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Sunday, July 06, 2008

"A Little Forethought, a Little Prudence"

This is David Ricardo in 1823 (during his time in Parliament):

Wages of manufacturers—Use of machinery, 30 May 1823: Mr. Attwood presented a petition from the manual weavers of Stockport, complaining of the extremely low rate of wages: ‘they complained also of certain improvements in machinery, the effect of which had been to reduce the quantity of employment of those who wove by hand, and which threatened to leave a large population without any means whatever of support.’ Mr. Philips contended ‘that no means were so effectual for the benefit of the manufacturing class, as the introduction of machinery; and if parliament were foolish enough to comply with the prayer of those who wished to discourage machinery, they would inflict the greatest possible injury on the public, and especially on the petitioners themselves.’ Mr. H. G. Bennet said, ‘a very useful publication on the subject of machinery, written by Mr. Cobbett, had been extensively circulated throughout the manufacturing counties, and would, he hoped, effect a change of opinion no less extensive.’

Mr. Ricardo said, that much information might, undoubtedly, be derived from Mr. Cobbett’s publication, because that writer explained the use of machinery in such a way as to render the subject perfectly clear. He was not, however, altogether satisfied with the reasoning contained in that pamphlet; because it was evident, that the extensive use of machinery, by throwing a large portion of labour into the market, while, on the other hand, there might not be a corresponding increase of demand for it, must, in some degree, operate prejudicially to the working classes. But still he would not tolerate any law to prevent the use of machinery. The question was,—if they gave up a system which enabled them to undersell in the foreign market, would other nations refrain from pursuing it? Certainly not. They were therefore bound, for their own interest, to continue it. Gentlemen ought, however, to inculcate this truth on the minds of the working classes—that the value of labour, like the value of other things, depended on the relative proportion of supply and demand. If the supply of labour were greater than could be employed, then the people must be miserable. But the people had the remedy in their own hands. A little forethought, a little prudence (which probably they would exert, if they were not made such machines of by the poor laws), a little of that caution which the better educated felt it necessary to use, would enable them to improve their situation.

Mr. Philips instanced the fact, that the wages of the artisan were more liberal where machinery was used than where it was not used, as a proof that its introduction was not hurtful to the weaver.

Mr. Ricardo said, his proposition was, not that the use of machinery was prejudicial to persons employed in one particular manufacture, but to the working classes generally. It was the means of throwing additional labour into the market, and thus the demand for labour, generally, was diminished. [Source]

The reporting practices at the time are interesting:

How the Speeches were Reported

Parliamentary reporting in Ricardo’s time was something very different from the official shorthand reporting of the present day. The whole business was a private venture of the newspapers, and their reporters had only recently gained even a bare toleration in the House. One cannot form an estimate of the authenticity of Ricardo’s speeches as they have come down to us without some idea as to how they were recorded.

The pioneer in the reporting of debates was the Morning Chronicle, which was founded in 1769 and conducted by William Woodfall. At a time when the taking of notes by strangers in the House was strictly prohibited, Woodfall was enabled by an extraordinary memory to write up a whole debate after listening to it from the Strangers’ Gallery. When in 1789 James Perry took over the editorship from him, he introduced the system of ‘division of labour’: this consisted in employing a team of reporters, each of whom sat in on the debate for a ‘turn’ of three-quarters of an hour and then, on being relieved in the Gallery by a colleague, left to write up his report at the office. From that time onwards, even though the system came to be universally adopted, the Morning Chronicle ‘was distinguished by its superior excellence in reporting the proceedings of Parliament.’

Towards the close of the eighteenth century, when ‘the use of notebooks and pencils by “strangers” was still an unholy sight in the eyes of the Speaker’, the reporters established the practice of taking seats in the back row of the Strangers’ Gallery where, ‘sitting remotely in the shadows’, they could take notes ‘without being observed from the Chair’; and a few years later the Speaker acknowledged their right to the exclusive occupation of the back row. This position, however, ‘not only did not facilitate their hearing what was said by the members when addressing the House, but exposed them to great annoyance from the talking of the strangers on the five or six rows of seats before them.’ As late as 1819, ‘they were still forbidden to take notes anywhere save on the back row’; and in that year one of the reporters of the Morning Chronicle, Peter Finnerty, was brought to the Bar of the House and reprimanded for having persisted in taking notes while sitting in the front row of the Strangers’ Gallery.

Apart from these handicaps, there was among the reporters themselves a general prejudice against verbatim reporting. This was based on the idea that shorthand writers are incompetent to report a good speech, because ‘they attend to words without entering into the thoughts of the speaker.’ At the same time it was held that the reporter taking down a speech in long-hand was obliged to ‘clothe the idea in his own phraseology’ and to endeavour to ‘make the style as correct and elegant as possible.’ As it has been tersely put, he ‘gave eloquence to the stammerer and concentration to the diffuse’.

This type of reporting, however, required that ‘the reporter must thoroughly understand the subject discussed, and be qualified to follow the reasoning ... of the speaker.’ Ricardo’s matter did not easily lend itself to writing-up by reporters, and as he says in a letter to Trower, ‘It is a great disadvantage to me that the reporters not understanding the subject cannot readily follow me—they often represent me as uttering perfect nonsense.’

The Parliamentary Debates, printed by, and ‘published under the superintendence of’ T. C. Hansard, was also a private concern, and while it had by this time gained a definite ascendancy, short-lived rivals still appeared from time to time. Hansard had no reporters of his own, and his publication was compiled by collation of various newspaper reports or from copies supplied by the speakers or published by them in pamphlet form. By advertisements in the press and in his own publication he invited the ‘communication’ of speeches for his work.

Hansard however was far from being a complete record: some speeches and even whole debates were not reported in it at all, even though they had appeared in the newspapers. Omissions were no doubt in many cases caused by the inadequacy of newspaper reports and the difficulty of securing better ones, but in others they were probably due merely to the need to limit the size of the volumes.

Two or three volumes of Hansard were devoted to each session, and these appeared after considerable delay: thus the volume containing the debates of the first three months of 1821 was not advertised as ‘ready for delivery’ until nearly a year later; and it was announced that the volume covering the following period, up to the close of the session on 11 July 1821, would be published in October 1822.

The editor of the Parliamentary Debates since its foundation in 1803 was John Wright. The method by which he proceeded in his work can be seen from a letter which he wrote to Ricardo to obtain a report of his speech of 11 June 1823:


112 Regent Street. August 20. 1823.


As I am very desirous that a correct report of your Speech on Mr Western’s motion should be preserved in The Parliamentary Debates I beg leave to say that I shall be very glad if you could find leisure to furnish me with such report in the course of ten days. I enclose the Newspaper reports which you will find very scanty— so much so, that I think it would be less trouble to write out the whole, than to attempt to correct what is printed. I shall be glad to be favoured with a line on the subject, and am, Sir,

Your faithful humble Sert.

J. Wright

David Ricardo Esq.

Ricardo complied with this request, as appears from the note attached to the speech in Hansard (see below, p. 309).

The way in which Ricardo on a similar occasion used the newspaper cuttings which were sent to him is graphically shown by the facsimile of the original report, which he prepared for Hansard, of his famous speech of 24 May 1819 on the Resumption of Cash Payments (below, facing p. 332).

So much care in securing a full record from the speakers was apparently used by Wright only for major speeches, and the quality of the rendering in their case is markedly superior to that of the lesser ones. In other cases he probably contented himself with making a compilation from the newspaper reports.

Thus, from the picture that we have of parliamentary reporting at that time, it seems clear that we cannot read Ricardo’s speeches with the same confidence in their authenticity as we can his writings, or even his evidence.

There is, however, one speech of which we are now able to read Ricardo’s own report, undoubtedly written within a day after the debate; that is the speech on Mr Western’s Motion of 10 July1822. The original transcript, hitherto unpublished, was found in the Mill-Ricardo papers and is given in the present volume instead of Hansard’s version, of which it is four times as extensive. This report, having been written by Ricardo himself so soon after delivering it, has an authority unequalled by any others, even by those of which we know, or can guess from their quality, that they were revised by him, since this revision would normally be carried out months later, owing to the delays in the preparation of Hansard. One can therefore take the report of the speech of 10 July 1822 as a standard by which to judge the quality of the others.

I wonder if Ricardo, as he was revising these reports, was heard to utter "Why oh Why Can't We Have a Better press Corps?"

    Posted by on Sunday, July 6, 2008 at 07:20 PM in Economics, Technology, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (2)


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