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Parliamentary course, is the same as that which arises by a careful examination of the writings of the school of Political Economists, namely, an absence of a knowledge of the true general principles of commerce.
To complete this compilation of evidence, it will only be necessary that I adduce, and that briefly, matter that is supplied by a few more of the modern school of statesmen.
An examination of the Parliamentary treatment of the Free-Trade question continued. A remarkable scene in the House of Commons: some of its leading members openly argue against their announced principles. The extraordinary course pursued by Sir Robert Peel. His rejection of conviction, and his adoption of expediency. — The evil consequences to a nation attendant on this course.
ALTHOUGH the defective and erroneous treatment of the great subject of national commercial policy is made so evident to us by an examination of the recorded statesmanship of Mr. Huskisson, yet the practical aberrations emanating from this minister are not, in fact, greater than the theoretical aberrations which are discovered to have been made by the whole school of modern Political Economists. The scientific inquirers preceded, and I think I am justified also in declaring that they exceeded, in their aberrations, the practical annunciator and conductor of their erroneous policy.
On continuing the examination, it is found that other statesmen pursued courses of a similar character to those pursued by Mr. Huskisson, their errors being only less conspicuous than his, because they had not to direct their exertions in so special a manner to the particular department of commercial science; or, else, venturing more cautiously upon it, and having recourse to mental reservation, they contrived to conceal, in some degree, the true character of their policy beneath vague allusions and undefining description. Before concluding this branch of the investigation, it will be desirable to adduce a few instances of that which I have here alleged.
Mr. Baring (afterwards Lord Ashburton) was one who took a very prominent part, in the House of Commons, in introducing and enforcing the free principle of commerce. It was he who presented to the House of Commons the celebrated and influential petition of the Merchants and Traders of London, supporting the prayer of this petition by a general advocacy of the principles contained in it. On the 5th of March, 1824, he presented to the House another petition, and that of a very different character. It was from the Silk Manufacturers of London. The petitioners prayed the House to keep in force the tax on the introduction into the country of foreign silk commodities, for the purpose of preserving that protection to their manufactured productions which they then enjoyed. They insisted that the removal of the duty would greatly injure their interests, and deteriorate their condition. On this occasion Mr. Baring argued in the following manner: "After all the consideration he could give the subject, he was of opinion that the petitioners were right. With the application of their chemical knowledge to dyeing, and their other advantages, the French would," he said, "have such a start in all the branches of their silk manufacture, that he was sure there would be no person by whom the French silks would not be exclusively used. It was not London alone that would be affected. Many country towns, and Taunton in particular, had changed from another manufacture to that of silk. In this instance, he should vote against the system of free trade, and trusted that ministers would abandon their intention."*
Upon this notable example of tergiversation being set by Mr. Baring," Mr. Secretary Canning begged the House to consider, if the reasoning of the honourable member for
*Speeches of the Rt. Hon. William Huskisson, vol. ii. p. 236.
Taunton were adopted, in what a situation all those were likely to be placed, who were desirous of introducing a liberal system of commercial policy. It should be recollected, that this liberal system had been pressed upon ministers by nearly the whole House, but by no individual with so much effect and so much authority, as by the same honourable member, who had that night argued so strenuously against it. If the proposition of the honourable gentleman were agreed to, it would be vain to endeavour to adopt a more liberal system, with regard to silk, or to any other branch of commerce." "Mr. Denman (afterwards Lord Denman and Lord Chief Justice of England) said, that though he had no doubt that the ultimate result of the new system of commercial policy would be beneficial, yet a conviction of the inconveniences and hardships attendant on the change, would induce him to vote against it."
"Mr. Ellice approved of the liberal system of policy, but was unwilling to commence the alteration with that branch of industry which was exposed to the greatest chance of successful competition." Now, these are very curious specimens of reasoning. A certain course of policy is first admitted to be right and advantageous; and then the advantage is declared to accrue in proportion as the course is not observed. Mr. Secretary Peel next joined in this curious and instructive exhibition of Parliamentary policy. "He entreated the House to consider, in what a light it would stand before Europe, if, after declaiming so long in favour of the principles of free trade, it did not attempt, instead of aiming at temporary popularity, to establish sound principles of commercial policy. How greatly would those principles be prejudiced, if, knowing them to be irrefragable, Parliament not having the courage to encounter difficulties, were to yield
to the fears of the timid, or to the representations of the interested!"
Thus, on the occasion to which I have just referred, a remarkable scene was presented, a scene replete with matter demanding the most solemn reflection and consideration. Some legislators, who had been ardent supporters of liberal principles, appeared to have acquired some perception of the falseness of the policy which they had supported, and of the injurious consequences to which it would lead; whilst other legislators, serving in the capacity of Ministers of the Crown, seeing their policy attacked, and that too by those who were accustomed to support it, ventured unusually far in order to effect its vindication. Mr. Canning and Sir Robert Peel did this. The terms used by Sir Robert Peel were peculiarly strong and comprehensive; for he maintained that the principles of free trade are irrefragable, and that Parliament knew them to be so. It might reasonably be inferred from this, and from other speeches made by him, that this statesman was actually convinced of the truth of the free-trade principle; but a little research, followed by steady observation and reflection, are sufficient to satisfy the mind of an inquirer that he was not so convinced, and that this strong character, irrefragability, which he applied, was not drawn from a genuine source, was drawn from a rule of expediency, and not from that weight and power of evidence by which alone conviction is produced.
To be confirmed in this opinion we have only to consider that, when a statesman is fully convinced that he has acquired a knowledge of a great, important, and most influential principle of public action, such as the principle of free trade is, he is induced to give expression to this conviction on
For passages just quoted, see Speeches by the Rt. Hon. William Huskisson, vol. ii. pp. 236, 237, 238.