England – Tariff Debate

An American feels at home in England just now, for he constantly reads in the newspapers and hears on the streets the tariff arguments so familiar in the United States. I can almost imagine myself in the midst of a presidential campaign, with import duties as the only issue. I have been especially fortunate in arriving here at the very height of the discussion and I have been privileged to hear the best speakers on both sides. Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, late secretary for the colonies, left the cabinet some three months ago in order to present to the country the tariff policy which he believed to be necessary. Not desiring to make the government responsible for the proposition put forth by him, he turned his official duties over to another and has been conducting one of the most remarkable campaigns that England has seen in recent years.

He enters the fight with a number of things to his credit. He is a great orator, he is pleasing in manner, experienced in debate, skillful in the arraignment of his adversaries, and possesses the faculty of so holding the attention of his hearers as to make them eager to catch the next sentence. He is not an impassioned speaker, he has no grand climaxes that overwhelm an audience, but he does have what his friends call a “restrained eloquence” that leaves the impression that he never quite reaches the limit of his powers. He is a man who would rank high in any land and as an antagonist he would not fear to meet the best on any platform.

He is about five feet nine or ten inches in height and weighs about 175 pounds. He wears no beard and is impressive in appearance. The cartoonists take liberties with him as with other public men, and I may say in passing that there are some newspaper cartoonists over here who do excellent work.

MT. Chamberlain is urging a departure from the free trade policy which England has followed for fifty years, and he defends his position on three grounds :

First—That it is needed for the protection of English manufacturers and English laborers.

Second—That it is necessary for the defense and strengthening of the empire.

Third—That a tariff can be used when necessary as a retaliatory weapon to make a breach in the tariff walls that other nations have erected.

In presenting the first proposition he employs the usual protectionist arguments. He appeals to particular industries and promises better wages to labor and more constant employment. He complains that foreign products are being “dumped” in England. The foreigner is accused of selling his surplus wares here without profit or below cost while he sells for enough at home to enable him to carry on his business.

I heard Mr. Chamberlain’s speech at Cardiff, the chief city of Wales. It was an audience largely made up of wage-earners, and his appeals were ,adroit and elicited an enthusiastic response. He dwelt at length on the tin industry; figured the growth of the industry from 1882 to 1892 and showed that during the next decade the tin industry had suffered by the establishment of tin plate mills in the United States.

He assumed that if the English government had been authorized to make reciprocal treaties it might have persuaded the United States to forego the protection of tin plate in exchange for trade advantages in some other direction. He estimated the loss that had come to Welsh workmen because of the lessened demand for their tin plate, and he contended that it was necessary to give preferential treatment to the colonies in order to increase or even to hold their attachment to the empire.

In discussing retaliation, he seemed to assume what the protectionists of the United States have often declared, namely, that the foreigner pays the tax; and his argument was that England ought to tax the goods coming in from other countries if other countries taxed goods imported from England. He has coined phrases that are going the rounds of the press, the most popular of which is embodied in the question, “If another nation strikes you with a tariff tax, are you going to take it lying down?” This phrase aroused a spirit of pugnacity at Cardiff and was enthusiastically applauded.

In presenting the claims ,of the empire, Mr. Chamberlain occupies much the same position as the American protectionist who contends that a tariff wall makes our own country independent of other nations. In presenting this argument the late colonial secretary has the ad-vantage of the great popularity which he won during the South African war, the spirit of empire being just now quite strong in England.

So much for the leader of the tariff reform movement, for, strange as it may seem, the English crusade for the adoption of a tariff is being conducted through the Tariff Reform League, which, with Mr. Chamberlain’s endorsement, is asking for a campaign fund of $500,000.

On the other side are, first, the conservatism that supports the settled policy of half a century; second, the political and economic arguments which weigh against a protective tariff, and, third, the ability and personal influence of the men who are arrayed ,against Mr. Chamberlain. I have attended a number of meetings of the opposition. The first was at St. Neots, Huntingtonshire, where I heard Mr. H. H. Asquith, one of the Liberal leaders in parliament. He is of about the same height as Mr. Chamberlain, but heavier, his face and shoulders being considerably broader. Mr. Asquith differs very materially from Mr. Chamberlain in his style of oratory, but is a master in his line. His is more the argument of the lawyer. He is more logical and a closer reasoner. He is regarded as one of the ablest public men in England, and after listening to him for an hour I could easily believe his reputation to be well earned.

While he discussed with thoroughness all phases of the fiscal ques tion, I was most impressed with his reply to what may be called the imperial part of Mr. Chamberlain’s argument. He insisted that preferential duties would weaken instead of strengthen the bonds that unite England to her colonies, because partiality could not be shown to one industry without discrimination against the ‘other industries, and he warned the advocates of protection not to divide the people of the colonies and the people of the home country into warring factions, and suggested that when these factions were arrayed against each other in a contest for legislative advantage, the harmony of the nation would be disturbed and ill-will between the various sections, elements and industries engendered.

At a house dinner of the National Liberal club in London I heard another member of parliament, Mr. R. S. Robson, a Liberal, who took retaliation for his subject. Mr. Robson presented a clear, comprehensive and concise analysis of the policy ‘of retaliation; the strongest points made by him being, first, that retaliation meant commercial war, and, second, that it contemplated a permanent policy of protection. He pointed out that no country had ever ‘aimed a retaliatory tariff at England; that tariffs in other countries were laid for domestic purposes and not out of antagonism to another country. He contended that other countries, instead of modifying their tariffs be-cause of attempted retaliation on the part of England, would be more likely excited to an unfriendliness which they had not before shown, and that if England were the aggressor in such a tariff war she must necessarily be a large loser. He said that it was impossible to conceive of concessions being secured by a threat to raise ,a ,tariff wall in England. It would be necessary, he ‘contended, if a retaliatory policy was undertaken to first impose a high tariff all around and then offer to reduce it in special cases. This would be a radical departure from the policy of free trade and would bring with it all the evils that had led to the abandonment of a protective policy under the leadership of Cobden.

Besides the Liberal opposition, Mr. Chamberlain has to meet the antagonism ,of a number of influential leaders who would indorse Mr. Balfour if he only proposed retaliation in a particular case where an open and grievous blow had been struck at England, but who are not willing to join Mr. Chamberlain in advocating a return to a protective policy.

I attended a great meeting held under the auspices of the Free Food League and heard speeches delivered by the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Goshen. I was told that the duke was the only English states-man who ever took a nap during the progress of his own speech. Thus forewarned, I was prepared for a season of rest, but the duke surprised his friends (and they are many) on this occasion and his speech has been the talk of the country. It was a powerful arraignment of the proposed tax on food, and, taking into consideration the high standing and great prestige of the duke, will exert a wide-spread influence on the decision of the controversy. The duke is a tall, strongly built man, with a long head and full sandy beard sprinkled with gray. He speaks with deliberation and emphasis, but lacks the graces of the other orators whom I had an opportunity to hear. If, however, ease and grace were wanting, the tremendous effectiveness of the pile driver and the battering ram make up for them.

He denounced the proposition to put a tax upon the people’s food as a blow to the welfare and greatness of the nation. He scouted the idea that the tax would not ultimately extend to all food or that it would not raise the price of food and showed that the increase in the cost of food and clothing would take from the laboring man any ad-vantage which Mr. Chamberlain promised to bring by his protective policy.

At the Free Food meeting the duke was followed by Lord Goshen, a conspicuous leader of the unionist party. Though now about seventy years old, he possesses great vitality and entered into the discussion with an earnestness that bespeaks the extraordinary power of the man. In appearance he reminded me of Gladstone and of Paul Kruger. I should say that his face had some of the characteristics of both —rugged in its outlines and giving an impression of courage and strength combined with great intellect. He replied to Mr. Chamberlain’s challenge, “Will you take it lying down?” with the question, “Will you hide behind a wall?” He denied that it was necessary for the Briton to build a barricade and conceal himself behind it.

In reply to the argument that the Englishman needed protection from the foreigner, he gave statistics to show that Germany, one of the protected countries to which Mr. Chamberlain constantly refers, had an increasing number of the unemployed. His reference to the increased consumption of horse meat in Germany and the decrease in the consumption of other kinds of meat met with a response that seems likely to make “No horse meat” a slogan in the campaign.

The last meeting which I attended was that at which Lord Rosebery made his reply to Mr. Chamberlain. Lord Rosebery meets Mr. Chamberlain on an equal footing. He is about the same height, but a trifle stouter. He is an orator of great distinction, graceful, ‘polished, of wide learning and great experience, and he possesses a wit that enables him to keep his audience in constant good humor. He has been prime minister and enjoys great popularity. His reception at the Surrey theatre, South London, was as cordial as Mr. Chamberlain’s reception at Cardiff. With all the arts of the orator he repelled the attacks of Mr. ‘Chamberlain and arraigned the policy of the conservatives. He ‘denied that there was any excuse, to use his words, for the “lamentations of the modern Jeremiah.” His lordship declared that the country had made great progress under the policy of free commerce with the world and that England had the world for her granary and depicted the possible consequences if she attempted to wage war against those who furnished her bread and meat.

He declared that the colonies ‘could not supply the food that the people of England needed, but called Mr. Chamberlain’s attention to the fact that Canada was “dumping” more iron into England than any of the protected countries complained of. He arraigned the conservative government’s large and increasing expenditures and suggested that the government might better lessen the taxes upon the people than impose new taxes upon their food and clothing.

He closed with an appeal for more technical instruction; for a better understanding of the needs of their customers, and for a more earnest effort for the physical, intellectual and moral advancement of the people.

I will not attempt to predict the outcome of this fiscal controversy. I have missed my guess on a similar controversy in the United States and I shall not venture a prophecy in a foreign land. Mr. Chamberlain’s opponents believe that a return to protection would be taken as renunciation of England’s ambition to be “mistress of the seas,” and that it would presage commercial isolation. It is a battle of giants over a great question and all the world is interested in the result.