[Source: Hansard 3, LXXXIII, Cols. 1003-43. Added by Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore.]

In 1841 Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister following a general election during which the Conservatives had stood on a platform of maintaining the Corn Laws. Within months of taking office, Peel was "tinkering" with the protectionist system through his Budgets. In 1845 the potato blight — caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans — appeared in the United Kingdom causing great hardship for many people. However, in Ireland the blight was disastrous for the majority of the population and the country faced a crisis.

Given that Peel already had begun to relax protectionist laws, it is perhaps not surprising that he seized the opportunity to move for a repeal of the Corn Laws. A series of debates were held on the subject and Peel suffered criticism at the hands of his own party, members of which thought that the PM had betrayed Tory principles. In this speech, Peel defends his actions. — Marjie Bloy

decorated initial 'M'r. Speaker, two matters of great importance have occupied the attention of the House during this protracted debate — the one, the manner in which a party should be conducted; the other, the measures by which an imminent public calamity shall be mitigated, and the principles by which the commercial policy of a Great Empire shall for the future be governed. On the first point, the manner in which a party should be conducted, by far the greater part of this debate has turned. I do not undervalue its importance; but, great as it is, surely it is subordinate in the eyes of a people to that other question to which I have referred — the precautions to be taken against impending scarcity, and the principles by which your commercial policy shall hereafter be governed. On the Party question I have little defence to make. Yes, Sir, these are I admit at once, the worst measures for party interests that could have been brought forward. I admit also that it is unfortunate that the conduct of this measure, so far as the Corn Laws are concerned, should be committed to my hands. It would, no doubt, have been far preferable, that those should have the credit, if credit there be, for an adjustment of the Corn Laws, who have been uniform and consistent opponents of those laws. That which prevented myself and those who concurred with me from committing it at once to other hands, was the firm conviction under which we laboured, that a part of this Empire was threatened with a great calamity that all will deplore. I did think that while there was that danger, and while I had the hopes of averting it, it would not be consistent with my duty to my Sovereign, or with the honour of a public man, to take that opportunity of shrinking from the heavy responsibilities which it imposed. While I retained the hope of acting with a united Administration, while I thought there was a prospect of bringing this question to a settlement, I determined to retain office and incur its responsibilities. When I was compelled to abandon that hope (my sense of the coming evil remaining the same), I took the earliest opportunity, consistent with a sense of duty and of public honour, of tendering my resignation to the Queen, and leaving Her Majesty the full opportunity of consulting other advisers. I offered no opinion as to the choice of a successor. That is almost the only act which is the personal act of the Sovereign; it is for the Sovereign to determine in whom Her confidence shall be placed. It was, indeed, my duty to ascertain, by the command of the Queen, whether those of my Colleagues who had dissented from me, were either themselves prepared to form a government, or to advise Her Majesty, if they themselves were not prepared, to commit to other hands the formation of a Government — a Government, I mean, to be composed of public men favourable to the maintenance of the existing Corn Law. Those from whom I differed, who had not concurred with me either as to the full extent of the danger to be apprehended, or as to the policy of altering the law, signified their opinion that it would not be for the public interests that they should form a Government' nor could they advise Her Majesty to resort to others for the formation of a Government founded don the maintenance of the existing Corn Law. Her Majesty determined to call upon the noble Lord [Lord John Russell] to undertake the duty of forming an Administration. My firm belief was, that the noble Lord would have undertaken the duty; my firm persuasion was — the noble Lord will excuse me for saying so — that he would have succeeded if he had undertaken it. During the long course of my opposition to the noble Lord, I cannot charge myself with having ever said anything disrespectful of him. We have acted against each other for many years, and I don't recollect anything that ever passed between us likely to engender hostile or acrimonious feelings. But I must say, the noble Lord did disappoint me when he did not at once undertake the formation of a Government on the principle of adjusting this question. Whey my tender of resignation had been accepted, and when the noble Lord had been sent for by the Queen, I considered myself at perfect liberty to act in a private capacity on my own personal sense of the public interests, and my own feelings of public duty. I knew all the difficulties with which any man would have to contend who undertook the conduct oaf the Government. I knew there must be a great dislocation of parties. In the firm persuasion that the noble Lord would accept the office of First Minister, I felt it incumbent upon me, under the special circumstances under which he would have undertaken office, to diminish the difficulties which which he might have to contend in attempting a final settlement of the Corn Laws. I resolved, therefore, to give the noble Lord such assurances of support as it was in my power to give. In the explanation which I offered the other night, I limited myself to a detail of the facts which had preceded my retirement from office. The noble Lord's explanation commenced from that period. Of that explanation I have no complaint whatever to make. It was perfectly fair and candid on the part of the noble Lord. But there are additions to it which I am desirous of supplying, in the hope of being enabled to demonstrate that I had no wish to defraud others of the credit of adjusting the Corn Laws. My resignation of office was accepted by Her Majesty on the 6th of December last. On the 8th December, I addressed to Her Majesty the following communication, for the express purpose of enabling Her Majesty, by the knowledge of my views and intentions with regard to the Corn Laws, to diminish the difficulties of my successor:-

Whitehall, Dec. 8, 1845

"Sir Robert Peel presents his humble duty to Your Majesty, and, influenced by no other motive than the desire to contribute, if possible, to the relief of Your Majesty from embarrassment, and to the protection of the public interests from injury, is induced to make to Your Majesty this confidential communication explanatory of Sir Robert Peel's position and intentions with regard to the great question which is now agitating the public mind.

"Your Majesty can, if you think fit, make this communication known to the Minister who, as successor to Sir Robert Peel, may be honoured by Your Majesty's confidence.

"On the 1st of November last, Sir Robert Peel advised his Colleagues, on account of the alarming accounts from Ireland, and many districts in this country, as to the failure of the potato crop from disease, and for the purpose of guarding against contingencies, which in his opinion were not improbable, humbly to recommend to Your Majesty that the duties on the import of foreign grain should be suspended for a limited period, either by Order in Council or by Legislative Enactment' Parliament, in either case, being summoned without delay.

"Sir Robert Peel foresaw that this suspension, fully justified by the tenor of the report to which he has referred, could compel, during the interval of suspension, the reconsideration of the Corn Laws.

"If the opinions of his Colleagues had then been in concurrence with his own, he was fully prepared to take the responsibility of suspension — and of the necessary consequence of suspension, a comprehensive review of the laws imposing restrictions on the import of foreign grain and other articles of food, with a view to their gradual diminution and ultimate removal.

"He was disposed to recommend that any new laws to be enacted should contain within themselves the principle of gradual reduction and final repeal.

"Sir Robert Peel is prepared to support, in a private capacity, measure which may be in general conformity with those which he advised as a Minister.

"It would be unbecoming in Sire Robert Peel to make any reference to the details of such measures.

"Your Majesty has been good enough to inform Sir Robert Peel that it is your intention to propose to Lord John Russell to undertake the formation of a Government.

"The principle on which Sir Robert Peel was prepared to recommend the reconsideration of the laws affecting the import of the main articles of food was in general; accordance with that referred to in the concluding paragraph of Lord John Russell's letter to the electors of the city of London.

"Sir Robert Peel wished to accompany the removal of restriction on the admission of such articles with relief to the land from any changes that may be unduly onerous, and with such other provisions as, in the terms of Lord John Russell's letter; caution and even scrupulous forbearance may suggest'.

"Sir Robert Peel will support measures founded on that general principle, and will exercise any influence he may possess to promote their success."

That was the assurance I conveyed to Her Majesty of my perfect readiness to support, if proposed by others, those measures which I had myself deemed necessary. I could not but forsee that in addition to all the other difficulties with which the noble Lord or any other Minister would have to contend, there would be some connected with the state of our revenue and expenditure. At the close of the present financial year there will probably be, as there has been in the years preceding, a considerable surplus of revenue after providing for the wants of the public service. In the coming year there must be increased estimates, reducing the future surplus, and I thought it right that my successor should not be exposed to the risk of an unfavourable contrast for which he could not be responsible. I added, therefore, to my assurance of support with respect to the Corn Laws this further assurance. It refers to points of great delicacy, but it is better to have no concealment or reserve.

"Sir Robert Peel feels it to be his duty to add that, should Your Majesty's future advisers, after consideration of the heavy demands made upon the army of this country for colonial service, of our relations with the United States, and of the bearing which steam navigation may have upon maritime warfare and the defence of the country, deem it advisable to propose an addition to the army and increased naval and military estimates, Sir Robert Peel will support the proposal — will do all that he can to prevent it from being considered as indicative of hostile or altered feelings towards France, and will assume, for the increase in question, any degree of responsibility, present or retrospective, which can fairly attach to him."

Now, when it is charged on me, that I am robbing others of the credit which is justly due to them, I hope that this explanation of the course I pursued, when I was acting under the firmest persuasion that the adjustment of this question would be committed to others, may tend to prove that I was not desirous of robbing others of the credit of settling this question or of trying to embarrass their course. There were further communications made, and in the course of those communications it was proposed to put me in possession of the particular mode in which the noble Lord intended to arrange this question I thought that it would be better that I should not be made acquainted with such details. I thought that my knowledge of them, or any appearance of concert between the noble Lord and myself, would have had the tendency rather to prejudice than promote the adjustment of this question. I, therefore, declined to receive the communication of those details; but I think that the noble Lord must have been satisfied that, though I declined to concert particular measures with him, yet it was my intention to give to the noble Lord, in his attempt to adjust this question according to his own views of public policy, that same cordial support which it is his boast he now intends to give me. I believe that must have been the impression of the noble Lord because, after the communication with me, the noble Lord undertook the formation of a Government; and I am sure that the noble Lord will admit that no act of mine caused the failure of the noble Lord's attempt, and that I was in no way concerned in the reasons which induced the noble Lord finally to abandon it. I made no inquiry as to the persons who should constitute the new Government; I had no personal objections of any kind. My conviction was, that this question ought to be adjusted. I was prepared to facilitate its adjustment by others by my vote, and by the exercise of whatever influence I could command. So much for my conduct towards political opponents — better entitled than myself to undertake the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Now, Sir, with respect to the course which I have pursued towards those who so long have given me their support. I admit to them that it is but natural that they should withhold from me their confidence. I admit that the course which I am pursuing is at variance with the principles on which party is ordinarily conducted. But I do ask of them, whether it be probable that I would sacrifice their favourable opinion and their support unless I was influenced by urgent considerations of public duty — unless I was deeply impressed with the necessity of taking these precautions, and advising these measures. Notwithstanding that which may have passed in this debate — notwithstanding the asperity with which some have spoken, I will do that party (which has hitherto supported me) the justice they deserve. No person can fill the situation I fill without being aware of the motives by which a great party is influenced. I must have an opportunity of knowing what are the personal objects of those around me; and this I will say, notwithstanding the threatened forfeiture of their confidence, that I do not believe (speaking generally of the great body of the party) that there ever existed a party influenced by more honourable and disinterested feelings.

While I admit that a natural consequence of the course I have pursued, is to offend, probably to alienate, a great party, I am not the less convinced that any other course would have been ultimately injurious even to party interests. I know what would have conciliated temporary confidence. It would have been to underrate the danger in Ireland, to invite a united combination for the maintenance of the existing Corn Law, to talk about hoisting the flag of protection for native industry, to insist that agricultural protection should be maintained in all its integrity — by such a course I should have been sure to animate and please a party, and to gain for a time their cordial approbation. But the month of May will not arrive without demonstrating that I should thereby have abandoned my duty to my country — to my Sovereign — aye, and to the Conservative party. I had, and have, the firm persuasion that the present temper of the public mind — the state of public feeling, and of public opinion, with respect to the Corn Laws — independent of all adventitious circumstances, make the defence of the Corn Laws a very difficult task. But with such a calamity as that which is impending in Ireland, it was utterly irreconcilable with my feelings to urge the landed interest to commit themselves to a conflict for the maintenance inviolate a law which attaches at the present time a duty of 17s. to the quarter of wheat. What were the facts which came under the cognizance of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, charged with the responsibility of Providing for the public peace, and rescuing millions from the calamity of starvation? We were assured in one part of this Empire there are 4,000,000 of the Queen's subjects dependent on a certain article of food for subsistence. We knew that on that article of food no reliance could be placed. It was difficult to say what was the extent of the danger - what would be the progress of the disease, and what the amount of deficiency in the supply of the article of food. But, surely, you will make allowances for those who were charged with the heaviest responsibility, if their worst anticipations should be realized by the event. We saw, in the distance, the gaunt forms of famine, and of disease following in the train of famine. Was it not our duty to the country, aye, our duty to the party that supported us, to avert the odious charge of indifference and neglect of timely precautions? It is absolutely necessary, before you come to a final decision on this question, that you should understand this Irish case. You must do so. The reading of letters may be distasteful to you; but you shall have no ground for imputing it to me that I left you in ignorance of a danger which I believe to be imminent. I may have lost your confidence — I will not try to regain it at the expense of truth. I can conciliate no favour by the expression of regret for the course I have taken. So far from it, I declare, in the face of this House that the day of my public life, which I look back on with the greatest satisfaction and pride, is that 1st of November last, when I offered to take the responsibility of issuing an Order in Council to open the ports, and to trust to you for approval and indemnity. I wished then, that by the first packet which sailed after the 1st of November, the news might have gone forth that the ports were open. The primary object of such a measure, of course, would have been to increase the supply of food, and to take precautions against famine, although other collateral advantages might have flowed from it. Had we opened the ports, and had our anticipations proved to be incorrect — had the result shown that we had formed a false estimate of this danger — I believe that the generosity of Parliament would have protected us from censure. That would have been the case had our anticipations proved to be wrong; but what is the fact? During the latter part of December and January, there was a temporary suspension of alarm, after the opinions we had received from men eminent in science. I never shared in the sanguine hopes that there would be abundance of food, that the potato disease was exaggerated, and that we might safely trust to existing supplies. I felt that the time would arrive when the opinions of those individuals would be justified. And what is the fact? I will read to you some communications, not so much for the vindication of the Government as for the guidance of your own future course. It is not right that I should leave you in ignorance of the real facts of this case. It is true the present proposition is not a suspension of the duties, but it is a virtual suspension. It comprehends the removal of the duty on maize and rice, and the reduction of the duty to a nominal amount on barley and oats, and the reduction of the duty on wheat from 17s. to 4s. Before you decide on rejecting or delaying this measure, hear and consider the reports which the last few days have brought from Ireland. You seemed to discredit the reports of official authorities; and some, I regret to say, countenanced the notion that public men were base enough to act in concert for the purpose of exaggeration. I will now read, therefore, no reports from the Lord Lieutenant. I will read letters which the last two mails have brought from Ireland, from men from whose statements you cannot have the pretence of withholding confidence. I will first read a communication from Sir David Roche, who was for some time Member for the city of Limerick. He was one of those who at first thought the apprehension of famine to be greatly exaggerated, and that extraordinary precautions were unnecessary. This day has brought me this letter from him, dated Carass, near Limerick, Feb. 11 :

"No person was more disposed than I was to look with hope to that part of the potato crop in this country that appeared sound before Christmas. I thought it was quite safe and certain to keep in the usual way, and in my answer to the Lord Lieutenant's circular I stated that hope with great confidence, adding that the crop was so large, the sound portion would nearly feed the people." [This, then, is a disinterested authority.] "But I grieve to say, that every day convinces me of the error I was under; the potatoes that were apparently sound then, had more or less the disease in an incipient state, and the greater part is now obliged to be given to pigs and cattle, to save the owners from total loss. The Catholic clergy of several parishes have made this painful communication to me; my own experience as a landed proprietor and a practical farmer, holding in my possession large animal farms, in three different parts of this country, and also in the county Clare, entirely corresponds with their statements. I don't think by the 1st of May next, that out of one hundred acres of potatoes on my land, sound seed will be left me for next year's crop.

"If the case is so bad with me, and it is nearly the same in the four districts I allude to, how much worse must it be with the poor, who have not the convenience and aid that large farming establishments, with substantial buildings, can command? In short, as one rides through the country, rotten potatoes are to be seen everywhere in large quantities by the side of the roads; pits, lately turned, in most cases smaller than the heaps of rotten potatoes alongside them; and those in the pits are certain, if not quickly consumed, to share in the general decay.

"Such, Sir, is the state I may say of the entire country. No doubt for six or seven weeks, while the remains of the potatoes last, destitution will not be general; but I pray you, Sir, look to it in time."

There were some of us who did look to it in time, and I wish that our advice had been acted on. That is the Report from the county of Limerick. I now come to the Queen's County. The following is a copy of a Report, received February 12, 1846:

" Queen’s County, Stradbally, Feb. 11, 1846.

"With reference to the potato disease, I beg to state that I was requested by Sir Edward Walsh and Sir A. Weldon, two magistrates of this district, to make a more searching inquiry into the state of the potatoes in the neighbourhood of the collieries than had hitherto been made. The instructions were, to make the examination by properties, and ruled forms were supplied by Sir A. Weldon, with such headings as he considered applicable to the case.

"On Monday morning, the 9th, I proceeded to Wolfhill, accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Emerson, the clergyman of the parish, and commenced with the property of Mr. Hovenden. Mr. Hovenden himself being with us, we examined every house on the property, took down the number of each family, the quantity of potatoes planted, and the quantity (from actual inspection) now remaining on lands, with the quantity of oats or other grain now in the possession of the family. On Tuesday, we went over the property of Sir Charles Coote, adjoining Mr. Hovenden's, and also over Mr. Carter's, and, so far as time would admit, examined a few families on the property of Mrs. Kavanagh, of Gracefield. Our inquiries extended to about 190 families altogether, and enable me with the most perfect accuracy to state the frightful extent to which the destruction of the potato crop has proceeded in that part of the country. Many families whom we visited, and who had planted sufficient for their ordinary wants, including the seed necessary for the ensuing season, have not had a potato of any kind for the last month."

Observe this is in the month of February, five months at least before there can be any supply from the natural bounty of Providence.

" Others have lost nearly all; and the few that still remain are totally unfit for human food. In every instance where we saw potatoes in pits in the fields we had them examined, and, with scarcely an exception, we found them to be a mass of putrefaction, perfectly disgusting, even to look at. We examined a few houses on the property of Sir Thomas Esmonde, where the land is of much better quality, but the result was in every case the same. There are literally no potatoes remaining in that part of the country.

"I understand the magistrates intend to meet on an early day, and make some representation, through the lieutenant of the county, on the above subject.

"W. W. HEMSWORTH,
"Sub Inspector 1st Rate."

I pass on to Waterford. There are letters received within the last two days — one from the Lord Lieutenant of that county — Lord Stuart de Decies. It is dated the 10th February; I entreat the attention of the House to it. Lord Stuart de Decies is a person whose opinions must carry with them great authority. He says

"His excellency will find in these statements an announcement of the alarming fact, that in two districts alone of the Union in question there are even at this early period of the year, no less than 300 persons whose stores of provisions are upon the point of becoming exhausted. In the meanwhile the rot is represented as making daily progress amongst the potatoes, which until lately it was hoped might have been preserved in a state of partial soundness for some time longer; and there is every reason, therefore, to anticipate that the distress now prevailing in certain localities will very speedily cause its pressure to be felt by the labouring classes throughout the Union. With this prospect in view, the probability is, that a rise in the price of all kinds of grain may be expected to take place in the course of the ensuing spring and summer months, although foreign supplies were to be admitted immediately duty free, and thus the facilities of providing food for the people in exchange for their labour be removed beyond the means which landed proprietors have at the present moment within their reach for this purpose. It is in these circumstances that I would venture respectfully to submit, as far as the interests of the county of Waterford are involved, that much good might be effected in keeping down prices by the establishment of Government corn stores from which grain might be purchased at first cost price in such towns as Youghal, Dungarvan, Waterford, Carrick, Clonmel, and, perhaps, Lismore. In all but the last mentioned of these towns, there is an adequate military force for the protection of such granaries, if established, and no part of the county would then be beyond twelve or fourteen miles distance from a depot, whence food on moderate terms might be drawn to those localities which stood in need of a supply."

The next I read is from Kerry, dated the 9th of February, from a gentleman whose statements I believe are entitled to the highest respect - Mr. Thomas Dillon:

"I regret to have to report, for the information of Government, that serious ravages have been made latterly on the potatoes by the disease which, for the last two months, was supposed at least not to be progressive. Having gone round my district within the last ten days, I have had opportunities not only of hearing, but of witnessing the destruction which has been committed, and which is gaining ground rapidly, contrary to the hopes which have been for some time cherished, as to excite the utmost alarm among all classes: and for my own part I feel almost confounded at the difficulty that must exist in procuring a sufficiency of good seed for the ensuing crop."

Such is the report of Mr. Dillon, of Cahirciveen, resident magistrate. The House is aware that there has been sitting for some time past in Dublin a Commission [the Devonshire Commission], one of whose duties it has been to collect accurate information with respect to the extent of the deficiency in different localities. That Commission has lately made a report, which refers, I fear, to a period antecedent to that in which the disease has reappeared. I have here an official statement, from the highest authority, embracing almost every part of Ireland, every electoral district, with the exception of ninety nine, having sent returns; and these are the facts reported by the Commissioners:

"That in four electoral divisions the loss of potatoes has been nearly nine tenths of the whole crop; in 93, between seven tenths and eight tenths; in 125, the loss approaches to seven tenths of the whole crop; in 16, it approaches to six tenths; in 596, nearly one half of the crop is entirely destroyed; and in 582 divisions, nearly four tenths of the crop are entirely destroyed."

Here are requisitions made to us, and we are acting upon them, to establish stores of corn for the people, to be retailed at cost prices, or given in remuneration for labour. [An hon. Member: It will be wanted for seed.] Yes; to get potatoes from foreign countries for the ensuing year is next to impossible. An eighth of the whole crop is required for seed; each acre of potatoes requires nearly a ton, three fourths of a ton, at least, for seed; take the tonnage which it would require to bring in 10,000 tons of potatoes from any part of Europe where potatoes may still abound; it is impossible to supply the deficiency by foreign import. You must look for seed from the domestic supply — by making savings from the existing crop. And here is the danger, that when the pressure of famine is severe, the immediate craving of hunger will be supplied – the necessities of next year will be forgotten; the Government must interfere for the purpose of encouraging the saving of potatoes in sufficient quantities, in order to secure a supply of seed for next year. How are we to do this? By the substitution, I suppose, of some other articles of provision, to be given under wise regulations, for the purpose of preventing abuse. Suppose, now, that in April or May next, we shall be under the necessity of proposing votes of public money to cover past or future expenditure - will there be a cheerful acquiescence in those votes, if the Corn Law is to remain unaltered? We are now encouraging the resident proprietors, the clergy of the Established Church, and the clergy of the Roman Catholic persuasion, to make great exertions; we are telling them, "Individual charity in your localities must supply more than the Government can supply; you must give corn in exchange for seed potatoes, or for the sustenance of human life." Is it quite reasonable to make these demands on the private charity of those whose straitened means leave little disposable for charity, and at the same time to levy 17s. duty on the quarter of foreign wheat? Is the State to show no charity? For what is the duty to be levied? For Revenue? But we may have to spend public money in the purchase of corn - we may have to raise its price to the consumer by our unusual intervention. Surely it is a more becoming course to remit duty, than to buy heavily taxed corn! Shall we levy the 17s. for protection to domestic corn? What - when in 600 electoral divisions in Ireland only half the crop of potatoes has been saved, and in 600 more only three fifths, while in some, nearly eight tenths are gone? Do you believe that it would be for the credit and honour of the landed aristocracy of this country to say, " We throw upon the Government the responsibility of averting the evils of famine, but not one letter of the existing Corn Law shall be altered?" Would it be fidelity to the landed interest were I to counsel this? No; I believe that, whatever might have been the outward show of consistency, such a proposal would be the real 'treachery' which you impute to me, because I have thought it for your interest, and the interests of all, to relieve ourselves from the odium of stipulating for these restrictions on food in such a moment of pressure. What would have been said? Why, the pressure in Holland and in Belgium is not half so severe as it will be in Ireland; and see what the Government in those two countries did at an early period of the autumn. In Belgium, the Executive Government took upon itself the responsibility of opening the ports to every description of provisions. The Government of Holland exercised the power which it had to do this by ordinance. Belgium is an agricultural country; the Chambers (the Lords and Commons of a neighbouring State) assembled; the Government asked for indemnity, and for the continuance of open ports. Without a moment's hesitation, by acclamation as it were, without one dissentient voice, the representatives of the landed interest in Belgium gave the Government indemnity, and continued the permission freely to import every article of food. What, under similar circumstances, has been the course taken by the Parliament of this country? What has been the course taken by Parliaments as deeply interested as we can be in the welfare of agriculture? There have been times before the present when there has been the apprehension of scarcity in this country; what has been the remedy? What has been the remedy that the heart of every man suggested? What has been the remedy that legislative wisdom took? Why, in every case, without exception, the removal for a time of the dudes upon foreign corn. [Cheers.] [An hon. Member: What was done at the end of the time?] I will come to that immediately. I rejoice in the cheer which I received from that quarter [looking to the Protection benches] ; what is it but an assent - apparently a unanimous assent - [" No!"] at any rate, a very general assent - that at a period of impending famine, the proper precaution to be taken is to encourage the free importation of food? I have a right to infer, that if that had been the proposal, namely, that existing duties upon corn and other articles of provision should be suspended for a time that proposal would have met with general assent. Then, if that be so, I ask you to expedite the passing of this Bill: either do that, or move as an Amendment that the duties upon all articles of provision shall forthwith be suspended.

I will not omit the other consideration — the course to be taken after you have suspended the law; I am trying now to convince you that I should have been unfaithful and treacherous to the landed interest, and to the party that protect the landed interest, if I had concealed the real pressure of this Irish case, and had called forth party cheers by talking about "hoisting the flag of protection" - or "rousing the British lion” — or "adhering to the true blue colour" or steadfast maintenance of the Corn Laws "in all their integrity." I am trying to convince you, by fair reasoning, that that is a course which would not have been consistent either with the public interest, or with the credit of the landed aristocracy. That is all I am asking you now to admit. If you answer me, "We will readily consent to suspend this law until next harvest," I am rejoiced to have that admission from three fourths of those by whom I shall be opposed, that it would but be wise to stipulate that for the present no alteration should be made in the Corn Law, that no maize should be admitted, at a reduced rate of duty, and that the duty upon wheat should be maintained at 17s.; I am rejoiced that I have established, to the satisfaction of the great majority, that that would not have been a prudent or a defensible course, I say it would not, because at all periods of our history the natural precaution that has been taken has been the admission, free of duty, of foreign corn in times of scarcity. I must quote some of those instances. In 1756, there was the apprehension of famine: Parliament was assembled: the first step taken was to prohibit, unwisely, in my opinion, the exportation of corn; the second was, to permit importation duty free. In 1767, you were again threatened with scarcity: the first act of the Parliament was, to admit provisions duty free. In 1791, Parliament altered the Corn Laws — they established a new Corn Law; in 1793, there was the apprehension of scarcity; notwithstanding the new Corn Law, one of the very first Acts upon the Statute Book of 1793 is to remove, for a time, all duties upon the importation of foreign corn. In 1795, there was an apprehension, not of famine, but of scarcity, severely pressing upon some classes of the community; and in that year, and again in 1796, the same remedy was adopted — the removal of all duty upon foreign corn. In 1799, the same course was pursued, and free importation allowed. Why then, I ask, with all these precedents — when the danger, in the case of some at least, was less than it is at present — would it have been wise for a Government to counsel that we should pursue a different course, refuse facilities for importation, and determine upon maintaining the existing law? Sir, I believe that course would have involved the Government and the Parliament in the greatest discredit; and so far from assisting us in maintaining the existing law, my firm belief is, that that law would have been encumbered with a degree of odium which would have made the defence of it impossible. It was upon these grounds that I acted. Seeing what had been done in neighbouring countries, and what had been uniformly done by your own Parliament, not when corn was at 100s. or 80s., but in periods when it was under 60s. - seeing that the acknowledged remedy for scarcity was opening the ports for the admission of foreign corn, I advised the suspension of the Corn Laws. Do not answer me by saying, "There was at the period to which you refer, a different Corn Law — there was no sliding scale — there was no admission of foreign corn at a low duty when the price was high." It was exactly the reverse of this; during the whole of that period, when corn was above 54s. in price, it was admitted at a duty of 6d.; the law made provision for the free importation of corn with even moderate prices. And why did Parliament interfere? It was in order that the high duty should not attach on a reduction of price. When corn was below 54s., there was a duty of from 2s. 6d. to 24s. 3 d.; when it was above 54s., the duty was 6d.; by the natural operation of the law, therefore, corn was admitted when prices were high; but there was a fear that, from a sudden importation from neighbouring ports, corn might fall below 54s., and the high duty might attach. To prevent that, and to give a guarantee to the foreign importer that he should be certain for a period of six months to have his corn admitted at a duty of 6d., Parliament interposed, and gave him that guarantee. If, then, we had refused to interfere, what a contrast might have been drawn between us and those Parliaments! Would refusal have been, or would it now be, for the credit either of Parliament or of Government? I think not. We advised, therefore - at least I advised, and three of my Colleagues concurred with me - the immediate suspension of the law. The question is, what shall we do now? The law is not suspended — Parliament is sitting. It would be disrespectful towards Parliament for the Executive to take any step; it is impossible for the Executive, by an Order of Council, to do that which might have been done by an extreme exercise of authority, when Parliament was not sitting; it would not be constitutional to do it. It may be true that the best time has passed away; that the 1st of November was a better period for doing this than the present. Yes, but admitting that, the necessity for acting with decision on the 16th February is only increased. True, the supplies of foreign corn might have been more ample, had the ports been opened on the 1st November; but you have six months yet before you - and what course do you suggest? If any one dissents from that course which we propose, let him propose another. You must make your choice. You must either maintain the existing law, or make some proposal for increasing the facilities of procuring foreign articles of food.

And now I come to that second consideration from which I said I would not shrink. After the suspension of the existing law, and the admission of foreign importation for a period of several months, how do you propose to deal with the existing Corn Laws? That is the question which a Minister was bound to consider who advised the suspension of the Corn Laws. Now, my conviction is so strong that it would be utterly impossible, after establishing perfect freedom of trade in corn for a period of seven or eight months, to give a guarantee that the existing Corn Law should come into operation at the end of that period, that I could not encourage the delusive hope of such a result. I know it may be said, that after a temporary suspension of the law, the law itself would revive by its own operation, that there would be no necessity for any special enactment to restore its vigour. But I think it is an utter misapprehension of the state of public opinion to suppose it possible that after this country, for eight months, should have tasted of freedom in the trade in corn, you could revive, either by the tacit operation of the law itself, or by new and special enactment, the existing Corn Law. Surely, the fact of suspension would be a condemnation of the law. It would demonstrate that the law, which professed by the total reduction of duty on corn when it had reached a certain price to provide security against scarcity, has failed in one of its essential parts. Yet you insist on the revival of this law. Now let me ask, would you revive the existing Corn Law in all its provisions? Would you refuse the admission of maize at lower duties? - at present the duty on maize is almost prohibitory. Do not suppose that those who advised suspension overlooked the consideration of the consequences of suspension — of the bearing it would have upon the state of the Corn Laws, and the question of future protection. At the expiration of suspension will you revive the existing law, or will you propose a new and modified Corn Law? If the existing law, every manifest defect must be preserved. By that law, the duty on maize varies inversely not with the price of maize, but with the price of barley. We want maize — the price of barley is falling, but we can get no maize, because there is a prohibitory duty on maize in consequence of the low price of barley. Oh, say some, we will have a little alteration of the law, we will provide for the case of maize. Now, do not disregard public feeling in matters of this kind. It is not right that mere feeling should overbear the deliberate conviction of reason; but depend upon it, that when questions of food are concerned, public feeling cannot safely be disregarded. In the course of last Session notice was given that maize should be imported duty free, because it was for the interest of the farmer to have maize for food for cattle. Do you think it possible to devise a new Corn Law, the leading principle of which should be that maize should come in duty free, because the admission of that article would enable the farmer to feed his cattle and pigs with it, but that there are certain other articles used for consumption by human beings — and in respect to them the law shall be maintained in all its force ? Do you advise me to commit you to fight that battle? I am assuming now that the necessity for the suspension of the law has been established; that suspension having taken place, would you deliberately advise the Government, for the sake of the public interests, or for the sake of party interests, to give a pledge either that the existing Corn Law, at the expiration of that suspension should be revived unaltered - or that there should be some trumpery modification of it, for the special benefit of the feeders of pigs and cattle? Are you insensible to the real state of public opinion on this question? Are you insensible to the altered convictions of many of your own Party? Could I safely rely upon your cordial and unanimous support, as a party, for the redemption of that pledge? Look to the change of opinion, not among politicians, which you are apt to attribute to some interested or corrupt motives; but look to the opinions that have been expressed — to the sincerity of which conclusive proofs have been given by some of the most honourable men that ever sat upon these benches. Did my noble Friend Lord Ashley vacate his seat for the county of Dorset from any interested or corrupt motive? Did Mr. Sturt, or Mr. W. Patten, avow their change of opinion from any interested or corrupt motives? Did Mr. Tatton Egerton offer to vacate his seat for Cheshire, or Lord Henniker his seat for Suffolk, from any other than a real change of opinion — from a conviction that the time was come for the adjustment of the question of the Corn Laws? Did Mr. Dawnay vacate his seat from such motive? Did a young Member of this House, Mr. Charteris, glowing with as high and honourable a spirit as ever animated the breast of an English gentleman — distinguished for great acuteness — great intelligence — great promise of future eminence — did he abandon his seat for Gloucestershire, and withdraw from this stirring conflict from any interested or corrupt motives? Surely these are proofs that that Minister who should suspend the law, and give a guarantee of the revival of it when the period of suspension expired, would have enormous difficulties to contend with.

But let us observe the course of the present debate, the admission and expressions of opinion of those who have been loudest in their condemnation of the Government. The first I notice is the hon. Member for Huntingdon [Thomas Baring]. Well, I confess I was surprised to hear from a gentleman of the name of Baring, some of the opinions introduced by him in regard to commerce and the Corn Laws. Would that hon. Gentleman follow me in the maintenance of the existing Corn Law after the suspension of it? So far from it, the hon. Gentleman thinks that this is just the time for a compromise on the subject. He then would abandon me, if, after the suspension, I had undertaken a guarantee to revive the existing law. He says this is just the time for a compromise. If ever there was an unfortunate moment for a compromise, it is the present. Whit is the meaning of a compromise? Clearly, a new Corn Law. Now, what would be the security for the permanence of that new Corn Law? [Cheers from the Protection benches.] You cheer; but what says every hon. Gentleman who has appeared on the part of the agriculturists? That what the agriculturist chiefly wishes for is, permanence as to the Corn Law. Would a modified Corn Law give that assurance of permanence? Is there, in truth, any choice between maintenance of the existing Corn Law and its repeal?

This night, then — if on this night the debate shall close — you will have to decide what are the principles by which your commercial policy is to be regulated. Most earnestly, from a deep conviction, founded not upon the limited experience of three years alone, but upon the experience of the results of every relaxation of restriction and prohibition, I counsel you to set the example of liberality to other countries. Act thus, and it will be in perfect consistency with the course you have hitherto taken. Act thus, and you will provide an additional guarantee for the continued contentment, and happiness, and well being of the great body of the people. Act thus, and you will have done whatever human sagacity can do for the promotion of commercial prosperity.

You may fail. Your precautions may be unavailing. They may give no certain assurance that mercantile and manufacturing prosperity will continue without interruption. It seems to be incident to great prosperity that there shall be a reverse - that the time of depression shall follow the season of excitement and success. That time of depression must perhaps return; and its return may be coincident with scarcity caused by unfavourable seasons. Gloomy winters, like those of 1841 and 1842, may again set in. Are those winters effaced from your memory? From mine they never can be. Surely you cannot have forgotten with what earnestness and sincerity you re echoed the deep feelings of a gracious Queen, when at the opening and at the close of each Session, She expressed the warmest sympathy with the sufferings of Her people, and the warmest admiration of their heroic fortitude.

These sad times may recur. "The years of plenteousness may have ended," and "the years of dearth may have come"; and again you may have to offer the unavailing expressions of sympathy, and the urgent exhortations to patient resignation.

Commune with your own hearts and answer me this question: will your assurances of sympathy be less consolatory - will your exhortations to patience be less impressive - if, with your willing consent, the Corn Laws shall have then ceased to exist? Will it be no satisfaction to you to reflect, that by your own act, you have been relieved from the grievous responsibility of regulating the supply of food? Will you not then cherish with delight the reflection that, in this the present hour of comparative prosperity, yielding to no clamour, impelled by no fear - except, indeed, that provident fear, which is the mother of safety — you had anticipated the evil day, and, long before its advent, had trampled on every impediment to the free circulation of the Creator's bounty?

When you are again exhorting a suffering people to fortitude under their privations, when you are telling them, "These are the chastenings of an all wise and merciful Providence, sent for some inscrutable but just and beneficial purpose - it may be, to humble our pride, or to punish our unfaithfulness, or to impress us with the sense of our own nothingness and dependence on His mercy" when you are thus addressing your suffering fellow subjects, and encouraging them to bear without repining the dispensations of Providence, may God grant that by your decision of this night you may have laid in store for yourselves the consolation of reflecting that such calamities are, in truth, the dispensations of Providence - that they have not been caused, they have not been aggravated by laws of man restricting, in the hour of scarcity, the supply of food!


Victorian Website Overview Robert Peel

Last modified 26 June 2002