LETTER FROM MR. COBDEN
TO THE TENANT FARMERS OF ENGLAND.
TO THE FARMING TENANTRY OF THE UNITED KINGDOM.
Gentlemen,—The question for you now to determine is, Shall the repeal of the Corn-law be gradual or immediate? Deny it who may, this is the only question that deserves a moment's consideration at your hands. Public opinion has decreed that protection to both agriculture and manufactures shall be abolished; and Ministers and statesmen have at last reluctantly bowed to a power from which there is no appeal. Let no designing or obtuse politicians delude you with the cry that the House of Lords, or a dissolution of Parliament, can prevent the repeal of the Corn-law. All men of average sagacity are now agreed that Free Trade in corn and manufactures is inevitable. How, then, shall we apply this new principle?—timidly and gradually, like children; or boldly and at once, as becomes men and Englishmen? Upon this point, I wish to submit to your consideration a few remarks which I believe to be of the utmost importance to your interests; they are offered in good faith by one who has sprung from your own ranks, and who, although deemed by some to be your enemy, will, I hope, live to be regarded as a promoter of the independence and prosperity of the farming tenantry of the kingdom.
The Government measure proposes to abolish the Corn-law in February, 1849, putting on for the three intervening years a new scale of duties, sliding from 10s. to 4s. The moment this law is passed, the duty will drop from 15s. to 4s. Here will be change the first, fright the first, and with many, I fear, panic the first. But there will be no settlement. You will not be able to foretell whether the duty during the years 1847 and 1848 will be 4s. or 10s. It is quite probable that, in February, 1849, the duty will be 10s.; if so, on the 1st of that month, it will drop again suddenly, from 10s. to 1s. Here will be change the second, fright the second, and, possibly, panic the second. The fall of duty in these two changes would have amounted to, first, from 15s. to 4s.; next, from 10s. to 1s.; making, together, 20s.; but, mark, if the duty were immediately reduced, from 15s. to 1s., the fall would be only 14s. So that, by this clumsy contrivance, you are not only to be kept for three years in a state of suspense and embarrassment, and exposed to double panics, but are liable to a drop of 20s., instead of 14s., duty; you are actually subjected to the shock of the withdrawal of 6s. more of protection!
But this is only a small part of the danger to which you will be exposed by the delay. From the moment that the new Corn-law is passed, foreigners and corn-importers will begin to make preparations for the day of its extinction; they dread a sliding-scale in any shape, owing to former losses, and will keep their eyes steadily fixed upon the 1st of February, 1849.
What a precious policy is this which advertises for three years to all the land-owners and speculators of the entire world, offering them a premium to hold back their supplies, and then to pour upon our markets, in one day, a quantity of corn which, but for this contrivance, might have been spread over twelve or eighteen months! And what may your fate be under these probable circumstances? Supposing the crop of 1848 to be abundant in this country, you will be liable, in the spring of 1849, to the sudden and unnatural influx of the corn accumulated by foreigners for this market; thus beating down prices artificially, to the loss of all parties, but more especially of the British farmer.
How different would be the operations of an immediate repeal of the Corn-law! There would then be no stock of foreign corn waiting for the opening of our ports. Nobody expected last year in Poland or America that the English Corn-law would be repealed—nobody prepared for it; not a bushel of grain was raised upon the chance of such an unlooked-for contingency. Is there an intelligent farmer in the kingdom that will not at once exclaim, 'If we are to have a repeal of the Corn-law, give us it this spring, when the foreigner is unprepared for it, and when not a single quarter of corn sown after the news reaches him can be brought to this market in less than eighteen months.'
But the present is, beyond all comparison, the most favourable moment ever known for abolishing the Corn-law. If ever it could be repealed without even temporary inconvenience to the farmer, this is the time. There is a scarcity at present over nearly all the Continent. One-half of Europe is competing for the scanty surplus stock of grain in America. Millions of our countrymen are deprived of their ordinary subsistence by the disease of the potato, and they must be sustained at the public expense upon a superior food. Do what we will, we cannot, during the present year, secure low prices. Abolish the Corn-law to-morrow, and still wheat must rise during the spring and summer. If the farmers had the power of ordering time and circumstances, they could not contrive a juncture more favourable to them than the present for the total and immediate repeal of the Corn-law. Nay, I believe that if the Corn-law could be abolished by a secret edict tomorrow, the farmers would never make the discovery of open ports by any injurious effect produced upon their interests.
I cannot believe that Sir Robert Peel is favourable to the gradual repeal; he supported it by no other argument in his speech than the fear of panic amongst the farmers; but he has told us again and again, in proposing his former alterations in the tariff, that he believes all such changes are less injurious, if suddenly made, than when spread over a period of years. I have the strongest conviction, derived from his own past changes in the tariff, that he is right. Why then should you, in deference to unfounded fears, be deprived of the benefits of experience? If you speak out in favour of an immediate settlement, who will oppose your wishes? Not the Government—they are anxious, so far as public opinion and the exigencies of the moment will allow, to conciliate your favour; not the great landed proprietors, whose interests and yours are in this respect identical, who desire also, on political grounds, to put a period to an agitation, the prolonged duration of which they believe to be injurious, and who would willingly take any step which shall at once consult your interests and dissolve the League.
Let me entreat you to take this subject into your instant and earnest consideration. Do me the justice to believe that I have no other object in view in writing this letter but to serve your interests. If you should be induced to concur in its views, you will avoid the only danger to which, in my opinion, the farmers were ever exposed from the repeal of the Corn-law—that of the transition state. From the first I have always entertained and expressed the conviction that Free Trade, far from permanently injuring the farmers, would ultimately tend to their prosperity and independence. I never disguised from myself, however, the temporary evils to which they might be exposed in the change. But let us unite in seizing the present opportunity, and the triumph of sound principles may be achieved without the bitter ingredient of one particle of injury to any class or individual. From the most exalted personage in the realm down to the humblest peasant, all may witness, with unalloyed pleasure, one of the greatest victories ever achieved over past prejudice and ignorance, whilst each class may derive peculiar gratification at the close of our long domestic struggle. The Sovereign may glory that her reign was reserved for the era of a commercial reformation, more pregnant in beneficial consequences to the destimes of mankind than all the wars of her illustrious ancestors; the landed aristocracy will see in the consummation of our labours an opening for the resumption of their social influence, based upon the only sure foundation—the respect and confidence of the people; whilst to the middle and industrious classes will be presented a constantly widening field for the employment of their peaceful energies, together with greater means and more leisure for that moral amelioration which, I trust, will accompany their improved physical condition.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient Servant,
30th January, 1846.