. But this motion has been made a protection debate, and we have been challenged by honourable Gentlemen opposite to make good our case; and it has been asserted that we are the authors of all kinds of disasters, not only to the farmers everywhere, but to the labourers, and even to the manufacturers.
I deny the charge, and I bring you to the facts. You complain of the condition of the agricultural labourer—you complain that he is suffering from the low price of provisions. The noble lord the Member for West Sussex (the Earl of March) spoke of the halcyon days of high-priced corn, and how well off the agricultural labourers were then. I have taken pains to inquire into that matter, and I deny that they were better off. Take one of those darling years of which you are so fond—take the year 1847, and compare it with the present time. An agricultural labourer's family, consisting of five persons, if they consumed as much bread as is allowed per head by the Poor-law Unions to out-of-door paupers, should consume ten 4lb. loaves in the week. Then ten loaves in 1847 cost 9d. a loaf, or 7s. 6d. for the whole; they cost now 6d. a loaf, or 5s. for the whole; so that he pays 2s. 6d. less for his bread now than he did in 1847. The reduction of wages generally is about 1s. a week, so that he is a gainer by 1s. 6d. But I will take the extreme case put by the honourable Gentleman opposite, and assume that wages have fallen 2s. a week, and even then it leaves a balance of 6d. a week in his favour, independently of the measures passed in consequence of Free Trade for the reduction of sugar, which conferred a further benefit on the labourer. But take the ordinary case of the labourers and mechanics in towns—take the case of the manufacturing labourers in the north of England and in London—and I maintain that, at the present time, as compared with those high-priced years gone by for ever, those years for which the noble lord sighs in vain—the mechanical operatives and labouring population in our great manufacturing seats save at least from 2s. to 3s. a week in their weekly wages, which is tantamount to fifteen per cent. on their income.
The honourable Member for the North Riding of Yorkshire (Mr. Cayley) said that we failed in all our predictions, and he made us appear as if we expected a great many things which I never expected. He said that we caused a great reduction of wages. Well, if you say you have reduced wages in the agricultural districts, I hold that you are good authority for that statement: but I deny that wages have been reduced in the manufacturing districts; nay, more, I deny that they have been reduced in the neighbourhood of those districts. On the contrary, there has been a tendency to a rise in wages during the six weeks that the Corn-law has been abolished. I will state a case which the noble Lord the Member for Stamford (the Marquis of Granby) will comprehend. Within a few weeks a body of men for whom he and his brothers professed great sympathy—the stockingers and glove-makers of the midland counties—struck for an increase of wages. I find it stated in the Nottingham newspapers, that they have had four successive strikes for wages, and that the men gained the advantage on every occasion—a thing which was not known for seventy years before—during the whole of which period there had been a gradual diminution of wages. Take again the district with which I am connected—take Lancashire. What is the state of things there at the present time as compared with the days to which the noble lord is so anxious to go back, and to which you are all anxious to return? Why, it is in a state of comparative prosperity now. Look to Bradford, and compare its condition now to the state it was in twelve months ago, when I accompanied a deputation to the right honourable the Chancellor of the Exchequer, asking for relief in its behalf.
But I need not confine myself to the manufacturing districts. I will take the condition of the farmers themselves. I call on the honourable Member for East Somersetshire (Mr. Miles) to go over some figures together with me. I admit the farmers are suffering in certain districts. But I am not going to let honourable Gentlemen off as to the cause of that distress. Do honourable Gentlemen forget that the farmers suffered sometimes before? Do they read Hansard? Do they recollect the years 1819, 1820, and 1822, when petitions were presented every night, and debates and speeches upon them—when county meetings were held day after day to protest against the distress and oppression which the agriculturists were labouring under, and when they showed themselves more sensible than they did now, for then they always accompanied their petitions for redress, with a demand for a reduction of expenditure and taxation? They did not then suffer themselves to be bamboozled as they do now, when not a word is uttered by them about a reduction of public expenditure. What do you think of the year 1821, when Sir E. Knatchbull declared that all the farmers were nearly ruined in 1820—that they were quite ruined in 1821? In 1822 a Committee of Inquiry was granted to inquire into agricultural distress. Now, bear in mind, that you had all this time a law which gave you a monopoly of the wheat market up to the price of 80s. What said the report of that Committee? Why, it said, 'it must be admitted that protection could not be carried further than monopoly, and that the agricultural interest enjoyed a complete monopoly since 1819.' No wheat had been imported from 1819 to 1822, and yet the agricultural interest was in a state of universal distress, and even in a state of bankruptcy. Well, in 1835, you were in the same condition precisely, and you had a committee which made no report, because no case could be made out during the time of the sliding-scale. In 1836, again, the Marquis of Chandos made a motion for the repeal of the malt-tax, and he said that the landlords were abandoning their mansions to go and live abroad, the farmers were going to the workhouse, and the labourers, instead of drinking beer, drank water from the pump. Do you recollect that Mr. Bennett, the Member for Wiltshire, when slily threatened with the income tax, said that this was no threat to the landed interest, for the land was no longer theirs—it belonged to mortgagees and money-lenders? Well, all this was during the height of protection—and with this before you, how can you come and say that, with Free Trade only in existence for six weeks, we are the cause of the distress of the farmers?
I believe that this distress has partly arisen in consequence of our principle of an immediate repeal not being carried out. I stated my opinion emphatically in 1846, that the farmers were making a mistake in not having the Corn-law immediately repealed, because I knew that during the three years that it was to continue a stimulus would be given to the production of wheat all over the world, for the purpose of pouring it into the market here, when the duty was entirely taken away. The duty, which was run up to ten shillings, came down suddenly, and this was partly the cause of the distress. I believe that the parties who imported this wheat are selling it now at a loss. But if we are not the cause of the farmers' distress, who is the cause of it? Let us go back to a time when farmers were generally doing well. Between the years 1785 and 1790 the farmers had a quiet, steady trade: there were no complaints then. Why were there now? Why did not the farmers get the profit now which they got in the period between the American war and the French revolution? In 1790 the price of iron and implements of husbandry was double what it is now; clothing of every kind was nearly double; cotton articles were four or five times their present price; salt was double the price at which it is now selling. Tea, sugar, coffee, soap, fuel, were dearer then than now. Spices, preserved fruits, and all the moderate luxuries of life were then dearer than at present. But, on the other hand, butcher's-meat, bacon, butter, cheese, poultry, and eggs bring higher prices now than then, so that all the articles in which the farmer dealt sold as cheap or cheaper then than at present; while, with the single exception of beer, which we, the Free-traders, are anxious to put on the same footing, there is no article of domestic use or implement employed in his business which the farmer cannot buy cheaper now than in 1790. The price of labour in the purely agricultural districts has not changed more than one or two shillings a week, and taking its productiveness into account, it is far cheaper now than in 1790. Why, then, does the farmer complain now? There is one little item which you all forget, but which I do not forget, and that is simply the rent of land, which in any case is double, and in some places treble, what it was in 1790. I say, without hesitation or fear of contradiction, that the rent of agricultural land in England is now double what it was in 1790, and in many cases treble; while in Scotland it is generally more than treble.
I am not going to speak to you, now that the Corn-laws are repealed, in language different from that which I used when agitating for the repeal of those Corn-laws. I have never, in the presence of farmers, in any county in England—and I have met them in open assembly in almost every county—much as I am charged with telling one story in one place and another story in another place—I have never dwelt on a probable reduction of rents as a reason for repealing the Corn-laws. I have, however, always said that with free trade in corn, and with moderate prices, if the present rents were to be maintained, it must be by means of a different system of managing property from that which you now pursue. You must have men of capital on your land; you must let your land on mercantile principles—you must not be afraid of an independent and energetic man who will vote as he pleases at the hustings—you must abandon that modern innovation of battue shooting, which was not known to your ancestors in 1790. Well, now, you laugh at that. I said before that I knew I was speaking in the presence of landowners and landlords, and I now ask you to deal fairly with me when I tell you a home truth; it is, that when you laugh at this battue shooting, you are doing precisely the contrary of what the farmers would do if I were speaking about it to them. I know that farmers regard this system of game preserving as a very great nuisance,—as a very great hindrance to the employment of capital. I know an instance of one of the greatest agitators for Corn-laws, a large landed proprietor, who has driven some of the best tenants that could be found in this kingdom—men of capital—from his estates, because he perseveres in keeping up an inordinate amount of game. I am not going to be fanatical with you, even on the subject of game. I never yet met a farmer—I now speak in particular of the Lothians—who wished to extirpate game. You may have all the game necessary for exercise; but if you will keep up such an amount of game as is necessary for the shooting of five hundred head in one day—and I have heard of that being done by a noble lord and some of his friends—let me tell you that you cannot get men who will pay you in rent, pay you in game, and pay you also in votes. You must be content with a money rent. Give up your game, and give up the votes of your tenants, or you will not be able to retain your money rent. There is nothing unreasonable, though there may be something very inconvenient, at this late hour, in my talking to you in this way. If you come to this House and parade the distress of the farmer—if, besides, you utter something like a threat of robbing the Exchequer, and deal out alarming predictions of what is going to happen if the farmers are not made to prosper in their business, it becomes us, who take a different view, to tell you what are the reasons why the farmers are not more prosperous.
Now, Sir, something has been said about the very painful ordeal of sending away small farmers who have an insignificant amount of capital Well, in the first place, it is not very complimentary to a system of Corn-laws and protection, that the farmer's trade is the only one in this kingdom in which capital is deficient. It is overflowing in every other trade. I defy you to show me any other trade in the kingdom, wholesale or retail, which is not glutting the market. And farming being the most inviting business of all, is one to which capital will gladly flow, if you will accept energetic men and men of capital as tenants. Give such men fair leases, and let them do what is best for their own prosperity, and capital will always come to the land in abundance. But what I wish particularly to show you is this—that it is a mistaken humanity to keep on your estates farmers who are deficient in capital, and, I should add, intelligence also, if what the honourable Member for Dorsetshire stated be strictly correct—namely, that if you went to the farmers of that county and explained to them what the honourable Member for Buckinghamshire meant to do for their benefit, they would all, without being coerced by their landlords, at once say, 'We shall be very glad if you will take off these local rates, for we feel quite sure that the landlords will not put the amount into their pockets, but will take it off our rent.' If such be the real character of the farmers, I must say that they want intelligence as well as capital.
What I say on that subject is this, that while you are looking at the interests of men who are without intelligence and without capital, you are losing sight of the interests of the agricultural labourers, who are much more numerous, and therefore more deserving of consideration, than even these small farmers. If you have not men of capital on your land, the labourers cannot be employed. Go to any district—for example, North Devon or Dorsetshire—where the farmers are most deficient in capital, and there you will find the poor-rates highest, and the labourers most depressed. Well, then, I say, whatever may be the inconvenience of doing so, you must take steps to draw capital to your land. You must invite it—you must tempt it—and if you do so, you will be able to employ your labourers. It is perfectly true, as was stated by the noble lord the Member for West Sussex, that in seasons of depression a number of labourers are thrown out of employment in the agricultural districts; and that while the depression lasts, it tends to raise the amount of the poor-rates, so that it is made to appear that the poor-rate has not a tendency to fall in cheap years, as we maintain it ought to do. But what is the cause of agricultural labourers having been thus thrown out of employment when a depression suddenly arises? It is because the tenantry have made false calculations as to the mode in which they are to carry on a profitable cultivation of the land. Farmers have depended on high prices being maintained by Act of Parliament; and, when those prices fail them, as they always have done from time to time, once in seven or ten years, these men, who have insufficient capital to rest upon, and who have depended upon nothing but artificial prices, break down, and come petitioning Parliament for relief.
Well, then, you must put an end to this state of things. I exhort you to tell the farmers honestly that it is 'a delusion, a mockery, and a snare,' to teach them that you can restore one shilling of protection in this House. I admit that you may tamper with the Navigation Laws. That matter rests with the noble lord and his Government; and, if I were in his place, I would stand or fall by the Navigation Bill without altering a clause. But I tell him in the most amicable spirit, that there will be no agitation for the repeal of the Navigation Laws. The public mind considers the Free-trade question as settled; but the public also expect that the Government will show some vigour in completing the measures of Free Trade, by equalising the duties in the tariff, the duties on coffee, and other articles of general consumption, and by getting rid of the Navigation Laws. They expect the Executive Government to show the same vigour, with a majority of fifty or sixty in this House, as the right honourable Gentleman (Sir Robert Peel) showed in laying the foundation of Free Trade by the repeal of the Corn-laws. The effect of this measure being rejected would not be to create an agitation, but to strike the country with despair of any strong and vigorous administration in the hands of the noble lord.
I say, then, that whatever may be the fate of the Navigation Laws, the Corn question is a different thing. I was always an advocate for confining the public mind to that one question; I call it the keystone of the arch; the rest will fall of itself. But if the Government were to propose a 1s. duty on corn—it was a fearful scene in 1815, when the people surrounded this House whilst you were passing the Corn-law; but, depend upon it, you will be surrounded by a totally different class, if you attempt to pass another Corn-law. Now, if you value your own interest, if you value the interest of the farmer,—above all, if you value the interest of your labouring population, dissipate this delusion, which some of you are attempting to propagate; proclaim, once for all, that any renewal of protection on corn is as impossible as it would be to revoke Magna Charta. Tell them to rely upon their own energies, and that you will co-operate with them. Go to them, and talk to them, and do not come here, talking to the Government or the Prime Minister about reviving protection. Take your proper place, and do your duty alongside of your tenants. Join together in adopting such measures as are suitable to your altered circumstances—and to that which is irrevocable. Don't dream of high prices again. High prices are incompatible with the well-being of this country, and with the interest of the manufacturing population of the large towns. Do you want to follow out the policy of the noble lord the Member for West Sussex, the Earl of March, and to bring us back to the state in which we were in 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842, the years included in his list of high prices, and when he says everybody was prosperous? Have you forgotten the state of Stockport, almost a desolation? Have you forgotten Sheffield, with its 20,000 people existing on the poor-rates; or Leeds, with its 30,000, in the same condition? Have you forgotten a state of things in which political excitement almost bordered on insurrection? and would you dare to bring back such a state of things, and, above all, call it prosperity? No, you have a fair career before you with moderate prices, provided you will alter the system on which you conduct your affairs.
Thirty years ago the manufacturers and merchants of this country had to go through precisely the same ordeal as you have now to pass through. Many of you remember what a revulsion there was within three years after the war in every article of manufactures. Why, a great number of people were then ruined by the losses which they sustained through the stocks which they had on hand. But what occurred gave rise to a totally different description of trade—a trade aiming at a large production and small profits; and let me tell you for your encouragement, that, from 1817 up to the present time, the fortunes made in manufactures and commerce have not been realised by selling at high prices, but almost every successive fortune has been made by selling at lower prices, though in larger quantities. Now there is abundance of scope for you to carry out the same thing. I believe we have no adequate conception of what the amount of production might be from a limited surface of land, provided only the amount of capital were sufficient. There is no reason whatever why I should not live to see the day when a man who lays out 1,000l. on fifty acres of land, will be a more independent, more prosperous, and more useful man, than many farmers who now occupy five or six hundred acres, with not one quarter or one-tenth of the capital necessary to carry on the cultivation.
I sincerely thank the House for having listened to me with so much attention at this hour of the morning. I should be sorry if the motion of my honourable friend the Member for Montrose were ignored in the great discussion which we have had about local taxes. My honourable friend seems to me to have very properly met the case as it at present stands. It is quite clear that the honourable Member for Buckingham-shire has been put out of court. That is quite certain. When the farmer reads the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech—and I would certainly recommend every farmer in the country to do so—when he reads that speech, aided by the analysis which I find in Punch to-day—when he sees that the sum total of advantage to the farmer, shown by the speech and the analysis, is an increase of taxation to the amount of 400,000l., I don't think he will consider that any boon has been offered to him. The Chancellor of the Exchequer himself does not, indeed, promise anything much better. He declares that he cannot give us any remission of taxation. Well, then, my honourable friend the Member for Montrose steps in in the most timely way; and, though now probably, as he has always been, a little before his time, still he is right. Now, I am quite sure that you cannot benefit the farmer except by a general reduction of the national expenditure. Let us further tell the land-owners that that is the only means of staving off that tendency to a reduction of rent, which must arise in a transition state, though I maintain that the value of land will ultimately be higher under a system of Free Trade than it ever could have been under protection.
My honourable friend proposes to repeal the malt-tax. Now, though I am a very great advocate for the repeal of that tax, yet, being a sober man myself, I do not take such an interest in the question as some honourable Members do. But I shall vote for the repeal, chiefly because I wish to diminish the waste of our national expenditure, and thus, to find means of reducing taxation. Let there be sufficient pressure, and the Government will find a way of reducing our costly establishments. I will add, that my own course with regard to the reduction of taxation is supported by that of the noble lord (Lord John Russell), who in 1816, after the war, contended for a reduction of the army below the Government estimate of 99,000 men. The men were voted, but there was an immense excitement against the property-tax, and when it came to be voted, it was rejected by a large majority; hereupon the Secretary at War asked to withdraw his estimates, with a view to their revision, and they were revised and reduced most materially. So, if the Government now was made to take the malt-tax and other taxes in hand, with a view to their reduction, they will soon find it necessary to reduce their estimates; and, therefore, as one very sound reason, do I hope that the House will support the proposition of my honourable friend for a reduction of expenditure.
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