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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 52

Words of Warning to Agricultural Labourers and other Working-men

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Words of Warning to Agricultural Labourers and other Working-men.

Buckle crest of the Cobden Club

After a twelve years' battle with that huge stumbling block in the pathway of the people, Toryism, we have secured a triumphant victory. The Franchise Bill is passed, and on the 1st of January, 1886, every country labourer who is the occupier of a house, however small and humble that house may be, will come into possession of the parliamentary vote. For twelve years the Conservative landowners and their members of Parliament opposed our demand. In their speeches and in their writings they have sneered at and mocked at you. They have declared that you were too stupid, too ignorant, too drunken, and too vicious to exercise the rights of freemen. You were down, and they tried with all their might to keep you down. One of them, a wealthy landed proprietor, a member of Parliament, and a leader of the Tory party, told a meeting of farmers they were fools not to keep a firmer grasp upon their labourers. But we have beaten them. Your political rights are now gained to you, and the Tories begin to perceive the wretched blunder they have made. Finding it impossible to bar your political progress any longer, they now turn on their heel, and are presenting themselves before you with smiling countenances, hoping to cajole and deceive you into voting for the very men who during all these years have played the part of your greatest political enemies.

A one who has been in the forefront of the Franchise battle page break from the first, and who has been unceasingly engaged in the cause of labour from his boyhood, I offer a few words of advice and warning to my fellow-workers, especially to the country labourers.

It was the public policy and the class-made laws of the Tory landowners that brought our fathers down to poverty and miser. Their landlord-made land laws, their laws to restrict the amount paid as wages to working men, their detestable Corn Laws, were all directed towards making themselves richer and us poorer—towards pushing themselves up and the labouring classes down.

To the Tory landowners we owe many, if not all, of the most pernicious of our laws; to Liberal Reformers we owe every agitation for the repeal of tyrannical laws and burdensome taxes.

Our fathers, both in town and country, were absolutely unenfranchised. Many of them were shot down by the soldier before the first great Reform Bill of 1832 was passed—and that Bill of 1832 was the work of the Liberal Reformer.

The Tory landlords taxed the people's bread, and refused to allow any foreign corn to come into the country until wheat was 80s. per quarter and bread 1s. per loaf. It was due to Liberal Reformers that the Corn Laws were abolished and bread made cheap.

A heavy tax was placed on paper, and cheap books and newspapers were impossible, so that poor people could not buy them, and were kept in ignorance. Liberal Reformers again came to the front and carried the Repeal of the Paper Duties.

Liberal working men raised the great agitation of 1866, and compelled the Tories to pass the Reform Bill of 1867.

The Education Acts were carried by Liberals against the bitterest opposition of the Tories, who always have endeavoured to prevent the freer and better education of the people. And now, the latest opposition of the Tory party is seen in the insults and defiance hurled at the people before they passed the present Franchise Bill.

The Tory landlord party is the hereditary enemy of the progress of the people.

At the present moment farmers and labourers are suffering from what is called agricultural depression, and some of the landlords are raising the unworthy cry that it is due to Free Trade. They are seeking to persuade us that as corn is cheap, the farmers cannot make a profit; and hence they are clamouring for a tax upon foreign corn, so that the price of both home and foreign corn may be raised. Now, before I deal with this ridiculous notion, let us see what the landowners have themselves done to help the farmer and the labourer. Since the beginning of this century the rents of the farms have been nearly doubled. During the short period from 1852 to 1880 the rentals of land increased from £49,000,000 to £69,000,000 per annum. All the time that this last enormous increase has been taking place the price of wheat has been steadily falling, as the result of the abolition of the pernicious page break Corn Laws. So that, while the price of wheat has been constantly falling and the farmers have been receiving less profit upon it, the landlords have been continuously increasing the rentals of the land. I know farmers who have taken rough land, have grubbed, drained, improved, and cultivated it with their own money and muscles. As soon as they have done so the landlord has come down and increased their rents on their own improvements. I know cases where rents have thus been raised twice or thrice in ten or twelve years; and when at last the farmer has been unable to pay the increased rent the landlord has seized his stock, sold him up, and appropriated all his improvements. That is the fashion in which many Tory landowners have sympathized with the troubles of the farmers. And now, to-day, these gentlemen are coming to the farmers, and to the newly-enfranchised labourers, declaring everlasting friendship. Why? Because they know they have almost ruined the agricultural interest with their oppressive laws and their exorbitant rentals. They fear that rents are coming down. So, to keep up their rents they are striving to hoodwink the farmers and labourers by the exploded story that if foreign corn were taxed farmers could charge more for home-grown wheat. This is what they call "Protection" Let us sift it. They propose to put 5s. duty on each quarter of foreign corn, which is now, say, 35s. per quarter, and the 5s. duty will increase it to 40s. As soon as this is done the farmer here is to raise his price to 40s. Now the question comes, who will pay the extra price? Bread is now, say, 6d.; it would then be 7d. So it just amounts to this: That to prevent the reduction of the exorbitant farm-rents, the people, who eat the bread, are to pay the bread-tax. The landlords' rent-roll is to be kept up at the cost of the poor man's loaf. This sort of nonsense may be good enough for English farmers, but it may be taken for granted that the agricultural labourers will not be deceived by such a barefaced proposition. Then "Fair Trade" and "Reciprocity" step in. They say, Is it fair that we should admit corn duty-free from other countries, while those countries tax our manufactured goods? So, because other countries cut their own people's throats, we are to be stupid enough to do the same! We manufacture an article that we can sell to another country for £5; but before the other country admits that article into their ports they place a £1 tax upon it, and thus raise its price to their own people to £6. They go in for making articles dearer for their own people; we go in for making them cheap, so that our people may get as much as possible for their money. We make our people's bread as low-priced as we can; the landed proprietors take advantage of it to reduce labourers' wages and increase farmers' rentals, and then when complaint is made, and we ask for better consideration, Tory landlord? turn upon us with the audacious proposal to tax our children's bread in order that they may continue to extort their increased rents.

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Then, too, the people of the towns have no Inconsiderable interest in this matter. Are the working men of our great cities and towns prepared to tax their bread so as to bolster up the farmers; and because the farmers do not choose to exert themselves, but continue to pay the high rents and submit to conditions of cultivation such as are imposed on no other farmers in the universe' Are the people of the towns ready to tax their bread for the benefit of the Tory landed proprietors and their rent-rolls? I am well aware that there are a few better-hearted large landowners who scorn the idea, but, unfortunately, those who are advocating this cruel taxation of the people's bread are very numerous and very wealthy. Those of them who condemn the proposal should speak out, and in unmeasured terms expose the fallacious and outrageous arguments of the Protectionists, lest their silence implies consent.

If the farmers are foolishly led adrift by their Tory landlords—as so many have been in the past—the labourers must show their good sense by having nothing to do with either of them. It is due, in a large measure, to the apathetic indifference of the farmers that agricultural matters are in the plight in which we find them to-day. If, in the future, farmers or labourers allow themselves to be cajoled, intimidated, or hoodwinked by Conservative landlords, they will be traitors to their children and to their country. They have the Ballot to protect them; and although the new voters are being assured by interested parties that the Ballot is not secret, I will ask the labourers to accept the truth from me that the voting by Ballot is absolutely secret. No one can know how the voter has voted unless the voter opens his own mouth.

In concluding these Words of Warning, I will strongly impress upon agricultural labourers the necessity there is at this time to be firm and determined in their adherence to the cause of labour and progress—for this is a crisis in our history as the labouring class—and we must at all hazards be true and stedfast to ourselves and to those dependent upon us. We must put away from us, as we would the plague, not alone this cry for Protection, but also the people who raise it. We must go in for better Land Laws, better Education, and Cheap Food; and as Liberal and Radical Reformers are the men who have helped us thus far, and as Tory landlords and their friends are the men who have always stood in our pathway, it is our one paramount duty to assist and vote for the Party of Reform—the Liberal-Radical party—for in doing that we shall be steadily pursuing our great battle against ignorance and poverty—the two evils from which our fathers and ourselves have suffered so severely in the past.

Alfred Simmons.

Messrs. Cassell & Company, Limited, La Belle Sauvage Yard, London, E.C., supply this Leaflet in packets of 100, price 2s.