NEWS OF THE WEEK.
THE debate on Sir ROBERT PEEL'S proposition for altering the Corn-laws, which began on Monday, reached the close of its first
stage on Wednesday ; when Lord JOHN Ressenes motion to reject that proposition was negatived, by a majority of 123 in a House of 575. This division may be regarded as deciding the fate of the measure ; which will become law, and undergo a practical trial. The question technically before the House during the three nights' debate was, whether a corn-law should be based upon a sliding scale of duties; but the questions really discussed were, whether the better scale was a sliding or a fixed scale, and the merits, absolute and comparative, of Sir ROBERT PEEL'S plan and Lord Joinv RUSSELL'S plan. A third question, raised in anticipa- tion of a debate to follow, whether there should be any duty at all, was propounded by MrAtoenuee ; who, in taking a broad and comprehensive view of the entire subject, began by stripping it (as Lord BROUGHAM had done last week in the House of Lords) of the pseudo-relieous colouring which has helped exaggeration to throw discredit upon sound principles. Other speakers also hinted at the question of complete freedom, which formed the basis of Mr. ROEBUCK'S lecture to Sir ROBERT PEEL 011 great- statesmanship.
The larger part of the debate, however, turned not upon abstract questions, but upon the rival propositions of the two great parties, each party striving to decry the measure of the other ; and each was, in truth, very successful. The Ministerial scheme obviously lay open to the imputation of being no reform, but merely a miti- gation, of the existing law of restriction ; and ample use was made of that reproach, though the critical reader will fail to discover in, the debate much of that lively ridicule and keen sarcasm to which such a subject might have given scope in former Parliaments. Lord Jona RUSSELL, however, argued with some force upon the monstrous absurdity of continuing to exclude from our market the great corn-countries of the Black Sea and Western America. Mr. LABOUCHBRE strongly illustrated the necessity of a bold and struc- tural change in the law, by showing the actual position of the country in respect of the supply of food; for while the supply from Ireland is so steadily decreasing as to give warning of a speedy cessation of all aid from that quarter, the import of foreign corn has been advancing with the increase of the population, so as to indicate an annual importation equal to two millions of quarters by the middle of the century. If, however, Sir ROBERT PEEL'S mea- sure is unequal to the exigency in theory—if it professes to be no more than a mitigation of certain evils of detail—in practice, it was argued by Mr. Lummoxes, it will actually aggravate those evils; for the very frauds in the averages which it is intended to prevent, by making fictitious advances of price, really admit foreign corn when English corn is not so dear as the returns would show, and so allow of importation at a lower duty than the prices actually paid in the market would warrant. On the other hand, the Whigs' pro- posal to levy a high fixed duty when the price is high, gave a handle to their opponents, which they did not fail to use; and Mr. GLAD- STONE was one of the ablest in exposing the irnpolicy of Lord JOHN'S prohibitory duty on American wheat in certain states of the market. Lord Joint even contrived to impart an air of singular absurdity to his position in the dispute. Formerly, to obviate what he felt to be the weightiest objection to the eight-shilling duty plan, he had hinted at giving the Executive power to suspend the duty in seasons of dearth. Casting about, it should seem, for something to give a new gloss to his rejected measure and enable it to compete with the PEEL scale in point of liberality, he now pro- poses to make it a part of his scheme that corn shall be admitted at a nominal duty when the price is very high—at Is. when the price is 73s. or 74s. That "jump" of 7s., greater than any in the contemned "jumping" scale, was a godsend to the enemy ; and it did good service in a comparison of the working of the RUSSELL and PEEL plans, instituted with much effect by Sir ROBERT, and still more ably by Mr. GLADSTONE. A point upon which they in- itiated was, that under the new system, the trifling fall of ls. in the duty would be a very insufficient inducement to force up prices by tampering with the averages ; and that the dealer would therefore sell out his store at a much lower price and higher duty than at present ; while Lord JOHN'S jump of 7s. would augment the present inducement. In the comparison the argument is good, but it is worth little in itself; for Mr. EDWARD BULLER very justly remarked, that if the inducement to hold corn is less, the risk of holding is also less : if a fall of Is. is small, so a rise of Is. is small—the fear is as much minimized as the hope, and speculation is as much encouraged by greater impunity as dis- couraged by less hasty gain. Mr. CHILDERS contributed a valuable i fact, n showing that the bulk, all but a very small fraction, of the corn admitted at the higher duties usually levied, was so admitted when the duty was rising : it thus formed a sort of supplement to the corn taken from bond at the lowest duty, and was only drawn forth under the fascination with which men pursue a departing op- portunity,—just as a dog will run out of the door which you put ajar as if you were about to close it, though he was content to- stand still as long as the door was wide open. If dealers would hold corn, therefore, at the risk of a backward jump in the duty of some four shillings or so, will the risk imposed by a rise of Is. have much terror ? It was keenly disputed, however, whether under the new system corn might not possibly come in at the highest duties : but, Booth to say, all parties seem so much at sea with re- spect to their data, that none of their conclusions have any prac- tical value. The burden of proof; however, lay with those who ad- vocate the measure which they bring forward ; and they made out no case at all.
No debate ever, led to more unsatisfactory conclusions : no final deduction can be made from it, and we are left to conjectures and probabilities. The general impressions which they produce may be briefly described. As the PEEL scale is an improved imitation of the old one, and as the higher portion of this scale is practically
prohibitory, so may Sir ROBERT'S prove' with this difference, that prices may not be quite so much forced up—the operative part of the scale may not be quite so continually limited to its extremity— in short, as we said last week, the evils of the existing scale may be in some degree diminished. As the greater portion of the old scale was generally inoperative, it may be described as consisting of a duty increasing by three jumps from a to 10s. 8d., with a sliding
scale appended to t by way of ornament, or for use in case of ac- cidents; and so Lord Joon "fixed duty" scale may be considered as consistini Of one jump, from ls. to 8s., without any suppositi- tious sliding scale hanging to it : it has not _so many as three jumps ; but then, the one jump is about twice as wide as any of the three ; and the inducement which it offers to fraud is as 7 to 4 or 2 in comparison with the old scale. By permitting the jump, Lord JOHN destroyed the only merit of the 8s. dtity. The fixed duty forbade speculation : whether corn rose et fell, the dealer would pay the same duty; which, being a fixed' charge and not a differ- ence, would be paid by the consumer and pocketed by the State ; and in that, therefore, he would he no interest. An Order in Council to suspend the duty would have been too uncertain for speculation; too limited in its application, too brief, and in every respect too little available to constitute an item in the standing cal- culations of trade. But the 7s. jump offers the highest of all in- ducements yet offered to fraud: it enables the dealer in one sum to transfer seven-eighths of the duty to the price—the same amount being paid by the consumer under the altered name, while the dif- ference goes to the dealer instead of the revenue. The Russets. scale, therefore, which is all jump, would aggravate all the practical evils of the existing law. Its merit would be that, imposing not a very great maximum duty, when corn was tolerably cheap, and the people had no great interest in foreign competition' it would admit the foreigner to compete with the home farmer. It might in that way encourage some steadiness of foreign trade in corn. But the competition would not be of a wholesome kind ; for when high prices made the home trade more profitable but more precarious, the sudden fall of duty would give the foreigner a sudden advan- tage. Such are the probable results : experience alone, in the un-
certainty of all commercial operations, can tell what may be the actual results; and that is a test which the Whig eight-shilling scheme will most likely never undergo. There is a further uncer- tainty, which the debate did not much diminish, as to the extent of the foreign supply at available prices : experience must decide that too ; but it appears to have little chance of doing so under the mitigated restriction of the PEEL plan. This one thing alone is certain that all these plans of duty, old and new, mean that there shall be less corn in England—less in the market, and less eaten by the people—than if there were no duty at all : and it is nearly
as certain, that only by perfect freedom of trade can either the home agriculture, kept in a state of inferior productiveness by
the indolence of protection, or the foreign market, stunted in its growth by our discouragement, be made to develop their fullest resources.
If the debate led to no positive conclusions, however, except that the proposition of the party in power will have a trial, it gave rise to two curious negative conclusions. Lord Joins Russett not only abandoned the fixity of his fixed duty, but he tacitly relinquished the eight-shilling duty of last year : his fixed duty stands for the present at a lower sum, as yet an unknown quantity. The other notable negation is, that the Home Secretary houestly disclaimed all hope, not only of settling the distress by this Corn-law, but of settling the Corn-law question itself by it. Those two concessions, indeed, constitute the real advance of the question : the Whig scheme is given up—Lord JOHN RUSSELL admits that it will not do—and that obstruction is gone' and the Tories confess that they cannnot settle the question by merely lopping off bits of the abuse—that throwing a part of the cargo overboard will not carry the sinking vessel over the shallows. The Whigs confess that their plan of settlement is out of date ; the Tories usher in theirs with the announcement that it will not last long. It needed no ghost to tell us that ; but at all events, the factions have known their weak- ness. Their strength—a deceptive strength for all ultimate pur- poses—their strength to resist lay in the diversion effected in their favour by the bigoted via inerthe of the landed interest and the mis- taken tactic of the professional agitators. If no great reform was expected from Sir ROBERT PEEL, his solemn demeanour and pro- mise of reconciling all interests, coupled with the fact that he was already in the confidence of that interest whose rustic seclusion makes it stand obstinately on the ancient ways, and had made some progress in disarming the distrust of the urban movement party, warranted the hope that be would really undertake the office of mediator and interpreter between two classes alien to each other. He has shrunk from the task. Yet it must sooner or later be per- formed. It is admitted that the immediate question is not settled : the only hope of managing its further postponement even for a brief space lies in any glimpse of prosperity which the chapter of accidents may turn up : be they a cause of dis- tress or not, the people have the notion in their heads that corn- laws and distress go together, and whenever they are distressed they will accuse the law of restriction with increasing fierceness. The final upshot presents an alternative : nobody believes that the Corn-laws must be repealed today or tomorrow, or until after this new scheme of them is tested : the interval may be employed in convincing those for whom they are instituted, that they are not really for their interest ; or their removal may be left, at the dictate of indolence or feebleness, until that day when popular rage shall tear them down and trample on their supporters. States- men may choose which they like—CONVERSION, or comruLsioe. If they are not prepared to make the hard election, let them retreat betimes from a field of contest which affords less and less safety or honour for any but sagacious and resolute men. Such is the moral of the week's dabbling statesmanship in Parliament.