« PreviousContinue »
trader included all those who preyed upon the agricultural interestr) would be elevated. There would follow a greater demand for his labour. His wages would be increased.2 It was a proud thing to make a boast of, that the sources of his degradation would be destroyed at a single stroke. There would be a greater demand for labour in the manufacturing towns. And the wages of the operatives would rise. Their surroundings would be placed within range of being made more comfortable. They would have more to spend upon their own comforts and the educational advancement of their children. As they became more educated, their moral tone would rise; they would be in a position, from a sense of responsibility acquired by the virtue of free trade, to take their proper place as " natural factors" in the government of their country. They would become enfranchised. But it was a matter of some importance that their enfranchisement should not be effected by narrow party means. This Cobden recognised. But just as he had brought to bear a " superior" force upon Sir Eobert Peel's intended course of action in 1842, so the Liberal party coerced Cobden into surrendering what he at first regarded as a national undertaking into a party policy. Free trade, with all its collateral appendages, became the central support of the Liberal and Radical party.
1 There is reason to believe that inaccuracy of observation with reference to the degradation of the agricultural labourer prevailed to a large extent. There existed in Cobden's days groups of people who lived a sort of gipsy life. These were in a very destitute state. But they did not belong properly to the agricultural interest.
2 In this way, more labour was to be employed upon agriculture, because we were to increase our annual returns by one-fourth. Hence demand would be greater than supply, and wages would rise.
Thus political power—which Cobden denounced in his days as being a monopoly and exercised to the material disadvantage of the labouring classes generally,1 but the agricultural labourers in particular, because the landlords were the object of his attack—would become better distributed. And thus the voice of the people might be heard.
But let us recall the fact, likely to be forgotten in the heat of argument, that though Cobden attempted the destruction of what he thought was a political monopoly of the aristocracy, yet he did not desire their annihilation as a class. He aimed at lessening their political influence as landed proprietors.2 The freetraders, now become the Eadical party, do not adduce this circumstance in their survey of Cobden's attitude to the aristocracy and the landed interest. Because Cobden wished to destroy a "monopoly" in land, more for certain political reasons than economical ones, he is brought forward as favouring the social destruction of the "ruling class." But such conclusions are just of the same fallacious nature, always inferred by the freetrade enthusiast. Their error lies in keeping back the true position which Cobden took up. They wilfully avoid making an accurate analysis. They use such of his arguments as serve their immediate purpose. The lines of progress are not his, but of their own construction. So far as Cobden was concerned, the landed interest stood in the way of his reforms, but only partly
1 Pp. 35 and 136; also p. 144. "But a bad case at the best is the condition of the agricultural labourer, and you will have to look out, before it is too late, how you arc to employ him."
2 At first. Afterwards we find him considering the possibility of another form of government.
in the way. In the reforms of the progressists of today, the great landed proprietors stand completely in the way. And the reformers adduce Cobden as a witness of the justice of their cause. But the fact is that Cobden recognised the importance of the aristocracy, and their privileges and power, in the constitution of his country. And the reason why he brought discredit upon that class, is because he believed that the aristocracy unduly increased their privileges and improperly exercised their power. And he used the popularity gained in this way, as a lever to effect the elevation of the mass of the people.
But were any present difficulties observed, or any future ones entertained, which would interfere with the maintenance of their noble project, if once attained? None whatever, either immediate or remote. Material prosperity, upon which was founded moral, social, and political advancement, was demonstrated upon the clearest evidence to continue for ever. There would never be the slightest amount of labour unemployed in this country, so long as all nations bought in the cheapest markets and sold in the dearest ones. We are but displaying Cobden's own views. For he predicted—and the certainty of such a continuance of prosperity, so auspiciously begun, depended upon the falling out of that prediction,—he predicted that all nations would become free-traders within five years (!) of the inauguration of the free-trade policy by England.
It is essential to discern upon what the stability of all the subsequent reforms of the great innovator rested. Their support was material prosperity.1 That material
1 Here we may allude to the fears which the manufacturers entertained of the progress of their rivals, especially in Germany and the prosperity was, in his opinion, the sure consequence of a universal free trade. To effect this, and to give our manufactured produce the supremacy over all others in the markets of the world, every other interest in this country was sacrificed. Given the condition of the world's markets which Cobden aimed at securing, and our prosperity was established. We might then experience the advantages of being able to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest; and of diverting our capital from less to more remunerative sources. But that condition is as far off now as it was in Cobden's times.
§ 26. Remote consequences of remission of duties not considered by free-traders, who remain content with immediate effects.—The idea of a universal free trade, in practice, did not first occur to Cobden's mind. And perhaps the knowledge of the circumstance that free trade might have been generally practised among nations, when the affairs, commercial and otherwise, of the several peoples were in process of adjustment after the termination of the great struggle on the Continent, exercised too powerful an influence upon him. A universal free trade might then have been fairly put into operation, because all surrounding conditions were favourable.1 But if practicable in 1820, it does not follow that it should be so in 1845. That was the very
United States. But why need they have feared, when we have it on Cobden's authority that "their labour was the cheapest in the world," so far as quality was concerned. Was this advantage worthy of preservation?
1 The petition of the London merchants, drawn up by Thomas Tooke in 1821, goes to show that the opinion was entertained by many of the leading men in the commercial world. It did not meet with contention of Sir Eobert Peel, who argued that interests had grown up since those times which ought to be protected. But seeing the popularity to which the' Wealth of Nations' had attained, it would certainly seem strange had it occurred for the first time to Cobden to put the principle of free trade into operation. It would have reflected either an extreme amount of prejudice on the part of those statesmen who had charge over the conduct of our commerce since Adam Smith's time, or else an inability to determine the consequences of the new policy, in its partial development under a system of protection, or in its isolated action. But such is not the case. We know that William Pitt developed freedom of trade under protection, when he removed many restrictions which in course of time had become injurious upon trade at home. And this development of the freedom of trade was continued by William Huskisson when he made those extensive innovations in our external commercial policy, all which, with but one exception, were associated with an increased trade activity. But to open up all our commerce with the world, though it was possible, as it is averred, at one particular period, was never seriously contemplated by our leading statesmen. Sir Eobert Peel convicted Huskisson of vacillation. But we venture to state that the principle which guided the latter's commercial policy has not been properly understood. Even Sir Eobert Peel asserted that under our then condition, as so many interests had grown up under the system of protection, it was but just to those interests for the