[Source: Hansard, 3/LXXXVI cols. 665-679. Added by Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.]
In 1841 Benjamin Disraeli asked for a position in the new government formed by Sir Robert Peel but was not included in the ministry. Thereafter, he sought opportunities to attack Peel. This speech saw the culmination of Disraeli's invective against the party leader in the debates over the repeal of the Corn Laws, in which Peel is accused of "trading on the ideas and intelligence of others. His life has been one great appropriation clause. He is a burglar of others' intellect". — Marjie Bloy
. . . I say, then, assuming, as I have given you reason to assume, that the price of wheat, when this system is established, ranges in England at 35s. per quarter, and other grain in proportion, this is not a question of rent, but it is a question of displacing the labour of England that produces corn, in order, on an extensive and even universal scale, to permit the entrance into this country of foreign corn produced by foreign labour. Will that displaced labour find new employment? The Secretary of State says, that England is no longer an agricultural country; and the right hon. Gentleman, when reminded by the noble Lord the Member for Gloucestershire [Hon. Grantley Berkeley], of his words, said, "No, I did not say that; but I said that England was no longer exclusively an agricultural country." Why, Sir, the commerce of England is not a creation of yesterday: it is more ancient than that of any other existing country. This is a novel assumption in the part of the Government to tell us that England has hitherto been a strictly agricultural country, and that now there is a change, and that it is passing into a commercial and manufacturing country. I doubt whether, in the first place, England is a greater commercial country now than she has been at other periods of her history. I do not mean to say that she has not now more commercial transactions, but that with reference to her population, and the population of the world, her commerce is not now greater than at other periods of her history; for example, when she had her great Levantine trade, when the riches of the world collected in the Mediterranean, when she had her great Turkey merchants, her flourishing Antilles, and her profitable, though in some degree surreptitious, trade with the Spanish main. But then it is also said that England has become a great manufacturing country. I believe, Sir, if you look to the general distribution of labour in England, you will find she may be less of a manufacturing country now than she has been. Well, I give you my argument; answer it if you can. I say, looking to the employment of the people, manufacturing industry was more scattered over the country a hundred years ago than it is now. Hon. Gentlemen have laid hold of a word uttered in the heat of speaking. I say manufacturing industry was more dispersed over the country then than now — there were more counties in which manufactures flourished then than at the present moment. For instance, in the west of England, manufactures were more flourishing, and your woollen manufacture bore a greater ratio in importance to the industrial skill of Europe 300 years ago than it does to the aggregate industry of Europe at the present moment. That manufacture might not have been absolutely more important; but as a development of the national industry, it bore a greater relative importance to the industry of Europe then than at the present moment. You had then considerable manufactures in various counties — manufactures a hundred years ago which are now obsolete, or but partially pursued. You have no doubt now a gigantic development of manufacturing skill in a particular county, which has been a great source of public wealth, a development of which Englishmen should be justly proud. But, generally speaking, it is confined to one county; and now Ministers tell us we must change our whole system, because, forsooth, England has ceased to be an agricultural country, and has become a commercial and manufacturing one. That is to say, that we must change our whole system in favour of one particular county. Sir, that is an extremely dangerous principle to introduce. I have heard of a repeal of the Union, but we may live to hear of a revival of the Heptarchy, if Her Majesty's Ministers pursue this policy; if those portions of the country which are agricultural, or suffering under the remains of an old obsolete manufacturing population, are to be told that we must change our whole system because one county where there is a peculiar development of one branch of industry demands it. But what are the resources of this kind of industry to employ and support the people, supposing the great depression in agricultural produce occur which is feared — that this great revolution, as it has appropriately been called, takes place — that we cease to be an agricultural people — what are the resources that would furnish employment to two-thirds of the subverted agricultural population — in fact, from 3,500,000 to 4,000,000 of the people? Assume that the workshop of the world principle is carried into effect — assume that the attempt is made to maintain your system, both financial and domestic, on the resources of the cotton trade — assume that, in spite of hostile tariffs, that already gigantic industry is doubled — a bold assumption, even if there be no further improveinents in machinery, further reducing the necessity of manual labour — you would only find increased employment for 300,000 of your population. Perhaps mechanical invention may reduce the number half, and those only women and children. What must be the consequence? I think we have pretty good grounds for anticipating social misery and political disaster. But, then, I am told, immense things are to be done for the agriculturist by the application of capital and skill. Let us test the soundness of this doctrine. When a man lends his capital, he looks to the security he is to have, and to what is to pay the interest. Is the complexion of these measures such as to render men more ready to lend money on landed estates? The mortgagee, when he advances money on land, looks to the margin in the shape of rent for his security. Will any man rise and maintain that the tendency of these measures is to increase that margin? But you are not only diminishing the opportunity of obtaining loans upon your own estates, but you are creating for capital an investment which will be more profitable for it in the estates of the foreigner. Look at the relations in which you will place the foreign merchant with his London correspondent. He has no longer to fear the capricious effects of the sliding-scale: he has got a certain market; he goes to his London banker with an increased security for an advance; he obtains his loan with ease; he makes his advances to the country dealers on the Continent as he makes his advance of English capital now in the foreign wool trade, before the clip and the great fairs; and thus, while you diminish the security of the landed proprietor, you are offering to the English capitalist a better and securer investment. But then you tell us of the aid to be had by the agriculturist from skill. It is not easy to argue on a phrase so indefinite as skill; but I think I can show you that the English agriculturist is far more advanced, in respect to skill, than even the English manufacturer. I don't mean to say that there are not English farmers who might cultivate their lands better and with more economy than they do; but the same may surely be said, in their respective pursuits, of many a manufacturer and many a miner, but what I mean to say is, that an English farmer produces more effectively and wastes less — is more industrious and more intelligent than the manufacturer. I will prove this by the evidence of a member of the Anti-Corn-Law League — Mr. Greg. Mr. Greg says, that the competition is so severe that he almost doubts the possibility of the English Manufacturer long maintaining that competition with the Continental or American manufacturer, who approach them nearer every day in the completeness of their fabrics and the economy of their productions. But no such thing can be said of the English agriculturist, who, I have shown you, can produce much more per bushel than the French, Russian, or American agriculturist. So much, then, for the argument with respect to skill. There is one argument, or rather appeal, which I know has influenced opinion out of this House, and also within it. You bring before us the condition of the English peasant. It is too often a miserable condition. My hon, Friend the Member for Shaftesbury [R. B. Sheridan] has gained, and deserves, great credit for investigating the condition of the Dorsetshire labourer. He has introduced it into this discussion. Now, the condition of the Dorsetshire labourer is one of the reasons which induce me to support this law. It is very easy to say that the condition of the agricultural labourer, when compared with the general state of our civilization, is a miserable and depressed one, and that protection has produced it. If I cannot offer you reasons which may induce you to believe that protection has had nothing to do with it, I shall be perfectly ready to go to-night into the same lobby with Her Majesty's Ministers. I asked you the other night, if protection has produced the Dorsetshire labourer at 7s. per week, how is it that protection has produced the Lincolnshire labourer with double that sum? I do not say that is an argument. It is a suggestive question, which I will endeavour to follow up. Mr. Huskisson made an observation, in conversation with an acquaintance of mine, which has always struck me very forcibly. When Mr. Huskisson first settled in Sussex, his attention was naturally drawn to the extraordinary state of pauperism in that country; and after giving the subject all the meditation of his acute mind, he said that he traced it to the fact, that Sussex had formerly been the seat of a great iron trade, and that agriculture had never been able to absorb the manufacturing population. Now, apply that principle to the western counties, and don't you think it will throw some light upon their condition? They also have been the seats of manufactures — many of them obsolete, and many of them now only partially pursued. There, too, you will find that the manufacturing population has never been absorbed by the agricultural — that is, agriculture does not bear its ratio in its means of support to the amount of the population which it has to sustain, but which it did not create. And now go to Lincolnshire. I will rest our case on Lincolnshire. It is a new county; it is a protected county. Lincolnshire is to agriculture what Lancashire is to manufactures. The population there is produced by land and supported by land, in the same manner that the population of Lancashire has been produced and is supported by manufactures. Let us picture to ourselves for a moment that celebrated tower that looks over that city, which my gallant Friend and his ancestors have represented since the time of the last Stuart. Let us picture him for a moment placing the arch-fiend of political economy in that befitting niche, and calling his attention to the surrounding landscape. To the north, extending to the Humber, an endless tract of wolds, rescued from the rabbits, once covered with furse and whins, and now with exuberant crops of grain: to the south, stretching for miles, is what was once Lincoln Heath, where in the memory of living men there used to be a lighthouse for the traveller, and which, even in the recollection of the middle aged, was let to the warrener at 2s. 6d. an acre, now one of the best-farmed and most productive corn districts in the kingdom. Then turning from the wolds and the heaths eastward, reaching to the sea, — he might behold a region of fens, the small ones drained by the steam-engine, with the East and West and Wildmere Fens, once more than half of the year under water, now cleared by large canals, and bearing magnificent wheats and oats; with the great Witham and Black Sluice drainage districts, one extending over 60,000 and the other 90,000 acres, admirably reclaimed and drained, and bearing and creating and well sustaining a large and industrious and thriving population. And all under the faith of Protective Acts of Parliament. I am told that it is the contiguity of manufactures that makes Lincolnshire so prosperous. But, Sir, the frontiers of Wilts are nearer that great manufacturing district of which Birmingham is the centre, than those of Lincolnshire are to Lancashire. Now, see what Lincolnshire has produced under protection. There you see the protective system fairly tested. But when you find the labourers in the western counties wretched and miserable, do not say that protection has been the cause of it, when protection is, perhaps, the reason why they exist at all; but see if you cannot find other causes for their poverty and means to counteract it. I must say, that nothing astonished me more than when the noble Lord the Member for Falkirk [Lord Dalmeny] asked the farmers in Newark market, " What has protection done for you?" Why, that market is supplied with the wheat of Lincoln Heath, the intrinsic poverty of whose soil is only sustained by the annual application of artificial manures, but which produces the finest corn in the kingdom. What has protection done for them? Why, if protection had never existed, Lincolnshire might still have been a wild wold, a barren heath, a plashy marsh. There are one or two points to which I could have wished to call the attention of the House, but which time will only permit me to glance at. I will not presume to discuss them. But you cannot decide this question without looking to your Colonies. I am not one of those who think it the inevitable lot of the people of Canada to become annexed to the United States. Canada has all the elements of a great and independent country, and is destined, I sometimes believe, to be the Russia of the new world. The hon. and learned Member for Bath [JA Roebuck] in answering the speech of the noble Lord the Member for Lynn [Lord Brooke] last night, treated our commerce with Canada very lightly, rather as a smuggling traffic than legitimate commerce. That is an argument for keeping the Canadas. I have no desire to see a smuggling trade if we can have any other. But I will ask the gentlemen of Manchester to consider what may become of the trans-Atlantic market for their manufactures, if the whole of that continent belong to one Power? But I must not dwell on the Colonies, and I shall scarcely touch the case of Ireland. It is too terrible, especially if there be truth in the opinion of the noble Lord, whose conversion has been so much a matter of congratu,lation to the Government, that their measure must be fatal to small farmers, Why, Ireland is a nation of small farmers. There was, however, one observation made with respect to Ireland by the hon. Member for Stockport [Richard Cobden] which, considering the effct it had, I cannot help noticing. The hon. Gentleman says, "Ireland an argument in favour of the Corn Laws! Of all countries in the world I never should have supposd that Ireland would have been brought forward in support of the Corn Laws." That is a saucy and gallant sally; but is it an argument? what does it prove? The population is reduced to the lowest sources of subsistence. Admitted; but how do they gain even their potatoes except by cultivating the soil, and by producing that wheat and those oats which they send to England? I should be very glad if that wheat and those oats, remained in Ireland; but I ask, what will be the state of Ireland, if the effect of this measure on your markets be such as I have assumed? You say that capital will flow into the country, and manufactures will be established. What length of time will elapse before these manufactures are established? Perhaps before that time the iron trade will revive in Sussex, or we shall see the drooping energies of the Dorsetshire labourer revived by his receiving the same wages as are paid at Rochdale and Stockport. Believing that this measure would be fatal to our agricultural interests — believing that its tendency is to sap the elements and springs of our manufacturing prosperity — believing that in a merely financial point of view it will occasion a new distribution of the precious metals, which must induce the utmost social suffering in every class, I am obliged to ask myself, if the measure be so perilous, why is it produced? Sir, I need not ask what so many Gentlemen both in and out of this House have already asked, what was there in the circumstances of this country to authorize the change? If we are only a commercial and manufacturing people, all must admit that commerce was thriving and that manufactures flourished. Agriculture was also content; and even had it been suffering and depressed, — what does it signify, since England has ceased to be an agricultural country? Obliged, then, to discover some cause for this social revolution, I find that a body of men have risen in this country eminent for their eloquence, distinguished for their energy, but more distinguished in my humble opinion, for their energy and their eloquence than for their knowledge of human nature, or for the extent of their political information. Sir, I am not one of those who, here or elsewhere, in public or in private, have spoken with that disrespect which some have done of that great commercial confederation which now exercises so great an influence in this country. Though I disapprove of their doctrine — though I believe from the bottom of my heart that their practice will eventually be as pernicious to the manufacturing interest as to the agricultural interests of this country, still I admire men of abilities who, convinced of a great truth, and proud of their energies, band themselves together for the purpose of supporting it, and come forward, devoting their lives to what they consider to be a great cause. Sir, this country can only exist by free discussion. If it is once supposed that opinions are to be put down by any other means, then, whatever may be our political forms, liberty vanishes. If we think the opinions of the Anti-Corn-Law League are dangerous — if we think their system is founded on error, and must lead to confusion — it is open in a free country like England for men who hold opposite views to resist them with the same earnestness, by all legitimate means — by the same active organization, and by all the intellectual power they command. But what happens in this country? A body of gentlemen, able and adroit men, come forward, and profess contrary doctrines to those of these new economists. They place themselves at the head of that great popular party who are adverse to the new ideas, and, professing their opinions, they climb and clamber into power by having accepted, or rather by having eagerly sought the trust. It follows that the body whom they represent, trusting in their leaders, not unnaturally slumber at their posts. They conclude that their opinions are represented in the State. It was not for us, or the millions out of the House, to come forward and organize a power, in order to meet the hostile movements of the hon. Member for Stockport. No, we trusted to others — to one who by accepting, or rather by seizing that post, obtained the greatest place in the country, and at this moment governs England. Well, Sir, what happens? The right hon. Gentleman, the First Minister, told his Friends that he had given them very significant hints of the change of his opinions. He said that even last year, Lord Grey had found him out, and he was surprised that we could have been so long deluded. Sir, none of the observations of the right hon. Gentleman applied to me. More than a year ago I rose in my place and said, that it appeared to me that protection was in about the same state as Protestantism was in 1828. I remember my Friends were very indignant with me for that assertion, but they have since been so kind as to observe that instead of being a calumny it was only a prophecy. But I am bound to say, from personal experience, that, with the very humble exception to which I have referred, I think the right hon. Baronet may congratulate himself on his complete success in having entirely deceived his party, for even the noble Lord, the Member for Lynn, himself, in a moment of frank conversation, assured me that he had not till the very last moment the slightest doubt of the right hon. Gentleman. The noble Lord, I suppose, like many others, thought that the right hon. Gentleman was, to use a very favourite phrase on these benches in 1842, "only making the best bargain" for the party. I want to know what Gentlemen think of their best bargain now? Suddenly, absolute as was the confidence in the right hon. Gentleman, the announcement was made that there was to be another change; that that was to occur under his auspices, which, only a few months before, he had aptly described as a "social revolution. " And how was that announcement made? Were hon. Gentlemen called together, or had the influential Members of either House any intimation given to them of the nature of it? No, Sir. It was announced through the columns of a journal which is always careful never to insert important information except on the highest authority. Conceive the effect of that announcement on foreign countries, and on foreign Ministers. I can bear witness to it. I happened to be absent from England at the time, and I know of great potentates sending for English ambassadors, and demanding an explanation; and of English ambassadors waiting on great potentates, and officially declaring that there was not the slightest truth in the announcement. And all this time, too, Members of the Government-I have Some of them in my eye-were calling on other newspapers devoted to the Government, and instructing them to announce that the whole was an “infamous fabrication”. How ingenuous was the conduct of Her Majesty's Government — or of that Minister who formed the omnipotent minority of the Cabinet, I leave the House to decide. But was it not strange that, after so much agitation, after all these schemes, after all these Machiavellian manoeuvres, when the Minister at last met the House and his party, he acted as if we had deserted him, instead of his having left us? Who can forget those tones? Who can forget that indignant glance?
“Vectabor humeris tunc ego inimicis eques; meacque terra cedet insolentiae;"
["Like a knight I will mount your unbroken back; the world will give way before my arrogant ride" — Horace, Epodes XVII]
which means to say, "I, a protectionist Minister, mean to govern England by the aid of the Anti-Com-Law League. And, as for the country Gentlemen, why, I snap my fingers in their face." Yet even then the right hon. Gentleman had no cause to complain of his party. It is very true that, on a subsequent occasion, 240 Gentlemen recorded their sense of his conduct. But then he might have remembered the considerable section of converts that he obtained even in the last hour. Why, what a compliment to a Minister — not only to vote for him, but to vote for him against your opinions, and in favour of opinions which he had always drilled you to distrust. That was a scene, I believe, unprecedented in the House of Commons. Indeed, I recollect nothing equal to it, unless it be the conversion of the Saxons by Charlemagne, which is the only historical incident that bears any parallel to that illustrious occasion. Ranged on the banks of the Rhine, the Saxons determined to resist any further movement on the part of the great Caesar; but when the Emperor appeared, instead of conquering he converted them. How were they converted? in battalions — the old chronicler informs us they were converted in battalions, and baptized in platoons. It was utterly impossible to bring these individuals from a state of reprobation to a state of grace with a celerity sufficiently quick. When I saw the hundred and twelve fall into rank and file, I was irresistibly reminded of that memorable incident on the banks of the Rhine. And now, Sir, I must say, in vindication of the right hon. Gentleman, that I think great injustice has been done to him throughout these debates. A perhaps justifiable mis-conception has universally prevailed. Sir, the right hon. Gentleman has been accused of foregone treachery — of long meditated deception — of a desire unworthy of a great statesman, even if an unprincipled one — of always having intended to abandon the opinions by professing which he rose to power. Sir, I entirely acquit the right hon. Gentleman of any such intention. I do it for this reason: that when I examine the career of this Minister, which has now filled a great space in the Parliamentary history of this country, I find that for between thirty and forty years, from the days of Mr. Horner to the days of the hon. Member for Stockport, that right hon. Gentleman has traded on the ideas and intelligence of others. His life has been one great appropriation clause. He is a burglar of others' intellect. Search the Index of Beatson, from the days of the Conqueror to the termination of the last reign, there is no statesman who has committed political petty larceny on so great a scale. I believe, therefore, when the right hon. Gentleman undertook our cause on either side of the House, that he was perfectly sincere in his advocacy; but as, in the course of discussion, the conventionalisms which he received from us crumbled away in his grasp, feeling no creative power to sustain him with new arguments, feeling no spontaneous sentiments to force upon him conviction, the right hon. Gentleman, reduced at last to defending the noblest cause, one based on the most high and solemn Principles, upon the "burdens peculiar to agriculture" — the right hon. Gentleman, faithful to the law of his nature, imbibed the new doctrines, the more vigorous, bustling, popular and progressive doctrines, as he had imbibed the doctrines of Mr. Horner — as he had imbibed the doctrines of every leading man in this country, for thirty or forty years, with the exception of the doctrine of Parliamentary reform, which the Whigs very wisely led the country upon, and did not allow to grow sufficiently mature to fall into the month of the right hon. Gentleman. Sir, the right hon. Gentleman tells us, that he does not feel humiliated. Sir, it is impossible for any one to know what are the feelings of another. Feeling depends upon temperament; it depends upon the idiosyncracy of the individual; it depends upon the organization of the animal that feels. But this I will tell the right hon. Gentleman, that though he may not feel humiliated, his country ought to feel humiliated. Is it so pleasing to the self-complacency of a great nation, is it so grateful to the pride of England, that one who, from the position he has contrived to occupy, must rank as her foremost citizen, is one of whom it may be said, as Dean Swift said of another Minister, that "he is a Gentleman who has the perpetual misfortune to be mistaken!" [Gulliver's Travels, III, Glubbdubdrib] And, Sir, even now, in this last scene of the drama, when the party whom he unintentionally betrayed is to be unintentionally annihilated — even now, in this the last scene, the right hon. Gentleman, faithful to the law of his being, is going to pass a project which, I believe it is a matter of notoriety, is not of his own invention. It is one which may have been modified, but which I believe has been offered to another Government, and by that Government has been wisely rejected. Why, Sir, these are matters of general notoriety. After the day that the right hon. Gentleman made his first exposition of his scheme, a gentleman well known in this House, and learned in all the political secrets behind the scenes, met me, and said, " Well, what do you think of your chief's plan?" Not knowing exactly what to say; but, taking up a phrase which has been much used in the House, I observed, "Well, I suppose it's a 'great and comprehensive' plan." " Oh!" he replied, “we know all about it! It was offered to us! It is not his plan; it's Popkins's plan!" And is England to be governed by "Popkins's plan?" Will he go with it to that ancient and famous England that once was governed by statesmen — by Burleighs and by Walpoles; by a Chatham and a Canning — will he go to it with this fantastic scheming of some presumptuous Pedant? I won't believe it. I have that confidence in the common sense, I will say the common spirit of our countrymen, that I believe they will not long endure this huckstering tyranny of the Treasury Bench — these political pedlars that bought their Party in the cheapest market, and sold us in the dearest. I know, Sir, that there are many who believe that the time is gone by when one can appeal to those high and honest impulses that were once the mainstay and the main element of the English character. I know, Sir, that we appeal to a people debauched by public gambling, stimulated and encouraged by an inefficient and shortsighted Minister. I know tha the public mind is polluted with economic fancies; a depraved desire that the rich may become richer without the interference of industry and toil. I know, Sir, that all confidence in public men is lost. But, Sir, I have faith in the primitive and enduring elements of the English character. It may be vain now, in the midnight of their intoxication, to tell them that there will be an awakening of bitterness; it may be idle now, in the spring-tide of their economic frenzy, to warn them that there may be an ebb of trouble. But the dark and inevitable hour will arrive. Then, when their spirit is softened by misfortune, they will recur to those principles that made England great, and which, in our belief, can alone keep England great. Then, too, perchance they may remember, not with unkindness, those who, betrayed and deserted, were neither ashamed nor afraid to struggle for the "good old cause" - the cause with which are associated principles the most popular, sentiments the most entirely nation — the cause of labour — the cause of the people — the cause of England.
Last modified 9 November 2005