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bring this about, it became necessary first of all to raise the price of wheat.
Now, such a measure, even in times of prosperity, is not regarded with favour by the labouring classes. In periods of depression, then, it would be looked upon with alarm, and be the occasion of much dissatisfaction, if not of a dangerous movement of the people.
When Cobden commenced the agitation for a free trade in corn, the country was suffering under a normal 1 and periodic depression. He appears to have associated in his mind agricultural distress and manufacturing depression in the relationship of cause and effect. And when the influence of the seasons was further to be taken into account, it was obvious that the contentment of the people rested mainly, if not altogether, upon an efficient supply of food at a proper price.
Did he entertain the probability of a political revolution ensuing on a rise in the price of wheat, as it inevitably must rise, if the soil of our country was to produce an increasing supply to meet the increased demand of a growing population? It is nearly certain
1 The depression of 1836 was predicted The country had been enjoying a period of prosperity, longer than it had ever known before. — Vide Mr Loyd's 'Reflections on the State of the Currency,' 1837. Now, during this prosperous period, so far as the price of corn is concerned, there are two stages: the first stage, in which the price of corn is relatively high; and the second, in which it is relatively low. But, according to Cobden, when com was high depression reigned. There can be no doubt that depression existed with corn at a high price, and that it exaggerated the mischief. But to assert that depression always existed with high prices of corn, is contrary to facts. Mr Loyd ascribed the depression to the abnormal state of the currency. He stated that the public did not get its proper share.
that he did so; and that, consequently, he aimed at directing the spirit of revolution into an agitation for cheap food. In this respect he acted patriotically,1 and in the interests of the constitution. His intentions were thus clearly loyal, and we can now perceive why it was that he and his colleagues threatened the then Prime Minister with civil disturbance if he still persisted in opposing the voice of the people. Cobden was assured of the efficacy of his policy in quelling the spirit of rebellion which was abroad. On the other hand, Sir Eobert Peel and the Ministry had the safety of a great national interest in their charge. And moreover, there was the question of precedent to be considered. Would the present agitation, if elevated to the shelf of parliamentary precedents, be a source of future dangers?
The final settlement of the question, however, depended upon a single judgment. This judgment affected the strength of the popular party opposed to the Government. Could it be resisted with safety to the State? Cobden had already absorbed a great portion of the discontents. He had diverted the course of the spirit of discontent. He had achieved his object in part. But we must not forget the nature and extent of the support accorded to him in his struggle. Knowing that he had a safe, or what he took to be a safe,2 remedy at hand, he was enabled to cast all the responsibility of
1 Thus may it be said that Cobden materially influenced the course of the Chartist movement, which was making considerable progress. But though he stayed its powerful advance, he did not destroy it, as 1848 proves.
- The remedy was only safe on the supposition that free trade would become universal.
increasing any irritation which might be felt from existing commercial restrictions ?1 'It might be argued, and most probably would be argued by the foreigner, from the nature of international treaties of commerce, that England found it to her interest to remove all, or nearly all, restrictions upon her external trade. "What was the motive of such a policy? To set us an example, and perhaps force us to follow it. But what would be the outcome of such a policy? Certainly, on the one side, England's continued prosperity. What share should we possess of prosperity? We should have to produce for England what she wants. But these wants are not manufactures. And our manufactures would be certainly impaired if not destroyed. The stimulus to the growth of our towns would in great part be absent. And while we advanced but slowly, England would be making rapid strides." Under such circumstances England would be able to afford the loss of all her industries which were not " natural" industries, and even of agriculture, which was such.
Would other nations agree to this state of commercial affairs? Experience had to decide. And that experience has told us that not only have foreign nations recovered from the crushing blow which our isolated policy inllicted at first upon them, but also that they have grown so rapidly as to be able now to retaliate upon the free-trade country the miserable consequences of her arbitrary action. Our manufactures were admitted so long as they were wanted, and we
1 Universal free trade would have restricted, in a very large degree, the industries of nations. For instance, at starting, our manufactures would have swamped all foreign manufactures.
received partly in return for them other articles and food-stuffs. But the time has come when our manufactures are no longer received on the same favourable terms. Our industries have been checked; for the manufactures of other nations are protected. But all the while we are compelled to depend upon foreign supplies for the larger part of our food.1 And thus we are receiving an increasing supply of wheat and certain goods, while they are taking a constantly decreasing quantity of our manufactures from us.
It was to secure this result, which unfortunately for the free-trade policy has not been effected, that our manufacture was elevated, while all other interests were left each to work out its own progress as best it might.
This was the vision which Cobden saw, and it was the certainty of its becoming a reality that led him into the unscientific position of applying the same kind of treatment to all the various industries, as well old and well-established (but one needing protection) as young and growing, and therefore the more necessary to be conserved, of his country. He changed our commercial policy, but he left it with many weak points. Against these are levelled the energies of all nations able to take advantage of them. Now, in what way does our manufacturing superiority—the stronghold
1 To the extent, during the last ten years, of £200,000,000 of wheat, according to the statement of Lord Derby, reported in the 'Standard.' But according to the economical doctrines of Cobden, we ought to pay for their food with the produce of our manufacture Hence the "stimulus" to our industries, which has grown so big as not to have been even dreamt of by Cobden. But what he thought would be a stimulus to our manufacture, time has shown to be nothing of the kind. At present, year by year, we do not pay for all our food with our manufactured goods.
which he thought he had made unassailable—make amends for these inroads? For if we lose in one direction, we must balance the loss by an equivalent gain in another, unless we agree upon the conclusions, that the nation can bear the loss without any internal derangements; that it is expedient for this country to experience a "transitory depression," so as to check the rapid advance of the working classes; and that we are doing our duty to mankind in bolstering up a principle which is eventually to end in the regeneration of the world,1 and that in the process we must needs suffer some of those adverse consequences which belong to the attainment of this ennobling object.
Most people who are not free-traders, are witnesses to the sacrifices which their country has already made and is continuing to make. Is this phenomenon of bleeding into other countries to go on till we ourselves are so reduced as to become (when it is too late!) aware of it? Is it to proceed for the benefit of a particular class, who are opposed to any alteration in our fiscal system on the ground that it will lead to a general revision, in which their own special interest (already grown too big at the expense of the general public) will be relieved from the monopoly which at present supports it? or for the maintenance of the popularity of that party in the State, whose only claim upon the people is that it has developed the principle of free trade? But regard the conditions of the country when these successive increments to the power of free-trade were established, and trace the underlying
i In Cobden's words, "Free trade was to unite all nations in the bonds of peace."