Front Page Titles (by Subject) 359.: THE IRISH DEBATES IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS MORNING CHRONICLE, 5 FEB., 1847, PP. 4-5 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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359.: THE IRISH DEBATES IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS MORNING CHRONICLE, 5 FEB., 1847, PP. 4-5 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE IRISH DEBATES IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
This article discusses the long-awaited plans of the Government to deal with the Irish crisis, announced by Russell on 25 Jan. in his speech on the state of Ireland (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 89, cols. 426-52) and debated on 1 and 2 Feb. (cols. 619-90 and 694-765). Among many suggested measures, Russell proposed that £1 million be set aside to purchase waste lands from the landlords (if necessary by expropriation), drain them, create roads, and erect necessary buildings. The land was to be divided into lots, perhaps of twenty-five to fifty acres, and sold or let to small proprietors (cols. 442-3). However, on that day the only Bill introduced by Russell was the “Bill to Make Further Provision for the Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland,” 10 Victoria (25 Jan., 1847), PP, 1847, III, 187-212, establishing outdoor relief. Mill’s unheaded first leader (which follows immediately after the report of the previous day’s session in the Commons) is described in his bibliography as “A leading article on the Irish debates in the House of Commons, in the Morning Chronicle of 5th February 1847”
(MacMinn, p. 67).
although the ministerial plan for dealing with the waste lands of Ireland falls far short of what we contend for, and is anything but such as might have been expected from the enlightened general view of the subject taken in Lord John Russell’s speech, yet when we contrast the principles which he propounded, and which he is prepared, though in an inadequate manner, to act upon, with the profound unacquaintance with the subject hitherto manifested by those speakers in Parliament who have constituted themselves his critics—Sir Robert Peel being one1 —it is impossible to refuse to Lord John Russell and his colleagues a considerable share of comparative praise. Certainly, if we had indulged the hope that any other political leaders or notabilities would be found better furnished with ideas applicable to the reform of that disgrace to England and to civilization, the social condition of Ireland, the debate of Monday and Tuesday would have wofully undeceived us. The Ministerial measures, timid and mesquin as they appear to us in some points, rash and headlong in others, are absolutely resplendent by the side of the objections which have been made to them. On no point is this more the case than on the question of the waste lands.
If the objectors to this feature of the Ministerial measures had made themselves so far acquainted with the subject as to know what point they were really asked to discuss; if from one single word of any of their speeches a bystander could have suspected that the question at issue was that of peasant proprietors; if they had betrayed the smallest consciousness that there was such a subject, or that the idea had ever entered into anybody’s head that the cultivator of the soil could be the owner of it; one would have listened respectfully for what they had to say on the point—what facts or what arguments they were about to produce, that could assist rational persons in making up their minds on that momentous social question, either generally or in relation to Ireland. We certainly did expect that something of this kind would have been attempted. It might be good reasoning or bad reasoning, but we did think there would have been some reasoning that would have touched the point. It appears we were wrong in expecting any thought at all; we ought to have laid our account with seeing the question disposed of by a summary appeal to a common-place. “Land is too much subdivided in Ireland; would you subdivide it more?” “The poverty of Ireland arises from the mischievous custom of having land held in small patches by labourers; and this is a plan for making a still greater number of these small landholders.”2 This is positively the substance of all that these gentlemen have to say. So that all modes of holding land are in their opinion alike. The difference between holding it as cottiers and as proprietors—between the very worst tenure, morally, socially, and industrially, on the surface of the earth (slave countries alone excepted), and the very best—is in their estimation not worth considering. They claim to know Ireland, to prescribe for Ireland, leaving the cottier system out of the case.
Let us briefly go over some of the points of practical difference between a cottier and a peasant proprietor. A cottier, in a county overpeopled in proportion to the efficiency of its labour, has nothing that he can call his own. He has agreed to pay for the land, not simply its very utmost value, but a rent generally higher than it is possible he should really pay and continue to live. Except, therefore, the daily meal of potatoes, everything he raises from the soil belongs to the landlord. Everything the peasant proprietor can raise is his own. The proprietor, if he invests any labour in the soil, improves his own property; the cottier only the landlord’s. If the proprietor works hard, early and late, the gain is his; if the cottier were fool enough to do so, the whole benefit would be the landlord’s. If the proprietor has a larger family than can either be useful on the land, or find employment elsewhere, the burthen is his; if the cottier does so, it is the landlord’s. The landlord alone gains by the cottier’s industry, and alone loses by his indolence or misconduct. That Ireland under this system does not exhibit a very pleasing picture of prosperity, is no great argument against a system precisely the opposite. We are quite willing to have it proved that peasant properties are not the right thing for Ireland; but whoever thinks that this proves it, has no business to have an opinion on the question. If he is such a stranger to the whole subject of the tenure of land, that he knows no difference as to the condition and habits of a people between cottier tenancy and proprietorship, we tell him, in all civility, that no one who is competent to form an opinion on the matter can learn anything from his opinion on it.
The remaining one of the two solemn common-places which have done laborious duty as arguments in the speeches of Sir Robert Peel and others, is this: The improvement of land is not a business for a Government; it should be left to private enterprise. If the waste lands were worth reclaiming, individuals would reclaim them. If they are not worth reclaiming by individuals, they are not worth it at all.3
One cannot wonder at the distrust in which general principles are held, when one sees this kind of abuse of them. They are dangerous things in the hands of men who use them à tort et à travers, without considering, when they run away with a principle, whether the reason of the principle accompanies them or not. In the first place, we ask Sir Robert Peel, or any one who agrees with him, if they are prepared to stand by the proposition, that everything in Ireland which would answer as a pecuniary speculation, every improvement which would remunerate capitalists for undertaking it, is, in point of fact, now actually done and accomplished? We thought it had been a settled matter that capital will not go into Ireland to undertake even the most promising speculations; and, indeed, while society there is on the footing it is, we should almost as soon expect capital to go and employ itself among the Bedouin Arabs. A country must be peaceful and industrious before it can be assumed, that whatever private capitalists cannot be found to do is not worth doing at all.
But, in the next place, we must suggest that reclamation of land by capitalists and reclamation by peasants are two things. They are undertaken from different motives, conducted on distinct principles, and land not worth anything for the one purpose may be excellently adapted to the other. When a monied man buys land and improves it, by draining, inclosing, and the like, the reumuneration he looks to is the saleable price of the land, which is of course grounded on its capacity of yielding rent. When a peasant reclaims land, his remuneration is the whole of the gross produce. Is it a new proposition in political economy, that land may afford a large gross produce and ample support to labourers, and yet yield no rent? Is it a new doctrine in commonsense, that a bog or a mountain may not remunerate a capitalist for reclaiming it by paying wages to hired labourers, and yet may be a most valuable possession to a peasant who gets the labour for nothing, having but too much of it already idle on his hands? Whoever has not drawn this distinction has not yet adverted to the very first elements of the subject. Setting principle and reason aside, whoever has studied the facts of this question, knows that some of the most productive soil in Europe consists of land originally reclaimed from absolute worthlessness in this very manner. What are the Polders of West Flanders? Originally land precisely similar to the Goodwin Sands, or rather a part of those sands themselves: the pounded débris carried down by the Rhine, the Meuse, and the Scheld, and deposited on the coast. No landlord or capitalist could or would have cultivated this land: peasants reclaimed it, and made it produce some of the finest crops in Europe, and made themselves one of the most prosperous populations. But those peasants were proprietors: it was the “magic of property,” as Arthur Young says, which turned those “sands into gold.”4 As we said before, we are quite willing to have it proved that these splendid results would not happen in Ireland. But we do not care for any man’s opinion thereupon, who has no reason to give but that if the thing was worth doing, rich men would find their account in doing it for profit. Whoever has nothing but this to say, had better hold his peace. He shows that he has no grounds for an opinion on the matter.
If no more were meant than that in reclaiming the waste lands everything which can be done by the peasants should be left for the peasants to do, it is only what we have ourselves repeatedly urged. The plan of the Government, as we understand it, appears to err in this point, among many others; it aims at doing too much to the land. It should do little or nothing, in our opinion, but the general drainage; what was aptly called in the debate the arterial drainage of the country.5 This the Government has engaged to do for the great landlords, and nobody then complained of it as a thing unfit for a Government, and which individuals should be left to do for themselves. Individuals could almost as well maintain fleets and armies for themselves. But what can be done and done well by individuals, should not be done for them by a Government. If the Ministers understand their own principles, they will reconsider as much of their waste-land project as implies that any land shall be completely prepared for cultivation at the expense of the State.
[1 ]Peel, Speech on the Labouring Poor (Ireland) Bill (2 Feb., 1847), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 89, cols. 758-64.
[2 ]See, e.g., the speeches of John Arthur Roebuck and Ralph Bernal Osborne (1811-82), Liberal M.P. for Wycombe (1 Feb., 1847), ibid., cols. 647-8 and 629-30.
[3 ]See Roebuck and Peel, ibid., cols. 648-9 and 763.
[4 ]Travels, Vol. I, p. 88.
[5 ]Charles Wood (1800-85), Chancellor of the Exchequer since 6 July 1846, Speech on the Labouring Poor (Ireland) Bill (1 Feb., 1847), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 89, col. 687.