If I were called on, Mr. Journalist, I think I could give some reasons why the system of banking well adapted for Scotland is not proper for England, and why there is no reason for inflicting upon us the intended remedy; in other words, why this political balsam of Fierabras, which is to relieve Don Quixote, may have a great chance to poison Sancho. I will mention briefly some strong points of distinction affecting the comparative credit of the provincial banks in England and Scotland, and they seem such as to furnish to one inexperienced in political economics (upon the transcendental doctrines of which so much stress is now laid) very satisfactory reasons for the difference which is not denied to exist betwixt the effects of the same general system in different countries.
In Scotland, almost all banking companies consist of a considerable number of persons, whose landed estate, with the burdens on it, may be learned from the records, for the expense of a few shillings; so that all the world knows, or may know, the general basis on which their credit rests, and the extent of real property, which, independent of their personal means, is responsible for their commercial engagements. In most banking establishments this fund of credit is considerable, in many immense; especially in those where the shares are numerous, and are held in small proportions, many of them by persons of landed property, whose features however large, and however small their share of stock, must be all liable to the engagements of the bank. In England the number of those engaged in a banking concern cannot exceed six; and though of late years their landed property has been declared subject to be attached by their commercial creditors, yet no one can learn, without incalculable trouble, the real value of that land, or with what mortgages it is burdened. Thus, caeteris paribus [all things being equal], the English provincial banker cannot make his solvency manifest to the public, therefore cannot expect, or receive, the same unlimited trust, which is willingly and securely reposed in those of the same profession in Scotland.
Secondly, the circulation of the Scottish banknotes is free and unlimited; an advantage arising from their superior degree of credit. They pass without a shadow of objection through the whole limits of Scotland, and are current nearly as far as York in England. Those of English banking companies seldom extend beyond a very limited horizon; in two or three stages from the place where they are issued, many of them are objected to, and give perpetual trouble to any traveller who had happened to take them in change on the road. Even the most creditable provincial notes never approach London in a free current – never circulate like blood to the heart, and from thence to the extremities, but are current within a limited circle; often, indeed, so very much limited, that the notes issued in the morning, to use an old simile, fly out like pigeons from the dovecot, and are sure to return in the evening to the spot which they have left at break of day.
Owing to these causes, and others which I forbear mentioning, the profession of provincial bankers in England is limited in its regular profits, and uncertain in its returns, to a degree unknown in Scotland; and is, therefore, more apt to be adopted in the south by men of sanguine hopes and bold adventure (both frequently disproportioned to the extent of their capital,) who sink in mines, or other hazardous speculations, the wealth which their banking credit enables them to acquire, and deluge the country with notes, which, on some unhappy morning, are found not worth a penny; as those to whom the foul fiend has given apparent treasures, are said in due time to discover they are only pieces of slate.
I am aware it may be urged, that the restrictions imposed on these English provincial banks are necessary to secure the supremacy of the Bank of England, on the same principle on which dogs kept near the purlieus of a royal forest were anciently lamed by the cutting off one of the paws, to prevent their interfering with the royal sport. – This is a very good regulation for England, for what I know; but why should our institutions, which do not, and cannot, interfere, with the influence of the Bank of England, be put on a level with those of which such jealousy is entertained? We receive no benefit from that immense establishment, which, like a great oak, overshadows England, from Tweed to Cornwall. Why should our national plantations be cramped for the sake of what affords us neither shade nor shelter?
All these considerations are so obvious, that a Statesman, like Mr. Robinson, must have taken them in at the first glance, and deemed them of no weight, compared with the necessary conformity between the laws of the two kingdoms. I must therefore speak to the justice of this point of uniformity.
Sir, my respected ancestor, Sir Mungo, when he had the distinguished honour to be whipping, or rather, whipped boy, to his Majesty, James the Sixth, of gracious memory, was, in virtue of his office, always scourged when the King deserved flogging; and the same equitable rule seems to distinguish the conduct of Government towards Scotland, as one of the three united kingdoms. If Pat is guilty of peculation, Sister Pegg loses her boards of revenue – if John Bull’s cashiers mismanage his money matters, those who have conducted Margaret’s to their own great honour, and her no less advantage, must be deprived of the power of serving her in future; at least, that power must be greatly restricted and limited.
“Quidquid delirant reges plectuntur Achivi.”
[“For any madness of their kings, it is the Greeks who take the beating.” – Horace.]
That is to say, if our superiors of England and Ireland eat sour grapes, the Scottish teeth must be set on edge as well as their own. A uniformity in benefits may be well – a uniformity in penal measures towards the innocent and the guilty, seems harsh justice.
This levelling system does not seem very equitable in itself; and this is infinitely unjust, if a story, often told by my poor old grandfather, was true, which I own I am, inclined to doubt. The old man, Sir, had learned in his youth, or dreamed in his dotage, that Scotland had become an integral part of England – not in consequence of conquest, or rendition, or by right of inheritance – but in virtue of a solemn treaty of union. Nay, so distinct an idea had he of this treaty, that he used to recite one of its articles to this effect:- “That the laws in use within the kingdom of Scotland, do, after the union, remain in the same force as before, but alterable by the Parliament of Great Britain, with this difference between the laws concerning public right, policy, and civil government, and those which concern private right, that the former may be made the same through the whole United Kingdom; but that no alteration be made on laws which concern private right, ‘except for evident utility of the subjects within Scotland.’ When the old gentleman came to the passage, which you will mark in italics, he always clenched his fist, and exclaimed – “Nemo me impunelacessit!” which I presume, are words belonging to the black art, since there is no one in the modern Athens conjuror enough to understand their meaning, or at least the spirit of the apothegm.
I cannot help thinking, Sir, that if there had been any truth in my grandfather’s story, some Scottish member would have informed the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that, in virtue of this treaty, it was not sufficient reason for innovating upon the private rights of Scotsmen in a most tender and delicate point, merely because the right honourable gentleman saw no reason why the same law should not be current through the whole of his Majesty’s dominions; and that, on the contrary, it was incumbent upon him to go a step further, and to show that the alteration proposed was for the EVIDENT UTILITY of the subjects within Scotland – a proposition disavowed by the right honourable gentleman’s own admission, and by that of the Prime Minister, and contradicted in every circumstance by the actual state of the case.
Methinks, Sir, our “Chosen Five-and-forty,” [Scottish MPs] supposing they had bound themselves to Ministers by such oaths of silence and obedience as are taken by Carthusian friars, must have free-will and speech to express their sentiments, had they been possessed of so irrefragable an argument in such a case of extremity. The sight of a father’s life in danger is said to have restored the power of language to the dumb; and truly, the necessary defence of the rights of our native country is not, or at least ought not to be, a less animating motive. Lord Lauderdale almost alone interfered, and procured, to his infinite honour, a delay of six months in the extension of this act – a sort of reprieve from the southern fangs – by which we may have some chance of profiting, if, during the interval, we can show ourselves Scotsmen, by some better proof than merely by being “wise behind the hand.”
In the first place, Sir, I would have this old treaty searched for, and should it be found to exist, I think it decides the question. For, how can it be possible that it should be for the “evident utility” of Scotland to alter her laws of private right, to the total subversion of a system under which she is admitted to have flourished for so many years, and which has never within North Britain been attended with the inconveniences charged against it in the sister country? Even if the old parchment should be voted obsolete, there would be some satisfaction in having it looked out and preserved – not in the Register-office, or Advocate’s Library, where it might awaken painful recollections – but in the Museum of the Antiquaries, where, with the solemn League and Covenant, the letter of the Scottish Nobles to the Pope on the independence of their country [Declaration of Arbroath], and other antiquated documents once held in reverence, it might still bear witness that such things had been.
I earnestly hope, however, that an international treaty of such importance may be still found binding on both the high and the low contracting parties; on that which has the power, and apparently the will, to break it, as well as on the weaker nation, who cannot, without incurring still worse and more miserable consequences, oppose aggression, otherwise than by invoking the faith of treaties, and the national honour of Old England.
In the second place, all ranks and bodies of men in North Britain (for all are concerned, the poor as well as the rich), should express by petition their sense of the injustice which is offered to the country, and the distress which will probably be the necessary consequence. Without the power of issuing their own notes, the banks cannot supply the manufacturer with that credit which enables him to pay his workmen, and wait his return; or accommodate the farmer with that fund which makes it easy for him to discharge his rent, and give wages to his labourers, while in the act of performing expensive operations which are to treble or quadruple the produce of his farm. these are things worth struggling for, and rather of more importance than generally comes before county meetings. The English legislature seems inclined to stultify our law authorities in their department; but let us at least try if they will listen to the voice of a nation in matters which so intimately concern its welfare, that almost every man must have formed a judgment on the subject.
But this is not all. The principle of “uniformity of laws,” if not manfully withstood, may have other blessings in store for us. Suppose, that when finished with blistering Scotland while she is in perfect health, England should find time and courage to withdraw the veil from the deep cancer which is gnawing on her own bowels, and attempt to stop the fatal progress of her poor-rates; some system of other must be proposed in its place – a grinding one it must be, for it is not an evil to be cured by palliatives. Suppose the English, for uniformity’s sake, insist that Scotland, who is free from this foul and shameful disorder, should nevertheless be included in the severe treatment which the disease demands; how would the landholders of Scotland like to undergo the scalpel and cautery, merely because England required to be scarified?
Or again;- supposing England should take a fancy to impart to us her sanguinary criminal code, which, too cruel to be carried into effect, gives every wretch that is condemned a chance of one to twelve that he shall not be executed, and so turns the law into a lottery – would this be an agreeable boon to North Britain?
Once more;- what if the English ministers should feel disposed to extend to us their equitable system of process respecting civil debt, which divides the advantages so admirably betwixt debtor and creditor; that equal dispensation of justice, which provides that an imprisoned debtor, if a rogue, may remain in disturbed possession of a great landed estate, and enjoy in a gaol all the luxuries of Sardanapalus, while the wretch he owes money to is starving; and that creditor, if cruel, may retain a debtor in prison for a lifetime, and make, as the established phrase goes, dice of his bones. Would this admirable reciprocity of privilege to knave and tyrant, please Saunders better than his own humane action of Cessio and his equitable process of adjudication?
I will not insist farther on such topics, for I dare say, that these apparent enormities in principle are mollified and corrected in practice by circumstances unknown to me; so that in passing judgment on them, I may myself fall into the error I deprecate. Neither do I mean that we should struggle with illiberality against any improvements which can be borrowed from English principle. I would only desire that such ameliorations were adopted, not because they were English merely, but because they are suited to be assimilated with the laws of Scotland, and lead, in short, to her evident utility; and this on the principle, that in transplanting a tree, little attention need be paid to the character of the climate and soil from which it is brought, although the greatest care must be taken that those of the situation to which it is transplanted are fitted to receive it. It would be no reason for planting mulberry trees in Scotland, that they luxuriate in the south of England. There is a sense in the old proverb, ‘Ilk land has its ain lauch.’
In the present case, it is impossible to believe the extension of these restrictions to Scotland can be for the evident utility of the country, which has prospered so long and so uniformly under directly the contrary system.
It is very probable I may be deemed illiberal in all this reasoning; and if to look for information to practical results, rather than to theoretical principles, and argue from the result of experiment rather than the deductions of hypothesis, be illiberality, I must sit down content with a censure, which will include wiser men than I. The philosophical tailors of Laputa, who wrought by mathematical calculation, no doubt had a supreme contempt for those humble fashioners, who went to work by measuring the person of their customer; but Gulliver tells us, that the worst clothes he ever wore, were constructed upon abstract principles; and truly I think we have seen some laws, and may see more, not much better adapted to existing circumstances, than the captain’s philosophical uniform to his person.
The universal opinion of a whole kingdom, founded upon a century’s experience, ought not to be lightly considered as founded in ignorance and prejudice. I am something of an agriculturist, and in travelling through the country, I have often had occasion to wonder that the inhabitants of particular districts had not adopted certain obvious improvements in cultivation. But, upon inquiry, I have usually found that appearances had deceived me, and that I had not reckoned on particular local circumstances, which either prevented the execution of the system I should have theoretically recommended, or rendered some other more advantageous.
I do not therefore resist theoretical innovation in general; I only humbly desire it may not outrun the suggestions arising from the experience of ages. I would have the necessity felt and acknowledged before old institutions are demolished – the evident utility of every alteration demonstrated before it was adopted. I submit our ancient system to the pruning-knife of the legislature, but would not willingly see them employ a weapon, which, like the sword of Jack, the Giant-killer, cuts before the point.
It is always to be considered, that in human affairs, the very best imaginable result is seldom to be obtained, and that it is wise to content ourselves with the best which can be got. This principle speaks with a voice of thunder against violent innovation, for the sake of possible improvement, where things are already well. We ought not to desire better bread than is made of wheat. Our Scottish proverb warns us to let weel bide; and all the world has heard of the untranslateable Italian epitaph, of the man who died of taking physic to make him better, when he was already in health.