« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
If the Chancellor of the Exchequer bad had a surplus to distribute; if commerce had been rendered stagnant and the revenue stationary in consequence of these fiscal burdens and cobweb restrictions which he proposed to remove ; if even these modifications of the tariff, instead of being in the main abolitions of duty which involve a pure loss, had been reductions of duty which, by stimulating consumption, would ere long, according to sober calculations, have replaced that loss,—then, indeed, his position in defending these extensive operations would have been strong, if not absolutely inexpugnable. But none of these pleas could fairly be urged on his behalf. For, first, in place of a surplus, he had to face an enormous deficit, which by these changes he proposed still further to augment by a sum of four millions. Secondly, so far from the duties in the existing tariff having checked commerce, reduced consumption, and impaired the swelling productiveness of the revenue,– which was Sir Robert Peel's plea for his antitypal Budget, -no complaint of the sort was ever heard. Nor could it be ; for year by year our imports and exports went on increasing with unparalleled rapidity, and the receipts from the Customs and Excise had never before been so large, or shown such irrepressible buoyancy. Thirdly, he did not even pretend to hope that he should recover by increased consumption the revenue which he proposed to sacrifice; at most he anticipated by a sanguine calculation, which few men share, that of the four millions surrendered, one will in time be recovered by increased consumption, and reduced and more economical establishments. Thus, in plain words, and to take his own figures, Mr. Gladstone, in the absence of all the recognised justifications and home motives for such a course, to an original deficit of nearly ten millions adds an artificial deficit of three millions more, de pure gaieté de cæur.
By this course Mr. Gladstone has deprived himself, and we fear his successors also, of the usual official and unanswerable reply to applicants for the remission of an unwelcome tax (and all taxes are unwelcome), “Gentlemen, I have no surplus." Mr. Gladstone has proclaimed to all future complainants, that neither heavy obligations nor an empty purse are any reasons for refusing the reduction or repeal of an obnoxious duty; or rather he has proclaimed that his obligations are never overwhelming, that his purse is never empty, that, in fact, he has always at any body's service a potential surplus, in the form of an elastic income-tax, augmentable avec ou sans discrétion. Herein lies the fatal mischief of the precedent he has created. Henceforth the rejoinder to the Treasury's plea of " no effects," on the part of those who wish to shift fiscal burdens from their own constituents or their own trade, will be this, “ Nothing can be easier or simpler than to grant our demand; you have only to add another penny to the income-tax, as you did avowedly in order to repeal the paper duty.” We do not see how Mr. Gladstone can either deny the precedent or repel the argument, when brought forward to support other remissions ; for assuredly more may be said against the tea and sugar duties than against the paper tax.
The second count of our indictment against Mr. Gladstone's Budget is, that, under cover of a treaty with a foreign power, and as it were by a side-stroke, he effects a substitution of direct for indirect taxation to the amount of four millions sterling. Now the principle of this substitution may be right or wrong. Without passing sentence, we may say that many sound financiers condemn it as an error; on the other hand, there is a small but active band of economists, who are agitating for this substitution throughout the whole of our fiscal system, and whose tool or whose accomplice Mr. Gladstone has condescended to become. It is a question on which an honest difference of opinion may well exist. But no difference of opinion, we should have fancied, could exist as to the impropriety of endeavouring to evade a full and free discussion of the question on its own merits, and of taking so vast a step in a special direction, without first asking the country to consider and decide whether that is the direction in which it thinks it wise to march. To determine the spirit and tendency of our whole financial policy, not by deliberate inquiry and reflection, but by sudden and secret diplomatic action, and by a sort of legislative surprise, appears to us, we confess, scarcely dignified and scarcely even decent. Again, the amount to which the Budget relieves the trading and consuming classes, and transfers the burdens hitherto borne by them to the “propertied” class, may possibly be just and fair-we do not prejudge this question ; but at least it should not have been resolved upon except as the result of an inquiry as to the respective amounts already contributed to the revenue by the several classes of the community, since only by such inquiry could its equity have been ascertained. Yet, not only was no such investigation entered upon, but its propriety does not even seem to have occurred to Mr. Gladstone for a moment. And what renders this species of surprise, this sort of cavalier inconsideration, the more culpable and indecorous is, that Mr. Gladstone knows well—no man better-that a step of this sort is irretrievable; that customs and excise duties once repealed can never be re-imposed; and that a perseverance in the financial policy into which he has thus partly cajoled, partly tricked, partly forced the country, is irresistibly entailed upon his successors. We shall be reminded that not only cach separate item of the Budget, but the entire details of the Treaty itself, were
submitted to the decision of Parliament, which was free to repudiate the first, and to refuse its sanction to the second. We reply, that the freedom was only nominal, scarcely more than a congéd'élire, since it was universally felt, that to reject a treaty entered into and ratified with a foreign sovereign, would have been an act of incivility to both the high contracting powers which it was virtually impossible to commit, and which might have been attended with very unfortunate diplomatic consequences. In a a word, Parliament was in a manner compelled to accept the provisions of the Treaty,—and the provisions of the Budget, which logically flowed from it,—under pain of insulting our own Queen and quarrelling with the Emperor of the French.
Our third ground of quarrel with the Budget, and with the Treaty as its pretext and occasion, is, that we believe it to have been dictated in the main by certain ulterior designs and concealed motives in the minds of its authors, which it would have been more frank and more respectful to have avowed openly and followed out straightforwardly. We fear that in this matter Mr. Cobden has not acted quite loyally towards the government which employed him, or towards the nation which trusted him; nor Mr. Gladstone quite sincerely towards the parliament which listened to him, or towards the colleagues who supported him. As to the common preference felt by these two eminent men for direct taxes,-a preference which to the same extent the country does not share in theory, and which therefore it ought not to have been overreached into adopting in practice,—we have already spoken, and need say no more. But they have one other strong opinion and desire in common,-an opinion and a desire which, again, are at variance with the general sentiments of the nation for which, and in the name of which, they have in these transactions been acting. They both are strenuous advocates of economy: Mr. Cobden would have economy at any price; Mr. Gladstone, not indeed at any price, but at a price which few among us would feel disposed to pay. Mr. Cobden has again and again declared his anxiety and determination to reduce our public expenditure to the standard of 1835, that is, by about twenty millions. Mr. Gladstone, it is well known, entertains the strongest objection to our present rate of outlay, which he deems extravagant and alarming; it was only with the greatest difficulty that he has been persuaded to consent to it, and he has made no secret of the sentiments with which he regards it, nor of his determination not to be a party to it in future. His tone and language when he opened his Budget left no doubt on this head. The House of Commons and the country, however, do not echo these sentiments. The estimates, which terrify Mr. Gladstone and disgust Mr. Cobden, they vote cheerfully and almost enthusiastically. It became necessary, therefore, for the purposes of these two gentlemen, to make us economical in our own despite, to enforce parsimony by creating poverty, to compel us to reduce our expenditure by depriving us of revenue. Mr. Cobden has repeatedly avowed his adherence to this line of tactics as the only one likely to be effectual; he has declared that so long as money could be obtained easily, so long it would be impossible to check an extravagant expenditure, which the House of Commons was just as ready to vote as the Government to propose. His aim, therefore, has always been deliberately and avowedly to abolish taxes, wherever practicable, with the distinct purpose of cutting off sources of supply, entirely irrespective of other considerations; and the government which intrusted him with a fiscal negotiation ought to have been on its guard against this well-known idiosyncrasy of his. Mr. Gladstone has never, so far as we are aware, expressed himself so nakedly or so strongly as Mr. Cobden on this subject; but we believe he would not disavow that he shares in his opinion, and is earnestly desirous to reduce taxation, as the most effective, and the only secure, means of ensuring a reduction of expenditure. He saw that it would be impossible for even his eloquence to persuade the House of Commons to cut down the estimates; but easy enough, by a sort of indirect method, to persuade them to diminish or repeal the duties by the yield of which alone those estimates could be met. He therefore, we are compelled to conclude,though it is not a pleasant inference in regard to a statesman whom we so much admire,-gladly seized the occasion offered to him by the suggested Treaty of repealing four millions of taxes, which were little felt and by no means unpopular, and replacing them by an impost which of all others is the most unpopular and the most severely felt. He substituted for a source of revenue which was ancient, not onerous, and therefore permanent, a source which every one detests, which has never been looked upon except as an expedient for meeting perilous emergencies, and which therefore was certain to be contested every year, and to be repudiated as soon as possible. In other words, in order to make expenditure unwelcome, he has made taxation unpleasant. He has deliberately exchanged a permanent for a temporary revenue to the extent of four millions; nay more, he has also provided for the necessities of the year by two other casual and transient expedients, viz. the malt and hop credit, and the closer collection of the income-tax; and he has done all this, we fear, with the purpose, which he did not avow, of depriving his
successors of the means of supplying what he regards as the spendthrift propensities of the country. In fine, it is scarcely too much to say, that he has conspired with Mr. Cobden to im
poverish the public treasury for the public good; he has alienated national funds, because the nation, like a great baby, was not to be trusted with so large a sum of money in its purse; and in acting thus, we cannot think that he has acted either with the loyalty which became him, or with the respect which was due to the parliament and the country.
But grave as all these offences are in point of principle and morality, they are thrown into the shade by the cynical indifference, and almost insolent contempt, which has been shown throughout the entire transaction for the sentiments of the French people. The hostility of four-fifths of the nation, and four-fifths even of the Senate and the Corps Législatif (subservient as they are), to the faintest approach to free-trade, is notorious and vehement. It was well known, and had more than once been proved, that the Emperor's more enlightened tendencies in this direction would have little chance of being carried out in practice, had the question been brought before the public in the ordinary way, and been made the subject of regular discussion. It was determined, therefore, to take advantage of a power, conferred upon him by the Constitution, of making whatever changes he pleased in the tariff, provided these were effected under cover of a treaty with a foreign state ;—that is to say, he agreed with the Queen of England to do that by diplomatic arrangement which he dared not attempt, and could not have done, by the usual process of legislative enactment. This was the Emperor's part of the transaction, and herein he acted characteristically, after the fashion of his family and kind. Our part was similar, but, alas, far from being so natural or so consistent. Our ministers—the constitutional government of a free people, approving his object, knowing his difficulties, being made confidants of his plan for overriding the most rooted prejudices and the most unanimous convictions of the nation which he ruled-gladly consented to become his accomplices, and without shame or hesitation proceeded to assist him in his despotic dodge. This is no matter of inference; it was avowed and explained at the time with the most insulting naïveté. Treaties of commerce have for some years been discarded contrivances in England; modifica
; tions in our tariff by process of arrangement with foreign powers have long been condemned as errors of policy, and by none more decidedly than by Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell, and that as recently as last July. There was, and there could be, no reason for departing from these sound and deliberately adopted principles on the present occasion, except the desire of assisting Louis Napoleon in coercing the wishes of his people, and turning the flank of his pensioned and nominated Chambers.