Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XI.: sir robert peel's new policy. - The Life of Richard Cobden
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CHAPTER XI.: sir robert peel’s new policy. - John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden 
The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwiin, 1903).
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sir robert peel’s new policy.
The Report of the Committee of 1840 on Import Duties was, as I have already mentioned, the starting-point of the revolution to which Peel now proceeded. It passed a strong condemnation on the existing tariff, as presenting neither congruity nor unity of purpose, and conforming to no general principles. Eleven hundred and fifty rates of duty were enumerated as chargeable on imported articles, and all other articles paid duty as unenumerated. In some cases1842.
It was pointed out that the effect of prohibitory duties was to impose on the consumer an indirect tax often equal to the whole difference of price between the British article and the foreign article which the duty kept out. On articles of food alone the amount taken in this way from the consumer exceeded the amount of all the other taxes levied by the Government. The sacrifices of the community did not end here, but were accompanied by injurious effects upon wages and capital. The duties diminished greatly the productive powers of the country; and they limited our trade. The action of duties which were not prohibitory, but only protective, was of a similar kind. They imposed upon the consumer a tax equal to the amount of the duty levied on the foreign article; but it was a tax which went not to the public treasury, but to the protected manufacturer.
Evidence was taken to show that the protective system was not on the whole beneficial to the protected manufactures themselves. The amount of duties levied on the plea of protection to British manufactures did not exceed half a million sterling. Some even of the manufacturers supposed 1842.
With reference to the influence of the protective system on wages, and on the condition of the labourer, the Report was equally decided. As the pressure of foreign competition was heaviest on those articles in the production of which the rate of wages was lowest, so it was obvious in a country exporting so largely as England, that other advantages might more than compensate for an apparent advantage in the money price of labour. The countries in which the rate of wages is lowest, are not always those which manufacture most successfully. The Committee was persuaded that the best service that could be rendered to the industrious classes of the community, would be to extend the field of labour by an extension of our commerce.
The conclusion was a strong conviction in the minds of the Committee, of the necessity of an immediate change in the import duties of the kingdom. By imposts on a small number of those articles which were then most productive1 —the amount of each impost being carefully considered with a view to the greatest consumption of the article, and therefore the highest receipts at the customs—the revenue would not only suffer no loss, but would be considerably augmented.2
This Report was the charter of Free Trade. The Whig Government, as we have seen, had taken from it in a timid and1842.
This is true of Sir Robert Peel’s mind throughout from 1843 to 1846. But it seems only to be partially true of the moment when he brought in the great budget of 1842. Notwithstanding its fatal omission of the duties on corn, it was a Free Trade budget. Corn was excluded partly from the leader’s fear of the “inferior animals” whom it was his honourable but unhappy mission to drive, but partly also by an honest doubt in Peel’s own mind, whether it was safe to depend on foreign countries for our supplies. The doubt was strong enough to warrant him, from his own point of view, in trying an experiment before meddling with corn; and a magnificent experiment it was. The financial plan of 1842 was the beginning of all the great things that have been done since. Its cardinal point was the imposition of a direct tax, in order to relax the commercial tariff. Ultimately the effect of diminishing duties was to increase revenue, but the first effect was a fall in revenue. It was expedient or indispensable for the revival of trade to lower or remit duties, and to purge the tariff. To bridge over the interval before 1842.
The new tariff was not laid before Parliament for some weeks.4 The labour of preparation was enormous. Mr. Gladstone, who was then at the Board of Trade, and on whom much of the labour fell, said many years afterwards that he had been concerned in four revisions of the Tariff, namely in 1842, in 1845, in 1854, and in 1860; and he told Cobden that the first cost six times as much trouble as all the others put together. There was an abatement of duty on seven hundred and fifty articles. The object, as set forth by the Minister himself, speaking generally, was to reduce the duties on raw materials, which constituted the elements of manufactures, to an almost nominal amount; to reduce the duties on half-manufactured articles, which entered almost as much as raw material into domestic manufactures, to a nominal amount. In articles completely manufactured, their object had been to remove prohibitions and reduce prohibitory duties, so as to enable the foreign producer to compete fairly with the domestic manufacturer. The general principle Sir Robert Peel went upon, was to make a considerable reduction in the cost of living. It is true that the duty on the importation of fresh and salted meat was lowered. It is true, too, that he could point to the new Corn Bill as having reduced the duty on wheat by more than a half. While he spoke, it was nine shillings under the new law, and twenty-three under the old one. But the sugar duties were untouched. It seemed a fatal, absurd, miserable flaw in the new scheme to talk of the main object1842.
The Tories followed reluctantly. The more acute among the Protectionists felt that the colonial interest would speedily be forced to surrender its advantage over the sugar of Cuba and Brazil; and one member warned sympathetic hearers that, when the Tariff was passed, the next step to be expected was the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Minister found one remarkable champion on his own side, whose genius he failed to recognize. Mr. Disraeli laughed at the Whigs for pretending to be the originators of Free Trade. It was Mr. Pitt, he said, who first promulgated its doctrines; and it was Fox, Burke, and Sheridan who then denounced the new commercial principles. The principles of Free Trade were developed, and not by Whigs, fifty years before; and the conduct now pursued by Sir Robert Peel was in exact accordance and consistency with the principles for the first time promulgated by Mr. Pitt. So far as it went, Mr. Disraeli’s contention was perfectly correct.
If the Protectionists were puzzled as well as annoyed by the new policy, so were the Free Traders. The following extracts from letters to his brother convey one or two of Cobden’s earlier impressions about Peel. Of the measure he always thought the same, and the worst. By the end of the session Cobden had clearly discerned whither Peel’s mind was turning. We who live a generation after the battle was won, may feel for a moment disappointed that Cobden did not at once 1842.
“What say the wise men to Sir Robert’s income tax? In other words, how do our mill-owners and shopkeepers like to be made to pay 1,200,000l. a year out of their profits, to insure the continuance of the corn and sugar monopolies? I should think that the proposal to place profits upon a par with rent before the tax collector will not be vastly popular, unless the law can contrive to keep up the former as it does the latter. The only important change after all, announced last night, was timber.... Peel delivered his statement in a clear and clever way, never faltering nor missing a word in nearly a four hours’ speech. This has gone far to convince our noodles on the Whig side that there is a great deal of good in his budget; and I find even our friend J——is inclined to praise the budget. But I fully expect that it will do much to render Peel vastly unpopular with the upper portion of the middle class, who will see no compensation in the tariff for a tax upon their incomes and profits. If this be the result of the measure, it will do good to the Corn Law cause, by bringing the discontented to our ranks. Let me know what your wiseacres say about it.”5
“Both the corn and income tax will be thrown over Easter I expect. Peel is very anxious to force on both measures,1842.
“The truth is, your accounts make me feel very uneasy at my position. No earthly good can I do here. The thing must be allowed to work itself into some new shape—time only can tell what. We are nowhere on the opposition side at present. Peel must head a milieu party soon. If the old Duke were dead, he would quarrel with the ultra-Tories in a month. He is no more with them in heart than you or 1842.
“Peel is a Free-trader, and so are Ripon and Gladstone. The last was put in by the Puseyites, who thought they had insinuated the wedge, but they now complain that he has been quite absorbed by Peel, which is the fact. Gladstone makes a very clever aide-de-camp to Peel, but is nothing without him. The Government are at their wits’ end about the state of the country. The Devonshire House Whigs are beginning to talk of the necessity of supporting the Government in case of any serious troubles, which means a virtual coalition; a point they are evidently being driven to by the force of events. Peel will throw overboard the bigots of his party, if he have the chance. But the real difficulty is the present state of the country. The accounts from every part are equally bad, and Chadwick says the poor-rates in the agricultural districts are rising rapidly. A great deal of land has been offered for sale during the last three months, and everything seems working beautifully for a cure in the only possible way, viz., distress, suffering, and want of money. I am most anxious to get away and come to Manchester; I know the necessity of my presence, and shall let nothing but the corn question keep me.”8
“The last fortnight has done more to advance our cause than the last six or twelve months. The Peel party are fairly beaten in argument, and for the first time they are willing to listen to us as if they were anxious to learn excuses for their inevitable conversion. If I were disposed to be vain of my talk, I have had good reason, for both sides speak in praise of my two last efforts. The Reform and1842.
“Peel and his squad will be right glad to get rid of the House, and I suspect it will not be his fault if he does not get a measure of Corn Law repeal ready before next session, to stop the mouths of the League men. He has been excessively worried by our clique in the House, and I have reason to flatter myself with the notion that I have been a frequent thorn in his side. If distress should continue to favour us, we shall get something substantial in another twelve months, and I suspect we may bargain for the continuance of bad trade for that length of time at least.”10
Something must be said of the two speeches of which Cobden speaks so lightly in one of these extracts. It was July before he made any prominent attack on the financial scheme. In March, when Peel had wished to press the Income Tax Bill forwards, Cobden had been one of a small group who persisted in obstructive motions for adjournment, until Peel was at length forced to give way. He had also made remarks from time to time in Committee. But the session was far advanced before he found a proper occasion for putting forward all the strength of his case.
On July 1 a great debate was opened by Mr. Wallace of Greenock, upon the distress of the country. Mr. Disraeli pointed out, with much force and ingenuity, that the languid 1842.
This provoked Cobden to make his first great speech in the House (July 8). Mr. Roebuck, who spoke the same evening, described it as “a speech fraught with more melancholy instruction than it had ever been his lot to hear. A speech, in the incidents which it unfolded, more deeply interesting to the people of this country, he had never heard in his life; and these incidents were set forth with great ability and great simplicity.” As a debating reply to the Prime Minister, it was of consummate force and vivacity. The facts which Cobden adduced supported his vigorous charge that Peel viewed the matter too narrowly, and that circumstances were more urgent than he had chosen to admit. It was exactly one of those speeches which the House of Commons naturally delights in. It contained not a single waste sentence. Every one of Peel’s arguments was met by detail and circumstance, and yet detail and circumstance the most minute were kept alive by a stream of eager and on-pressing conviction. Peel had compared the consumption of cotton in two half-years; Cobden showed that for purposes of comparison they were the wrong half-years. Peel had talked of improved machinery for a time turning people out1842.
Cobden gave additional strength to his appeal by showing that its eagerness was not due to a merely official partisanship. He saw no reason, he declared, why they should not take good measures from Sir Robert Peel, or why they should prefer those of Lord John Russell. “The noble Lord is called the leader on this side of the House, and I confess that when I first came into the House I was inclined to look upon him as a leader; but from what I have seen, I believe the right hon. Baronet to be as liberal as the noble Lord. If the noble lord is my leader, I can only say that I believe that in four out of five divisions I have voted against him. He must be an odd kind of leader who thus votes against those he leads. I will take measures of relief from the right hon. Baronet as well as from the noble Lord, but upon some measure of relief I will insist..... I give the Prime Minister credit for the difficulties of his situation; but this question must be met, and met fully; it must not be quibbled away; it must not be looked upon as a Manchester question; the whole condition of the country must be looked at and faced, and it must be done before we separate this session.”
Three nights later (July 11), Sir Robert Peel took occasion to deal with some of Cobden’s economic propositions, especially an assertion that in prosperous times improvements in machinery do not tend to throw labourers out of employ ment. At the close of his speech the Minister revealed the1842.
Cobden, in the course of a vigorous reply, pointed to a historic parallel which truly described the political situation. He warned the aristocracy and the landowners never to expect to find another Prime Minister who would take office to uphold their monopoly. “They had killed Canning by thwarting him, and they would visit the same fate on their present leader, if he persevered in the same attempt to govern for the aristocracy, while professing to govern for the people.” At this there were loud groans from some parts of the House. “Yes,” repeated Cobden, undaunted, “they had killed Canning by forcing him to try and reconcile their interests with those of the people, and no human power could enable the right hon. Baronet to survive the same ordeal.”
Seventeen articles produced 94½ per cent. of the total revenue, and these with twenty-nine other articles, or forty-six articles in all, produced 982/5 per cent.
Much of the evidence which led to this Report is, in the present recrudescence of bad opinions, as well worth reading to-day as it was forty years ago—especially the evidence of Mr. J. Deacon Hume, who is not to be confused, by the way, with Joseph Hume, the chairman of the Committee. Cobden said that if the Committee had done nothing else but elicit this evidence, “it would have been sufficient to produce a commercial revolution all over the world.” Mr. Hume’s answers were largely circulated as one of the League tracts. This important blue-book, Import Duties, No. 601, was ordered to be printed, Aug. 6, 1840.
To J. Parkes, May 26, 1856.
The speech proposing the Income Tax was March 11. It was May 5 when Sir Robert Peel moved to go into Committee on the Tariff.
To F. Cobden, March 12, 1842.
To F. Cobden, March 22, 1842.
To F. Cobden, April 11, 1842.
To F. Cobden, June 22, 1842.
To F. Cobden, July 14, 1842.
To F. Cobden, July 20, 1842.