The working classes and the corn laws

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The working classes and the corn laws  (1842) 
by Richard Cobden
A speech given on a motion to abolish "all duties payable on the importation of corn, grain, meal, and flour", the Corn Laws. Given to the House of Commons on 24 February 1842.

If the hon. Gentleman [Sir Howard Douglas] who has just sat down will give the House another promise, that when he speaks he will always speak to the subject, the House will have a more satisfactory prospect of his future addresses. I have sat here seven nights, listening to the discussion on what should have been the question of the Corn-laws, and I must say that I think my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton [Mr. C. Villiers] has just grounds for complaint, that in all those seven nights scarcely two hours have been given to the subject of the bread-tax. Our trade with China, the war in Syria, the bandying of compliments between parties and partisans, have occupied our attention much and often, but very little has been said on the question really before the House. I may venture to say that not one speaker on the other side of the House has yet grappled with the question so ably propounded by my hon. Friend, which is—How far, how just, how honest, and how expedient it was to have any tax whatever laid upon the food of the people? That is the question to be decided; and when I heard the right hon. Baronet [Sir R. Peel] so openly express his sympathy for the working classes of this country, I expected that the right hon. Baronet would not have finished his last speech on this question without at least giving some little consideration to the claims of the working man in connection with the Corn-laws.

To this view of the subject I will therefore proceed to call the attention of the Committee; and I call upon hon. Gentlemen to meet me upon neutral ground in discussing the question in connection with the interests of those working classes, who have no representatives in this House. While I hear herein strong expressions of sympathy for those who have become paupers, I will ask hon. Gentlemen to give some attention to the case of the hard-working man before he reaches that state of abject pauperism in which he can only receive sympathy. In reading the debates upon the passing of the first stringent Corn-law of 1814, I am much struck to find that all parties who took part in that discussion were agreed upon one point,—it was that the price of food regulated the rate of wages. That principle was laid down, not by one side of the House, but by men of no mean eminence on each side, and of course of opposite opinions in other respects. Mr. Horner and Mr. Baring, Mr. F. Lewis, the present Lord Western, Mr. [now Sir] G. Philips, were all agreed on that head, though some advocated and others opposed the measure. One of the speakers, indeed, went so far as to make a laboured computation to show the exact proportion which the price of food would bear to the rate of wages. The same delusion existed out of doors too. A petition was presented to the House in 1815, signed by the most intelligent of the manufacturing and working classes, praying that the Corn Bill might not be passed, because it would so raise the rate of wages, that the manufacturers of this country would not be able to compete with the manufacturers abroad. In reading the debates of that date, I have been filled with the deepest sorrow to find how those who passed that measure were deluded. But I believe that they were labouring under an honest delusion. I firmly believe, that if they had been cognisant of the facts now before the House, they would never have passed that Corn Bill. Every party in the House was then deluded: but there was one party, that most interested, the working classes, who were not deluded. The great multitude of the nation, without the aid of learning, said—with that intuitive and instructive sagacity which had given rise to the adage, 'The voice of the people is the voice of God'—what the effect of the measure would be upon wages, and therefore it was, that when that law was passed this House was surrounded by the multitudes of London, whom you were compelled to keep from your doors by the point of the bayonet. Yes, and no sooner was the law passed than there arose disturbances and tumults everywhere, and in London bloodshed and murder ensued; for a coroner's jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against the soldiers who were called out and fired upon the people. The same hostility to the measure spread throughout the whole of the north of England; so that then, from the year 1815 down to 1819, when the memorable meeting was held at Peter's-field in Manchester, there never was a great public meeting at which there were not borne banners inscribed with the words 'No Corn-laws.'

There was no mistake in the minds of the multitude then, and let not hon. Gentlemen suppose that there is any now. The people may not be crying out exclusively for the repeal of the Corn-laws, because they have looked beyond that question, and have seen greater evils even than this, which they wish to have remedied at the same time; and, now that the cries for 'Universal Suffrage' and 'The Charter' are heard, let not hon. Gentlemen deceive themselves by supposing that, because the members of the Anti-Corn-law League have sometimes found themselves getting into collision with the Chartists, that therefore the Chartists, or the working men generally, were favourable to the Corn-laws. If one thing is more surprising than others in the facts which I have mentioned, it is to find in this House, where lecturers of all things in the world are so much decried, the ignorance which prevails upon this question amongst hon. Members on the other side of the House. [Oh! oh!] Yes, I have never seen their ignorance equalled amongst any equal number of working men in the North of England. Do you think that the fallacy of 1815, which I heard put forth so boldly last week, that wages rose and fell with the price of bread, can now prevail in the minds of working men, after the experience of the last three years? Has not the price of bread been higher during that time than for any three consecutive years for the last twenty years? And yet trade has suffered a greater decline in every branch of industry than in any preceding three years. Still there are hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House, with the Reports of Committees in existence and before them proving all this, prepared to support a bill, which, in their ignorance—for I cannot call it anything else—they believe will keep up the price of labour.

I am told that the price of labour in other countries is so low that we must keep up the price of bread here, to prevent wages going down to the same level. But I am prepared to prove, from documents emanating from this House, that labour is cheaper here than in other countries. I hear a sound of dissent; but I would ask those who dissent, do they consider the quality of the labour? By this test, which is the only fair one, it will be proved that the labour of England is the cheapest labour in the world. The Committee on machinery, last session but one, demonstrated that fact beyond all dispute. They reported that labour on the continent was actually dearer than in England in every branch of industry. Spinners, manufacturers, machine-makers, all agreed that one Englishman on the Continent was worth three native workmen, whether in Germany, France, or Belgium. If they are not, would Englishmen be found in every large town on the Continent? Let us go to any populous place, from Calais to Vienna, and we should not visit any city with 10,000 inhabitants without finding Englishmen who are earning thrice the wages the natives earn, and yet their employers declare that they are the cheapest labourers. Yet we are told that the object of the repeal of the Corn-laws is to lower wages here to the level of continental wages.

Have low wages ever proved the prosperity of our manufactures? In every period when wages have dropped, it has been found that the manufacturing interest dropped also; and I hope that the manufacturers will have credit for taking a rather more enlightened view of their own interest than to conclude that the impoverishment of the multitude, who are the great consumers of all that they produce, could ever tend to promote the prosperity of our manufacturers. I will tell the House, that by deteriorating that population, of which they ought to be so proud, they will run the risk of spoiling not merely the animal but the intellectual creature, and that it is not a potato-fed race that will ever lead the way in arts, arms, or commerce. To have a useful and a prosperous people, we must take care that they are well fed.

But to come to the assumption that the manufacturers do want to reduce the rate of wages, and that the Corn-law will keep them up, we are still going to pass a law which will tax the food of our industrious and hard-working people; and what must be the result? The right hon. Baronet, in answer to a fallacy so often uttered on the other side of the House, said, 'We do now compete with the foreigner: we export to the extent of 40,000,000l. or 50,000,000l. a year.' That is true; but how? By taxing the bones and muscles of the people to double the amount of good supposed to be done to them by the Corn-laws. A double weight being put upon them, they are told to run a race with the labourers of Germany and France. We exult in a people who can labour so; but I would ask, with Mr. Deacon Hume, Whose are the energies which belonged to the British people, their own property or that of others? Think you, that for giving them an opportunity merely to strive and struggle for an existence, you may take one-half of what they earn? Is that doing justice to the high-mettled racer? You do not treat your horses so; you give them food, at all events, in proportion to their strength and their toil. But Englishmen, actually, are worse treated; tens of thousands of them were last winter worse off than your dogs and your horses.

Well, what is the pretence upon which you propose to tax them? We have been told by the right hon. Gentleman that his object is to fix a certain price for corn: and hearing that proposition from a Prime Minister, and listening to the debates, I have been almost led to believe that we are gone back to the times of the Edwards, when Parliament was engaged in fixing the price of a table-cloth, or a napkin, or a pair of shoes. But is this House a corn-market? Is not your present occupation better fitted for the merchant and the exchange? We do not act in this way with respect to cotton, or iron, or copper, or tin. But how are we to fix the price of corn? The right hon. Baronet, taking the average of ten years at 56s. 10d., proposes to keep the price of wheat at from 54s. to 58s. Now Lord Willoughby D'Eresby will not be content with less than 58s. Some hon. Members opposite are for the same price at the lowest; and I see by the newspapers that the Duke of Buckingham, at a meeting of farmers held at Aylesbury on the preceding day, said the price ought to be 60s. But there is one hon. Gentleman, whom I hope I shall have the pleasure to hear by-and-by go more into detail as to the market price which he intends to secure for his commodity in the market. I see in that little but very useful book, the Parliamentary Companion, which contains most accurate information, and in which some of the Members of this House give very nice descriptions of themselves, under the head of Mr. Cayley, M.P. for North Yorkshire [p. 134], the following entry:—'Is an advocate for such a course of legislation, with regard to agriculture, as will keep wheat at 64s. per quarter, new milk cheese at from 52s. to 60s. per cwt., wool and butter at 1s. per lb. each, and other produce in proportion.'

Now it is all very amusing, exceedingly amusing, to find still that there are gentlemen, at large, too, who will argue that Parliament should interpose and fix the price at which they should sell their own goods. That is very amusing indeed; but when we find the Prime Minister of this great country coming down to parliament and avowing such a principle, it becomes anything but amusing. I will ask the right hon. Baronet, is he prepared to carry out this principle in respect to cotton and wool? I pause for a reply.

[Sir R. Peel: 'I have said that it was impossible to fix the price of food by any legislative enactment.']

Then upon what are we now legislating? I thank the right hon. Baronet for that avowal. Will he oblige me still further by not trying to do it? But supposing he will try, all I ask of him is—and again I shall pause for a reply—will he try to legislate to keep up the price of cottons, woollens, silks, and such like goods? There is no reply. Then we have come to this, that we are not legislating for the universal people. Here is the simple, open avowal, that we are met here to legislate for a class against the people. I do not marvel, therefore, though I have seen it with the deepest regret and indignation, that the House has been surrounded during this debate by an immense body of the police force. [A laugh.] I cannot let this subject drop with a laugh. It is no laughing business to those who have no wheat to sell, and no money to purchase food to sustain life.

I will refer the House to the great fall in the price of cotton. At this day, in Manchester, the price of that article is 30 per cent. less than it was ten years back. It is the same with respect to ironmongery. During the average of the last ten years it has also fallen 30 per cent., and yet with this great reduction of price the man engaged as an iron-monger is to take his goods and to exchange them with the agriculturist for the produce of the land at the present high price of corn. Is this fair and reasonable? Can it be called legislation at all? Sure I am that it is not honest legislation. It is no answer to this argument, if the Prime Minister of this country comes forward and declares that he has not the power to obviate this evil; yet it is not too much to assert that the man placed in that high and responsible situation should step forward to stay the progress of such unjust and partial legislation.

I have only yet touched the skirts of the question. I would remind the House that it will not be a laughing question before it is settled. I would ask the right hon. Baronet whether, whilst fixing the scale of prices for wheat, he intends to introduce to the House a sliding scale for wages as well? I know only one class of the community whose wages are secured by the sliding scale, and those are the clergy of this country. I would ask what is to be done with the artisan; I know that I shall be told that a resolution has been passed declaring that the scale of wages cannot be kept up. I am well acquainted with the answer which the poor distressed hand-loom weavers got when they addressed the House and claimed its protection. They were told that the House had been studying political economy, and that the weavers had entirely mistaken their position, and that their wages could not be maintained up to a certain price. That was the answer which those poor men received. Why, I will ask, should a law be passed to keep up the price of wheat, whilst you admit that wages cannot be also sustained at a certain price? It is not complicated statistics, learned references to authorities, or figures nicely dovetailed, that will satisfy the starving people of this country, and convince them that a band of dishonest confederates had not been leagued together for the purpose of upholding the interests of one body against the general good of the country.

We have been told that the land of this country is subjected to peculiarly heavy burdens? But what is the nature of those burdens? A facetious gentleman near me has attempted an explanation of this matter, and has declared that 'the heavy burdens' meant only heavy mortgages. The country has a right to expect that the right hon. Baronet will inform the House what those burdens are to which the landed interest is exposed. When questioned on this point, the right hon. Baronet states that there exist a variety of opinions on the subject; and that is the only explanation that can be obtained. I boldly declare that for every one burden imposed on the land I am able to show ten exemptions.

I will refer to the speech of the hon. Member for Renfrewshire [Mr. Stewart]. He complained of the delay which had occurred in obtaining a return moved for some time back with reference to the land-tax to which the land abroad was subjected. I should like to know why our Consuls abroad have not made some official return on the subject. They surely might have forwarded the Government the desired information. Being without any official intelligence on this point, it will not be in my power to give the House any explicit information on the subject. With reference to the land-tax in France, it has been stated by M. Humann, in the Chamber of Deputies, that the land-tax paid in France was 25 per cent. upon the value of the soil, and equal to 40 per cent. of the whole revenue of the country. In this country the land-tax amounts to 1,900,000l., and the value of the landed property, as stated by one of your own men, Mr. Macqueen, was about 230,000,000l. This tax is but a mere fraction compared to the duty levied in this country on the poor man's tobacco. I think that if the right hon. Baronet does not soon propound his views on this subject to the House, he will be treating them with great disrespect.

I look back to the past debate with feelings not altogether devoid of satisfaction. Many important admissions have been made. I never heard it admitted, until the right hon. Baronet made the admission, that the tax upon food actually contributes to the revenue of the proprietors of the land. What are the peculiar burdens imposed on land which led to the introduction of the present tax on corn? I have a right to demand an answer on this point. The only plea for levying such a tax is to benefit one class of society.

It has been admitted by the head of the Government that this country never can be entirely independent of the foreign grower of corn; that our state was a kind of supplementary dependence; that in some years we must look abroad for a supply of food, and that this is when we want it. I perfectly agree with the right hon. Baronet, that corn ought only to be admitted free of all restrictions when it is 'wanted.' That is, the particular moment or crisis when it is desirable to open our ports for the admission of foreign corn. But I would ask the House and the Government of the country, who are to decide when the corn is wanted? Is it those who need food and are starving, or those who fare sumptuously every day and roll in all the luxuries of life? What right has the right hon. Baronet to attempt to gauge the appetite of the people? It is an inordinate assumption of power to do so. Such a thing cannot be tolerated under the most monstrous system of despotism which the imagination of man has ever conceived. Do we sit here for the purpose of deciding when the people of this country want food? What do the Members of this House know of want? It is not for them to say when the starving people of this country ought to have food doled out to them. The people are the best judges upon that point.

The right hon. Baronet has been guilty of having made contradictory statements with reference to the condition of the hand-loom weavers. What is the state of the poor in Ireland? I refer to the work of Mr. Inglis. That gentleman declared, at the conclusion of his publication, that one-third of the people of Ireland are perishing for want of the common necessaries of life.

I have heard other admissions during the debate, some of a very startling character, with reference to which I will make an observation. It has been affirmed by the right hon. Baronet the Paymaster of the Forces [Sir E. Knatchbull], that a tax upon corn is necessary in order to enable the landed interest to maintain their rank in society. I do not think that the noble Lord [Stanley] who sits near the right hon. Baronet the Paymaster of the Forces, is dealing fairly by the people of England. It was very justly observed some years ago by the Times newspaper, that the Corn-laws were nothing but an extension of the Pension List; but it might have been added that it was also an extension of a system of pauperism to the whole of the landed aristocracy. If this country is to be ground down by an oligarchy, we had better at once adopt the system pursued in ancient Venice, where the nobles entered their names in the Golden Book, and took the money directly out of the people's pockets. It would be more honest to imitate those nobles openly, than do so in a covert manner. But one class will not submit to be heavily taxed, whilst the other lives in opulence and splendour.

The right hon. Baronet is not ignorant of the state of the commercial and manufacturing interests of the country. He is not legislating in the dark. I will tell the right hon. Baronet, that bad as trade is now, it will soon be much worse. The Government must be aware that the measure proposed for the settlement of the Corn-law question will not extend the commerce of the country. The House has been told that the measure must be pushed forward without any delay, and this is the result of a communication which the right hon. Baronet has received from the corn-dealers. But I would ask, why there should not be corn-merchants as well as tea-merchants? Why should not the corn-merchants be able to bring back, in exchange for other commodities, a cargo of corn, as well as a cargo of sugar or of tea? If something is not done, we shall see our large capitalists struggling against bankruptcy. In the last speech which the right hon. Baronet addressed to the House, he adopted an apologetic tone of reasoning. An excuse might be offered for the right hon. Baronet if he had been placed in his present position by the people, or by the Queen; but he has placed himself in his present situation.

With reference to the proposition of the noble Lord [J. Russell] the Member for the City of London, I must say that although it is not good, it is infinitely better than the measure submitted to the House by the hon. Gentleman opposite. The right hon. Baronet has been reconstructing his party ever since the carrying of the Reform Bill. He must know that his party is composed of monopolists in corn, tea, sugar, timber, coffee, and the franchise. Out of that band of monopolists the right hon. Baronet has formed the party which supported him, and which formed his Government. They bribed, they intimidated, until they got possession of office.

I will say a word to the noble Lord and his right hon. associates on this [the Opposition] side of the House, who, whilst advocating generally Free-trade principles, have manifested a squeamishness in supporting the motion for a total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws. With all deference to them, that shows too great sympathy with the few, and too little with the many who are suffering. I would ask them, if they had had the power of rescinding the Corn-law Bill by their votes in 1815, would they then have talked of compensation, or of a nine or ten years' diminishing duty? No, they would not. Why then, I would ask, do they now think that twenty-seven years' unjust enjoyment entitles them to an increased benefit in the shape of compensation? I have frequently known the difficulty met before. I give hon. Gentlemen and noble Lords on my side of the House full credit for sincerity, but, for their benefit, I will state the answer I once heard given to the difficulty on the hustings, an answer which was most satisfactory to my mind. On the hustings, there was a great difficulty amongst Whiggish gentlemen. They were arguing on the danger and hardship which might follow the immediate repeal of the Corn-law, when a poor man in a fustian jacket said, 'Why, mon, they put in on all of a ruck[1]'. I may explain, for the benefit of those unacquainted with the Lancashire dialect, that the meaning was, all at once; and so the Corn-laws were. They were put on in 1815 at once, and against the remonstrances of the people. Let them, then, abolish the law with as little ceremony.

I will not further detain the House. The question resolves itself into a very narrow compass. If you find that there are exclusive burdens on the land, do not put a tax upon the bread of the people, but remove the burdens. If you are not prepared to ameliorate the condition of the people, beware of your own position—nay, you must take care that even this House may not fall under the heap of obloquy which the injustice you are perpetuating will thrust upon you.

1^  'Ruck,' in the Lancashire dialect, means 'heap'; they put it on all in a heap, or all at once.


This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.