31 MARCH 1860, Page 12


Or all the articles on the long lists of Customs and Excise, there is not one which has so often, and to such a degree, been experi- mented upon, as the single item of wine. Ever since the times of William the Third, when glorious sack was running in streams, and the juice of the grape was the general drink of the middle and upper classes, British Chancellors of the Exchequer seem to have been perplexed beyond measure whether to regard wine as a luxury or a necessity of life. They accordingly, like faithful servants of the national purse, tried to solve the question by fiscal measures of an upward tendency. First of all we hear, about the year 1695, under the reign of James, of a general "Impost on Wines," amounting to 81. sterling, per tun ; and this having been found exceedingly useful in a financial point of view, it was fol- lowed, in 1692, under William and Mary, by an additional im- post of Si. on French wines only. This latter tax was meant to be a political measure, but as it fruitfully did the will of the Ex- chequer, there was added thereto, in 1698, a "new subsidy" of 4/. 10s. per tun, followed rapidly, in 1704, by an addititmal "one-third subsidy" of U. 108. ; and again, in 1706, by a new • ` two-thirds subsidy" of 3/. Thus things remained for some time, and then came the mighty reformer, the wine-legislator par excellence, Mr. Pitt.

Now, experimenting began on a grand scale. First, in May 1786, Mr. Pitt, in the conviction, as he stated, that under an im- proved system, smuggling would be put an end to, and a greater demand for foreign wines arise, "while at the same time, we would improve the revenue," brought in a measure by which he consolidated the laws relating to the import of wine, and platted the survey of wine under the charge of the Excise. In the year following, on negotiating a treaty of commerce with France, he reduced the duty on French wines to 4s. 6d. per gallon, and, conformably to the requirement of the Methuen Treaty, which stipulated for a perpetual discrimination to the extent of one-third in favour of Portugal, the wines of that country were lowered to 38. per gallon. At these rates the scale remained till 1795. The effect of this alteration, as far as re- garded consumption, fully justified the anticipations of Mr. Pitt, and the importation of foreign wines rose rapidly, from 4,064,864 gallons in 1785, to 6,601,038 in 1790, and 6,861,374 gallons in 1794. Notwithstanding the large reduction in the amount of duty, the revenue likewise rose considerably. The income from wine, which, on an average of three years before the reduction of the duties, had been 625,429/., produced, on the average of eight years after that period, no less than 932,583/. So that the effect of this first experiment of Mr. Pitt was to increase consumption by about 64 per cent, and the public income by nearly 50. But, meanwhile, the war of Great Britain with the French Republic had begun to assume more and more formidable dimensions ; and, in 1795, Mr. Pitt, impatient for a larger income from so prolific a source, again raised the duties on wine to something approach- ing the charges from which he had relieved it in 1786, namely, 78. 4d. per gallon on French, and 4s. 10.1d on Spanish and Por- tuguese wines ; and even these rates, in the year following, he raised to 10s. 2d. and 68. 9td. respectively. As might be ex- pected, the result of this second experiment was greatly to reduce the consumption of wine, chieflyat of French importation. wine From 557,085 gallons of French consumed in 1794, the im- port fell to 96,407 in 1795, and as low as 6926 in 1796; and, though rallying a little during the following years, it never rose Much above 100,000 as long as the high scale was allowed to remain.

But the revenue was nevertheless increasing, from the very elevated duties, the growing taste for foreign, chiefly Spanish and Portuguese wines and the rapidly augmenting wealth of the middle classes. This result encouraged Mr. Pitt and his im- mediate successors to try a new series of financial experiments of an upward tendency. In 1802, the duty on French wines was raised to 10s. 7id. per gallon, and on Portuguese to 78.; in 1803, it was increased to 12s. 54d. on French, and 8s. 3d. on Portu- guese; and finally, in 1804, to 138. 6-;- on French and 98. on Por- tuguese wines. At this high scale, the duties remained till the close of the war, productive throughout of about the same revenue of two-and-half millions sterling per annum, but with a gradual tendency to a decrease. The consumption, which had been above seven millions of gallons in 1802, sank to less than five millions in 1805, rose again to more than six millions in 1808, and then re- mained fluctuating between four and five millions. Here, there- fore, was the great and evident fact that, under the legislation of mere financial calculators, who, eager to increase the revenue had become gradually regardless of the consumer, the consumption had fallen from nearly eight millions of gallons in 1791, to little more than four millions in 1813—a fact the more striking, if the greatly augmented population of the country is taken into account. The exorbitantly high duties on wine remained in force till the year 1823, when the attention of the Government was at last forcibly attracted to their examination by the continued though gradual decline of the consumption, and the consequent failure of the revenue. Both the House of Commons and the Press urging the subject in the strongest possible manner, the Chancellor of the Exchequer saw himself at last compelled to com- ply with the request, and to reduce the duty to 7s. 2d. on French, and 48. 10d. on -Portuguese wines. The reduction took effect the same year, in March 1825, and its immediate consequence was to raise the consumption by about two millions of gallons per annum. The importation, which had been 4,606,999 gallons in 1823, rose to 6,058,453 in 1826, to 6,826,361 in 1827, and to 7,162,376 gallons, in 1828. Three years after the last date, in 1831, another change of an important character was made in the wine-duties, by the obliteration of the invidious and unwise dis- tinction between the wines of France and those of the rest of Eu- rope, which had existed since the reign of William III. The duty upon all wines, of whatsoever growth, was equalized to 5s. 6d. per gallon, with the sole exception of imports from the British Colonies, which were to pay only 2s. 10d. This was on the whole an increase of duty, seeing that at the period scarcely one-thirtieth part of the wines imported into Great Britain was of French growth ; yet the consumption was but slightly affected by this augmentation the returns proving a gain on the French against a loss on the other wines. The revenue which from 1826 to 1830, had been about 1,540,0001, rose in the period from 1832 to 1836 to 1,700,000/., or about 10 per cent. This tendency to a gradual rise in consumption and revenue continued for seve- ral years, when it was suddenly checked, in 1840, by an addition of 5 per cent on the wine-duties, raising the sale to 58. 9d.

Trifling as this augmentation was, both revenue and consumption on this occasion evinced the utmost sensibility, the former falling from 1,849,698/. in 1839, to 1,791,6361. in 1840, 1,720,479/. in 1841; and 1,334,469/. in 1842. In like manner, the consumption underwent a simultaneous decline from 7,000,686 gallons in 1839, to 6,553,922 in 1840; 6,184,960 in 1841; and 4,815,222 gallons in 1842.

The evident cause of this decrease in consumption and revenue, and the necessity of lowering the wine-duties, were strongly urged on Sir Robert Peel, when reconstructing the British tariff in 1842, but he, nevertheless, declined to include wine amongst the .artieles set down for a reduction. For this refusal, the distin- guished statesman assigned two reasons : first, the pendency of negotiations then in progress with France and other wine-grow- ing countries, and the expediency of obtaining from them relaxa- tions corresponding in importance with our own reductions ; and, secondly, his apprehension that the increase in the consumption of wine arising from diminished taxation might prove insufficient to replace the amount of income surrendered. Sir Robert Peel does not seem to have thought of any simple means to bring about this desired increase in a natural manner by some such licensing plan as that proposed by Mr. Gladstone, nor was it proposed by any Member of the Legislature. The negotiations with France to which Sir Robert Peel alluded, came to no successful termination, and the duty upon wine, therefore, remained unaltered. But the attention of the House of Commons having been again and again directed to the subject, by the press and by numerous pamphlets and larger publications, at last, in March, 1852, the Government consented to the appointment of a Parliamentary Committee "to inquire into the revenue derived from the Import-duty on wines." No practical result came out of this resolution ; for, after a long investigation, the Committee so appointed declined to recommend any course to the Legislature, but concluded its labours by merely reporting to the House the voluminous and conflicting evidence which had been collected. In consequence, Mr. Gladstone, in presenting, on the 18th of April 1853, the Budget for the year, gave it as the final decision of the Government, that "whatever might be the opinion of the Members of the Cabinet as to the ope- ration of the present wine-duty, they were unable to propose any change at that time, and unable to see any definite or early pros- pect of a change hereafter."

Seven years have done wonders. We are in the last week of March 1860, and Mr. Gladstone' again Chancellor of the Ex- chequer, is heard declaring from his seat in the House, that the long-sought " prospect " at last has been discovered. The truth, indeed, was simple enough, though never Chancellor of the Ex- chequer,• had seen it before :—" Although fiscal considerations form the immediate necessity of the new system, yet I will admit that it is not to be decided upon entirely fiscal grounds. It has important bearings on the social condition of the community, upon the great question of public sobriety; and the ground on which I earnestly recommend it to the House is, not its importance for fiscal ends, or for fiscal security, but on the ground that it is a good and wise measure, not only with regard to the comforts of the people, but also for the promotion of temperance and sobriety, as opposed to drunken and demoralized habits." So speaks a Chancellor of the Exchequer of the year 1860; and we, who have just passed in review the doings of preceding Chancellors, cannot but hail with the utmost satisfaction such noble and truly states- manlike words. " Be good, my friend, and let who will be clever," sings the reverend author of "Andromeda," and even the worldly wisdom of the advice is now coming to be gradually acknowledged. Yet it is almost startling to hear the indi- vidual from whom of all others we expect to get but statements of figures, of plus and minus, and balances of millions in the great Dr. and Cr. book of the nation, publicly proclaim the advantages of a new system, "on the ground that it is a good and wise mea- sure." And that the Bill now before the House of Commons is really such, there can be no reasonable doubt. This, even if there were no other evidence to prove it, might be demonstrated from the fact alone that the measure is opposed by none but extreme parties, the dealers in ardent spirits, and the directors of Temperance Societies. Of the former and their object, it is un- necessary to speak, their ease being so evidently egoistical ; and, as regards the latter, the public will not hesitate to accept Mr. Gladstone's portrait as to their being "gentlemen who draw no dis- tinction between the use and abuse of a thing, and in whose view it is just as easy to talk of the legitimate use of theft and perjury as of the legitimate use of wine." Between these two classes of opponents stands the great body of Englishmen, emphatically the Nation ; and, as in most cases of higher policy, theirs is, and will be, the Vox populi, vox Dei.