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THIRTY YEARS OF LIBERAL LEGISLATION
(BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE, JANUARY 1848]
EXPERIENCE,” says Dr Johnson, " is the great test of truth, and is perpetually contradicting the theories of men.” “ If an empire,” said Napoleon, “ were made of granite, it would soon be reduced to powder by political economists. Never was there a period when the truths stated by these master minds were so clearly and strikingly illustrated as the present; never was there an epoch when the necessity was so fearfully evinced of casting off the speculative dogmas of the times, and shaping our course by the broad light which experience has thrown on human transactions. If this is done, if wisdom is learnt by experience, and error expelled by suffering, it is yet possible to remedy the evils ; though not before a frightful and yet unfelt amount of misery has been encountered by the people.
For the last thirty years, the Liberal party have had the almost uncontrolled direction of the affairs of the nation. One by one, they have beat down all the ancient safeguards of British industry, and given effect to the whole theoretical doctrines of the political economists. So complete has been their ascendency in the national councils--s0 entire in general the acquiescence of the nation in their direction, that, without one single exception, all their doctrines have been carried into practice ; and the year 1847 exhibits a fair, and it may be presumed average result of the Liberal system when reduced into execution. The result is so curious, its lessons are so pregnant with instruction, its warning of coming disaster is so terrible, that we gladly avail ourselves of the opening of a new year to portray them in a few paragraphs to our readers.
The first great change which took place in British policy was in 1819, by the famous Bank Restriction Act, passed in that year. Every one knows that the obligation on the Bank of England to pay in specie was suspended by Mr Pitt in February 1797; and that under that system the empire continued to rise with all the difficulties by which it was surrounded, until in the latter years of the war it bore without difficulty an annual expenditure of from £110,000,000 to £120,000,000 annually. But under the new system introduced in 1819, the currency was restricted by imposing on the bank the obligation of paying its notes, when presented, not in gold or silver, but in GOLD ALONE. The currency was based on the article in commerce most difficult to keep, most easy of transport, most ready to slip away—the most precious of the precious metals. The result has been that the nation—which, with a population of 18,000,000 of souls, raised without difficulty £71,000,000 annually by taxes, and from £30,000,000 to £40,000,000 annually by loans in 1813, 1814, and 1815, of which at least a half was sent abroad, and wholly lost to the nationis now, with a population of 28,000,000, not able to raise in round numbers above £51,000,000 on an average of years by taxation, and is brought to the verge of ruin by the purchase of £33,000,000 worth of foreign grain in 1846 and 1847, and the expenditure of £35,000,000 in 1846, and £25,000,000 in the first six months of 1847, on domestic railways, every shilling of which last sum was spent at home, and puts in motion industry within the nation.
The next great change was made in the year 1821, when the reciprocity system was introduced by Mr Huskisson. This subject has acquired great importance now, from the avowed intention on the part of Government, scarcely disguised in the opening speech of this session of Parliament, to follow
up the proceedings of the committee which made such laborious inquiries last session, by a bill for the total abolition of the Navigation Laws. We shall not enlarge on this subject, the vastness and importance of which would require a separate paper. Suffice it to say, therefore, that here, too, experience has decisively warned us of the pernicious tendency of the path on which we have entered, and of the truth of Adam Smith's remark, that “though some of the
regulations of this famous act may have proceeded from national animosity, they are all as wise as if dictated by the most deliberate wisdom. As defence is of much more importance than opulence, the Act of Navigation is perhaps the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.” * It appears from the parliamentary tables compiled by Mr Porter, that, while the British tonnage with the Baltic powers had increased from 1801 to 1821, under the protective system, to a very considerable degree, theirs with us had declined during the same period ; under the reciprocity system, our tonnage with them had on the whole decreased to a third of its former amount, while their shipping with us had, during the same period, quadrupled. It further appears, from the same tables, that the great increase which has taken place during the same period, has arisen from the prodigious growth of our colonial trade, or increase of the countries with whom we had concluded no reciprocity treaties, but left them on the footing of the protection of the old Navigation Laws. And though the profits of shipping of all sorts have received a vast addition from the enormous importations consequent upon Sir R. Peel's free-trade measures, yet the returns of these years prove that the greater part of this increase has accrued to foreign states and powers, which may at any time turn the maritime resources thus acquired against ourselves. Suffice it to say, as an example of this truth, that of the ships which, in 1846, imported 4,900,000 quarters of corn into the British harbours, no less than threefourths were foreign vessels, and only one-fourth British. Nevertheless, so insensible are political fanatics to the most decisive facts, when they militate against their favourite theories, that it is in the full knowledge of these facts that Government are understood to be prepared to introduce, even in this session of parliament, a measure for the abolition, or at least the essential abrogation, of the Navigation Laws.
* Wealth of Nations, vol. ii. b. iv. c. ii. p. 195.
+ Table showing the British and Foreign tonnage with Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Prussia, since the Reciprocity treaties with these powers in 1821.
British Foreign British Foreign British Foreign British Foreign
23,005 8,508 13,855 61,342 5,312 3,969 79,590 37,720 20,799 13,692 13,377 87,974 7,096 3,910 102,847 58,270 20,986 22,529 13,122 117,015 4,413 4,795 81,202 56,013 17,074 40,092 11,419 135,272 6,738 23,689 94,664 151,621 15,906 53,141 14,825 157,910 15,158 50,943 189,214 182,752 11,829 16,939 15,603 90,726 22,000 56,544 119,060 120,589
7,608 42,602 1,035 88,004 5,357 55,961 67,566 145,742 10,425 | 38,991 1,364 110,817 3,466 57,554 86,734 175,643
8,359 49,270 2,582 109,228 5,535 106,960 111,470 229,208 11,933 53,337 3,166 114,241 6,327 103,067 | 112,709 237,984 13,170 46,795 977 113,025 3,368 83,009 / 88,198 210,254 15,296 37,218 1,385 98,979 5,499 | 59,837 87,202 145,499
1837 1838 1839 1840 1841 1842
-PORTER’s Parl. Tables, vols. i. to xii., p. 50 each vol.
The third great change made during the last quarter of a century has been in the government of Ireland. Here, if anywhere, the Liberal system has received its full development, and has had the fairest opportunity for displaying its unmixed blessings. The Catholic disabilities, which we had been told for thirty years were the main cause of its distressed condition, were repealed in 1829. A large measure of parliamentary reform-larger than the most vehement Irish patriots ventured to dream of—was conceded in 1832. Corporate reform succeeded in 1834 ; the Protestant corporations were dispossessed of power ; the entire management of all the boroughs of the kingdom was put into the hands of the Romish multitude; and a large portion of the county magistracy was, by the appointment of successive Liberal Lord-Chancellors, drawn from the better part of those of the same religious persuasion. The Protestant clergy were deprived of a fourth of their incomes to appease the Romish Cerberus; and, to avoid the vexation of collecting tithes from persons of a different religious belief, they were laid directly as a burden on the land ; Maynooth was supported by annual grants from government; the system of national education was modified so as to please the Roman Catholic clergy. Monster meetings, where sedition was always, treason often, spoken, headed by O'Connell, were allowed to go on, without the slightest opposition, for two years; and when at length the evil had risen to such a height that it could no longer be endured, the leading Agitator, after being convicted in Ireland, was liberated, in opposition to the opinion of a great majority of the twelve judges, by the casting-vote in the House of Peers of a Whig law-Lord. British liberality, when the season of distress came, was extended to the famishing Irish with unheard-of munificence; and while the Highlanders, who suffered equally under the potato failure, got nothing but from the never-failing kindness of British charity, Ireland, besides its full share of that charity, received a national grant of TEN MILLIONS STERLING, of which no less than eight millions were borrowed by Great Britain.
What have been the results? Has crime decreased, and industry improved, and civilisation advanced, under the Liberal system ? Has attachment to the British government become universal, and hatred of the stranger worn out, in consequence of the leniency with which they have been treated, and the unparalleled generosity with which their wants have been supplied ? The facts are notoriously and painfully the reverse. Hatred of the Saxon was never so general or so vehement ; idleness and recklessness were never so widespread; destitution was never so universal ; life and property were never so insecure, -as after this long-continued system of concession, and these unparalleled acts of private and public generosity. The Irish Repealers declare, that though Ireland, like England, has been blessed with an uncommonly fine harvest, there are four millions of persons in that country in a state of hopeless misery ; and supposing, as is probably the case, that this statement is exaggerated, the authentic reports to Parliament on the state of the poor prove that there are above two millions of paupers, or à full fourth of the population, in a state verging on starvation. A new so-called Coercion Bill has been brought into Parliament in consequence of the great increase of crimes of violence, and, above all, of cold blooded murders; and on the necessity that existed for its introduction the present Secretary of State must speak for himself. Sir George Grey said, on November 30, 1847, on moving the first reading of the Coercion Bill, that, during the six months ending October 1846, the heinous crimes of violence in Ireland stood as follows :
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