Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden

Richard Cobden
Cobden, Richard
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James E. Thorold Rogers, ed.
First Pub. Date
London: T. Fisher Unwin
Pub. Date
Collected speeches, 1841-1864. First published as a collection in 1870. 3rd edition. Includes biographical "Appreciations" by Goldwin Smith and J. E. Thorold Rogers.
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Volume I


[The discussion to which Mr. Cobden alludes in the commencement of this speech was a motion and division made and taken by Mr. M. T. Bass on the reduction of the Malt-duty by one-half. Mr. Cobden's motion was supported by Mr. Roebuck, Mr. Milner Gibson, and others, and opposed by Mr. Urquhart. It was met by an amicable explanation on Lord Palmerston's part, and was ultimately withdrawn.]


The resolution which I have now to move is a logical sequence to the discussion in which the House has just been engaged. It has been said, in the course of this discussion, that it is impossible for certain interests to support the present amount of taxation. One of the actuating circumstances that has influenced me in bringing forward this resolution is, that I think it will be so far suited to the present circumstances of the country that it will tend to produce a diminution of burdens and a relief from taxation.


I wish the real scope and purport of my motion to be understood at the outset, so that it may not be misrepresented in the debate. I do not propose, then, to discuss or entertain the amount of the armies maintained upon the Continent. When I speak of warlike preparations, I allude to naval preparations and fortifications. Our army is maintained without reference to the armies of the Continent, and the armies of the Continent are never framed or maintained with reference to the army of England. In speaking of armies, which I regard as the standing curse of the present generation, the matter is usually complicated by questions of a purely domestic character. I am told that the armies of the Continent are not kept up by the Governments of those countries for the sake of meeting foreign enemies, but for the purpose of repressing their own subjects. This being the case, I am asked how I can persuade foreign Governments to reduce their armies, seeing that they were not kept up from the apprehension of a foreign foe, but in order to maintain internal order, as it is called. Now, I believe, if I can succeed in my motion with France, the examples of the two countries may be at once followed by other countries in the reduction of their navy, and that, if a reduction in the naval forces and fortifications of England and France takes place, other countries may afterwards follow with a reduction in their armies.


I presume it will be admitted that the maintenance of a naval force, beyond what is necessary in time of peace for the protection of commerce, is an evil; but I shall be told it is a necessary evil. If I ask why, it will be said, 'Because other countries are armed as well as ourselves.' Well, admitting that, and assuming that France and England maintain a certain amount of naval force, not for the purpose of protecting commerce or acting as the police of the seas, but in order to hold themselves in a menacing attitude towards each other, that must be an unmitigated evil, and not only a pure waste, but it would be better and more economical if both voted that money and threw it into the sea, for both would then save the labour which was employed upon ships of war, and which might be more productively occupied. These two countries will be equally well prepared for warfare with each other if they reduce their force to one as if they both maintain their force at twenty, as their relative proportions will remain the same, and no advantage can be gained, in the event of hostilities, by keeping up this unnecessary force.


Why do I assume that England arms against France, and France against England? I am prepared to show that it is the avowed policy of both countries to arm themselves, so as to be prepared to meet the armaments provided by the other country. In the debate in the French Chamber of Deputies in 1846, when a motion was made for a vote of 100,000,000f. for a great augmentation of the navy, M. Thiers, who carried the resolution for this augmentation, said:—

'There is nothing offensive to England in citing her example, when our navy is under consideration, any more than there would be in speaking of Prussia, Austria, or Russia, if we were deliberating upon the strength of our army, We pay England the compliment of thinking only of her when determining our naval force; we never heed the ships which sally forth from Trieste or Venice,—we care only for those that leave Portsmouth or Plymouth'

I am told that the noble Lord below me was in the Chamber of Deputies when this speech was made. The noble Viscount (Palmerston), in the debate on the financial statement in 1848, said:—

'So far from its affording any cause of offence of France that we should measure our navy by such a standard, I am sure any one who follows the debates in the French Chambers, when their naval estimates come under discussion, must know that they follow the same course,—adopting the natural and only measure in such cases, namely, the naval force which other nations may have at the same time.'


In the same debate on the financial statement in 1848, the noble Lord (John Russell), after showing that the expenditure for the navy in France had increased since 1833 from 2,280,000l. to 3,902,000l., proceeded to observe:—

'I am not alluding at all—it never has been the custom to allude, and I think we are quite right in that respect—to what may be the military force of foreign Powers. I do not, therefore, allude at all to the amount of the standing army that is kept up in France, or in Austria, or in Prussia, or in other foreign countries; but so great an increase in naval estimates, I think, does require the attention, and, at all events, should be within the knowledge of the House.'


I have two objections to that policy: first, it is an irritating policy, having a constant tendency to increase the evil, and to which I see no remedy unless it is in some way met; and secondly, it is a proceeding on exaggerated reports and ideas spread upon the subject of the armaments of the two countries. When these things are exposed, they always bear the trace of great exaggeration. I will mention an instance. Our naval estimates were greatly increased in 1845. The French were alarmed. A Committee of the Chamber of Peers was appointed to inquire into the state of the French navy. They made a report. In that Report they said:—

'We have now to announce the execution of a great scheme which the English Government is pursuing with its usual foresight, and which cannot fail to have a vast influence upon the naval policy of other countries.' (The report then goes on to state that, under the modest pretence of providing steam guard-ships, the British Admiralty is converting eight sailing-vesselsinto formidable steam batteries, capable of remaining fifteen days at sea; that they will be completed during that year; and that it was expected they would be doubled in the following year.) 'If' (continues the Report) 'we compare the powers of destruction possessed by the broadsides of these floating fortresses with those of the most formidable batteries ever employed by an army upon land for the destruction of fortified places, we shall then know what to think of an armament provided under the modest and defensive guise of steam guard-ships. It is, then, for France an absolute necessity to prepare an armament of a similar character and of equal force, so that we may have nothing to dread in future, in case of a possible misunderstanding with England.'


Now, in that Report it is broadly stated that eight steam guard-ships were being prepared by the British Government against France; and there was some ground for it, inasmuch as eight guard-ships were being altered with screw propellers; but when I sat on the Committee on the Navy in 1848, I found, on examining the authorities of the Admirality, that only four of these steam guard-ships were ever completed, and that, instead of being of the character stated in the Report, they were only capable of going to sea for four days instead of fifteen, inasmuch as they were not prepared for carrying a large supply of coal. I will give another illustration of how the two countries play at see-saw in this respect. After the proceedings of England in 1845, and those of France in 1846, Mr. Ward, who was then Secretary of the Admiralty, came down to the House and proposed again an increase of our navy, citing the example of France. The proceedings of France, he said, ought to be a lesson to us, and imposed a great responsibility upon those who were in power in this country. But the British Government could not stop there. They ran the estimate up to 42,000, or, I believe, to 44,000 men. That produced its fruits in France. I hold in my hand an extract from a Report of the National Assembly on the Navy in 1849. It says:—

'Let us see whether foreign Powers really show us the example of a reduction of naval armaments. This very spring, England has voted 40,000 men for the sea service. This vote will amount to 6,000,000l. sterling, without including the cost of artillery, &., which is defrayed out of the Ordnance estimates. We content ourselves with twenty-four vessels of the line afloat, and sixteen in an advanced state upon the stocks, for our peace establishment; the English have seventy afloat, besides those in course of building. With our peace establishment, such as it was fixed in 1846, we should be one-third inferior in strength to the English navy.'


But to illustrate this point further I will quote to the House an extract from a speech of the First Lord of the Admiralty (Sir Francis Baring). In moving the naval estimates for the present year, the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty said (and it was this remark of the right hon. Gentleman that has induced me to give notice of this motion):—

'It was impossible to fix upon what was necessary in their own establishment without looking to the establishments of foreign countries. He might, however, observe that they had had sufficient proof in the course of the last year that a gallant, active, and intelligent people, not far from themselves, had not by any means neglected their naval establishments and naval power.'


And the right hon. Gentleman went on to give a description of the naval evolutions at Cherbourg, and that great fortified place was held up to this country, with a formidable account of its preparations. I now hold in my hand a Report of a Commission of the National Assembly for the outlay of 6,800,000f. to continue the defensive works at Cherbourg; and it bears date the 11th of April, 1851. It says:—

'If we would be fully alive to the necessity of no longer leaving in a defenceless state the point most important and certainly the most menaced upon the whole coast of the Channel, we have only to listen to the opinion entertained of Cherbourg by the English, and especially by one of their most renowned sailors. Admiral Napier, in his recent letter to the Times We have only, in fact, to cast our eye upon the map, and to observe the vast works which the British Admiralty are now executing at Jersey and Alderney for the purpose of creating a rival establishment to our own. This is the more necessary, inasmuch as the railroads and steam-boats in England are every day increasing, and their powerful means of transportation give to those who possess them the facility of concentrating upon any given point a sudden expedition. We must be on our guard against so powerful an enemy, situate at so short a distance from our shores, and who, by the aid of steam, will be henceforth independent of wind, tides, and currents, which formerly impeded the operations of sailing vessels.'


One of the best things this House has done for a long time was to suspend the other night the works for the fortification of Alderney. These works are a menace and an affront to France, and are meant as a rival to Cherbourg. Now Cherbourg, as every one knows who has sailed along that coast, is a most useful, and valuable, and indispensable port of refuge for merchant ships,—in fact, a breakwater at Cherbourg might have been made by subscription from all the maritime States of Europe, so important is it to all who sail along that coast. But Alderney could mean nothing but a great fortified place, within a few miles of France, intended to menace that country. Now, these fortifications arise out of a panic in England. If any one could get at the professional springs applied to panic, it would be a most amusing history. In 1845 the country was led to suppose that we were to be invaded by some maritime Power. A number of engineers had a roving commission to go along the coast and point out places where money could be spent in raising fortifications, and when they had exhausted the coast of England they went over to Jersey and Alderney. I have heard the evidence of some of those gallant gentlemen. One of them said he went down to Plymouth—he found the people there expecting their throats would be cut the next day; and, said he, 'strange as it may appear, I shared their alarm.' It was understood that this panic had projected our harbours of refuge, as they were called, upon which it was suggested that between 4,000,000l. and 5,000,000l. should be expended. It was under the same panic that the works at Keyham, upon which 1,200,000l. had been wasted, and the works at Alderney, which had cost four times as much as the value of the fee-simple of the whole island, were projected. And thus it was that France had now an eager rivalry with us. M. Chevalier, in a pamphlet which he has published on the subject, endeavouring to stem this torrent of rivalry, said that while England had projected her fortifications on the coast of England, France at the same time had projected works to the extent of between 10,000,000l. and 11,000,000l. sterling, without including the fortifications of Paris, and he gives a comparative estimate of the increased expenditure both of France and England from 1838 to 1847, and shows that in that period England and France have constantly augmented their naval expenditure to the extent of between 13,000,000l. and 14,000,000l. sterling, and that both going on in that neck-and-neck race of rivalry, the two countries have, in fact, spent nearly the same amount. Now, is there a remedy for that rivalry? Is it possible to bring human reason to bear upon that mass of folly? I am sure that Gentlemen who think it necessary to have a precedent for what they do, will admit the force of the precedent I am about to quote. I am not going back to 1787, to the demolition of Dunkirk, or to an armed neutrality, or to an arrangement made for a specific object for any armament, but there is a case in modern times bearing upon this question. There was a convention between this country and the United States to limit the amount of force in the lakes that separate Canada from America. The convention was this:—

'Arrangements between the United States and Great Britain, between Richard Rush, Esq., acting as Secretary of the Department of State, and Charles Bagot, his Britannic Majesty's Envoy Extraordinary, &., April, 1817.—The naval force to be maintained upon the American lakes by His Majesty and the Government of the United States shall henceforth be confined to the following vessels on each side, that is:—On Lake Ontario, to one vessel not exceeding 100 tons burden, and armed with one 18-pound cannon; on the upper lakes to two vessels, not exceeding like burden each, and armed with like force; on the waters of Lake Champlain, to one vessel, not exceeding like burden and armed with like force. All other armed vessels on these lakes shall be forthwith dismantled, and no other vessels of war shall be built there or armed. If either party should hereafter be desirous of annulling this stipulation, and should give notice to that effect to the other party, it shall cease to be binding after the expiration of six months from the date of such notice. The naval force so to be limited shall be restricted to such services as will in no respect interfere with the proper duties of the armed vessels of the other party.'


It was entered into in 1817 at the close of the war with the United States, in the progress of which, in 1814, the Duke of Wellington was at Paris, and he then wrote to Sir G. Murray thus:—

'I have told the Ministers repeatedly that a naval superiority on the lakes is a sine quâ non of success in war on the frontier of Canada, even if our object should be solely defensive; and I hope that when you are there they will take care to secure it for you.'


So that, in case of any rupture between England and America, the occupation of the lakes was considered by that great authority to be necessary for success in hostilities; and yet notwithstanding that, immediately after the war, the two countries had the good sense to limit the amount of force upon the lakes. And what has been the result of that friendly convention? Not only has it had the effect of reducing the force, but of abolishing it altogether. When I sat on the Committee I did not find that any vessel was left on the lakes as an armed force. I would ask, then, whether it is not possible to devise some plan, if not by actual convention, as in the case of America, yet by some communication with a Power like France, and say, 'We are mutually building so many vessels each in the year; our relative force is as three to two, and if we increase it tenfold, still the relations will be the same. Will it not be possible, by a friendly understanding, to agree that we shall not go on in this rivalry, but that we shall put a mutual check upon this mutual injury?' Lord Auckland stated before the Committee in 1848 that the amount of force left in the Pacific was always governed by the force left by other Powers. Now, I may be told that I am dealing merely with France; but there are only two countries of any importance as naval Powers, namely, France and Russia, for America had set an example, and was out of the question. When California was discovered, America might have placed two or three line-of-battle ships off that coast, but she withdrew the only one she had there, and turned her artisans and shipwrights to construct some of the most magnificent steam-vessels that were ever seen; and yet her commerce was extending, as our own is. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Urquhart) may, perhaps, refer me to Russia; but I contend that no country that has not a mercantile marine can be a great naval country. You may build up a navy as Mehemet Ali has done, and put his fellahs on board, but if you have not a mercantile marine you never can become a great naval Power. Russia has, no doubt, a great number of ships at Cronstadt—I have seen them all—but if Russia had power she kept it at home; and there may be very good reasons why she did so, for I have heard remarks from American skippers lying at Cronstadt to the effect that her vessels were not much to be admired. She has about 30,000 sailors, but they are men taken from the interior, unaccustomed to sea duty, and are, of course, a complete laughing-stock to British seamen. I do not consider that any country like America or England, carrying on an enormous commerce, and with 100,000 mercantile sailors, can ever be endangered by a country having no mercantile marine. With reference to our distant stations, at all events America offers no obstacle, but rather invites us to this course by her example. France is the only country that presents herself with any force upon foreign stations; and I ask, is it impracticable to carry out the same rule in regard to France that had been agreed to with the United States, or are we to go on ad infinitum, wasting our resources, and imposing unnecessary taxes in order to keep up that waste? I may be told, probably, that this is not the proper moment for such a resolution as this. I think that it is the proper moment. I believe that nations are disposed for peace, and I am glad to be able to cite the opinion of the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and of the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, that there is a great disposition on the part of the people towards maintaining peace. I hold in my hand also an extract from the most powerful organ of public opinion in this country—the most powerful vehicle of public opinion in the world—a paper which certainly everybody would admit has the best possible opportunity of knowing what the tendency of public opinion is throughout the world—I mean the Times newspaper. That journal, in a recent leading article, says:—

'Wars of nation against nation are not the evil of the day, but the contests between classes in the same country. Europe is already so much governed by the representatives of tax-payers, that an European war is an affair of improbable occurrence. Even in countries where constitutional government is not understood, the ruling power would be very slow, for its own sake, to impose taxes for purposes of war. England has remained at peace, although European society has gone through convulsions in the course of the last five years of which history presents no example since the breaking up of the Roman empire.'


If there were not a disposition on the part of the people of the continent to go to war, where is the use or the necessity of the enormous naval force which France keeps up? Surely there must be as great a disposition on the part of that country as of this to reduce the burdens of taxation by diminishing expenditure. I have conversed with French statesmen upon this subject, and when I have put it to them, as I have done to English statesmen, they have admitted that the plan which I propose would be most desirable for them. They say that they keep up their navy because England keeps up hers, but that it would be the greatest possible relief to them to be able to reduce it. I believe that if our Government made a friendly proposal to France, it would be met in an amicable spirit. France does not pretend that she is as strong as England by sea, and she does not aim at being thought so, for it is invariably admitted in the discussions in the French Chamber that she has no pretensions to rival England in the amount of her naval force. I say, then, that if a friendly proposal of this sort were only made to France, I fully believe it would be accepted. This leads me to what I consider the strongest reason why this system should be abolished, and it is this—that while the spirit of rivalry is maintained by two countries so equal in point of resources, taking the army and navy together, it is impossible that one could ever gain a permanent advantage over the other. If one were exceedingly weak and the other strong, and the strong could have some extraordinary motive to oppress the weaker, I might despair to convince by argument; but the case of England and France is very different. Whenever England increases her armaments and fortifications France does the same, and vice versâ. We are pursuing a course, therefore, which holds out to neither country a prospect of any permanent gain. We are not actuated by motives of ambition or aggression, but are simply acting for self-defence, and no rational mind in either country supposes anything else, than that a war between the two countries must be injurious to both. Every country will have an interest in putting an end to this mutual rivalry and hostility by the course which I recommend. I shall be anxious to hear what the noble Lord says upon this. I do not ask the noble Lord to do it in any specific form. My resolution merely says that a communication should be entered into in a spirit of amity with France. I do not stipulate for a diplomatic note in this form or that. I shall be perfectly satisfied if I see the attempt made, for the objection that I have to our system of policy was that there never had been an attempt made to stay the progress of this rivalry—there never had been anything done that could by possibility tend to bring the two countries to an understanding. All I stipulate for is, that diplomacy should put itself a little more into harmony with the spirit of the times, and should do that work which the public thought ought to be the occupation of diplomacy. I shall be told that it is an affair for public opinion, or for the operation of individual enterprise. Why, public opinion and individual enterprise are doing much to bring England and France together. Compare the present state of things with that which existed twenty-five years ago. I remember that at that time there were but two posts a week between London and Paris, Tuesdays and Fridays. Down to 1848, thirty-four hours were allowed fot transmitting a post to Paris; we now make the journey in eleven hours. Where there used to be thousands passing and repassing, there are now tens of thousands. Formerly, no man could be heard in our smaller towns and villages speaking a foreign language, let it be what language it might, but the rude and vulgar passerby would call him a Frenchman, and very likely insult him. We have seen a great change in all this. In this, the first year of the second half of the nineteenth century, we have seen a most important change. We are witnessing now what a few years ago no one could have predicted as possible. We see men meeting together from all countries of the world, more like the gatherings of nations in former times, when they came up for a great religious festival,—we find men speaking different languages, and bred in different habits, associating in one common temple erected for their reception and gratification. I ask, then, that the Government of the country should put itself in harmony with the spirit of the age, and should endeavour to do something to follow in the wake of what private enterprise and public opinion are achieving. I have the fullest conviction that one step taken in that direction will be attended with important consequences, and will redound to the honour and credit of any Foreign Minister who, casting aside the old and musty maxims of diplomacy, shall step out and take in hand the task which I have humbly submitted to the noble Lord (Palmerston). I beg to move 'An Address to Her Majesty, praying that she will direct the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to enter into communication with the Government of France, and endeavour to prevent in future that rivalry of warlike preparations in time of peace which has hitherto been the policy of the two Governments, and to promote, if possible, a mutual reduction of armaments.'

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