A different perspective on the free movement of labour

The year 1816 was a year of appalling distress, and in some parts of the country there was starvation. Those who could emigrate were ready to do so; a little like the modern expatriate in Spain, only those who had property to sell could really do so. In June 1816, the Leicester Mercury reported the emigration of local farmers after selling all their stock and 4000 acres of land. They had escaped to the USA, a place of increasing opportunity. The Exeter Flying Post of the 18 April reported that conditions in England were so poor that 250 people have requested emigration to…. France of all places.Could anything be worse, or more desparate, then that?

The “Mercury” reports that there were moves in Parliament to restrict emigration. The Chancellor of the Exchequer Vansittart had put forward the idea of a tax on property for all those leaving the country for good. A 20% tax on the property of those emigrating was seriously considered.It was thought to be impossible to organise and that was the only reason it was not done.

An even more extreme view of some London politicians was that those who kill themselves do more good to their country that those who emigrate, because emigrants takes away the wealth of the nation with them and reduce the number of loyal subjects of the crown. The Leicester paper, perhaps with more of an understanding of the economic distress, is dismissive of this argument.

“The Mason, the Slater, the Carpenter, the Ribbon Maker, the Calico printer- in short the working men of all trades are in a state of starvation. There is nothing for them to do -their looms are idle, their stuttles and trowels are at rest. Their childen are famishing, yet they are told to remain where they are, and die like the dogs on the street”

The paper went on to argue that the best way to stop emigration to the USA- “a land where there is no tithe” was to make people happy. However, the paper was worried that there was a limit to what you could do with a National Debt of ONE THOUSAND MILLION POUNDS. The paper put the figure in dramatic capital letters. It was actually £834 million according to the government, but clearly the habit of overstating the problem to justify austerity is not a new thing.


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