Corn Laws

Corn Laws


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A Corn Law was first introduced in Britain in 1804, when the landowners, who dominated Parliament, sought to protect their profits by imposing a duty on imported corn. During the Napoleonic Wars it had not been possible to import corn from Europe. This led to an expansion of British wheat farming and to high bread prices.

Farmers feared that when the war came to an end in 1815, the importation of foreign corn would lower prices. This fear was justified and the price of corn reached fell from 126. 6d. a quarter in 1812 to 65s. 7d. three years later. British landowners applied pressure on members of the House of Commons to take action to protect the profits of the farmers. Parliament responded by passing a law permitting the import of foreign wheat free of duty only when the domestic price reached 80 shillings per quarter (8 bushels). During the passing of this legislation, Parliament had to be defended by armed troops against a large angry crowd.

This legislation was hated by the people living in Britain's fast-growing towns who had to pay these higher bread prices. The industrial classes saw the Corn Laws as an example of how Parliament passed legislation that favoured large landowners. The manufacturers in particular was concerned that the Corn Laws would result in a demand for higher wages.

In 1828 William Huskisson sought to relieve the distress caused by the high price of bread by introducing a sliding scale of duties according to price. A trade depression in 1839 and a series of bad harvests created a great deal of anger towards the Corn Laws.

In 1841 General Election the leader of theAnti-Corn Law League, Richard Cobden became the MP for Stockport. Although Cobden continued to tour the country making speeches against the Corn Laws, he was now in a position to constantly remind the British government that reform was needed.

The economic depression of 1840-1842 increased membership of the Anti-Corn Law League and Richard Cobden and John Bright spoke to very large audiences all over the country. By 1845 the League was the wealthiest and best organised political group in Britain.

The failure of the Irish potato crop in 1845 and the mass starvation that followed, forced Sir Robert Peel and his Conservative government to reconsider the wisdom of the Corn Laws. Irish nationalists such as Daniel O'Connell also became involved in the campaign. Peel was gradual won over and in January 1846 a new Corn Law was passed that reduced the duty on oats, barley and wheat to the insignificant sum of one shilling per quarter became law.


Corn Laws - History

The object of the Corn Laws of 1815 was to keep the price of wheat at the famine level it had reached during the Napoleonic Wars, when supplies from Po­land and France were prevented from reaching En­gland. All wheat imports were forbidden when the price fell below 50 s. the quarter.

From the beginning the Corn Laws were hated by everyone except the landowners and farmers, and even the latter found that in practice the fluctuation in wheat prices was ruinously violent and that the market was often manipulated so as to rob them of the profit they might have expected to make.

Attempts in 1828 and 1842 to improve the Corn Laws by introducing a sliding scale were not success­ful. Opposition to the Corn Laws, coupled with demands for Parliamentary Reform, were widespread, but died down after 1820 to be revived again by the coming of industrial depression of 1837. This time it was an agitation not so much of the mass of the people as of the industrial bourgeoisie anxious to reduce la­bour costs.

In 1838 the Anti-Corn Law League was formed. League leaders such as Richard Cobden and John Bright expected the repeal of tariffs on imported food to advance the welfare of manufacturers and workers alike, while promoting international trade and peace among nations. The League’s agitation produced a con­siderable effect on the workers. Unprecedented in scale and lavishly financed this agitation had all the advan­tages that the railways and cheap newspapers could give. Whenever Cobden or Bright spoke their words were widely reported in dozens of papers and the League orators were able to move swiftly and easily all over the country.

In the light of this continued pressure, combined with the plain fact that the growth of population was making it impossible for England to feed herself, the hesitating steps were taken towards Free Trade after 1841.

The first of these steps was dictated by the con­fused finance. Many tariffs and duties were swept away and replaced by an income tax which was both sim­pler and more productive, and in the long run less burdensome upon industry. The effect of these tariffs disappearance was to leave the Corn Laws as an iso­lated anomaly, increasingly conspicuous and increa­singly difficult to defend.

Sir Robert Peel, who was Prime Minister then, ma­de a thorough study of the situation and realized that the belief common among landowners that vast stores of wheat were lying in the Baltic granaries ready to be poured into England was a pure fantasy. He knew that the surplus of corn for export in any country was still small and that the most the repeal of the Corn Laws would do would be to prevent an otherwise inevitable rise in prices which might have had revolutionary con­sequences. He managed to force through the repeal against the will of the majority of his own supporters.

The Corn Laws were repealed in June 1846, a small, temporary tariff being retained till 1849. The effect was hardly what had been expected. There was no fall in prices, in fact the average for the five years 1851-1855 was 56 s. against 54 s. 9 d. in the five years 1841-1845. This could be explained by a number of reasons: increasing population and a greater demand due to the revival of industry, bad harvests in a number of years and the Crimean War which interrupted the import of wheat from Poland.

New but relatively small sources of supply were opened up in Turkey, the USA and elsewhere, and it is quite obvious that if the Corn Laws had been in operation prices would have been still higher. Later still, the American Civil War interrupted the export of corn for several years, and it was not till about 1870, when the great wheat belt of the Middle West had been opened up by railways, that really large quanti­ties of corn began to come in.

The manufacturers gained by repeal of the Corn Laws not through the cheapening of food, which had been their main argument when trying to win popular support, but by a larger flow of imports and a steadily expanding market for their goods. Thus, as the import of wheat from the Levant increased, so the export of Lancashire cottons rose from £141,000 in 1843 to £1,000,000 in 1854.

In this respect the repeal of the Corn Laws must be regarded as part of the whole Free Trade legislation which helped to make the period between 1845 and 1875 the golden age of the manufacturers. Free Trade in corn was followed by Free Trade in sugar, and, finally, in 1860, in timber. Until the growth of industries abroad, nothing now stood between the Brit­ish manufacturer and the markets of the world. Brit­ish commerce rose to a fabulous amount: the industri­al monopoly of England on the market of the world seemed more firmly established than ever.


Corn Laws

Corn laws, 1794-1846, set duties on grain imports into Britain to protect British agriculture from outside competition. (In Britain, "corn" is the name for CEREAL CROPS. ) By the 1820s, increased food demands in Britain led to revisions giving preference (lower duties) to colonial over foreign imports, thereby promoting an imperial grain supply. Preferential rates offset the costs of transatlantic transport for British North American grain and built up a major colonial stake in wheat exporting. Shifts in the level of duties primarily to suit British harvests and prices could still trouble this commerce yet in general it rose steadily, particularly after the CANADA CORN ACT was passed in 1843. Then in 1846 Britain repealed the Corn laws as part of a movement towards free trade. The consequent loss of preferential duties seemed a hard blow to the Canadian grain trade but it recovered in the prosperous 1850s. Moreover, the lifting of imperial economic controls also brought relief from political controls, and thus imperial recognition of RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT in British North America.


On the repeal of the Corn Laws

Don Boudreaux hosted an excellent podcast discussion on Discourse Magazine Podcast on the abolition of the Corn Laws. The debate involved Steve Davies and Douglas Irwin and Arvind Panagariya. It is worth listening to today, as it was on June 25th, 1846, that the Duke of Wellington persuaded the Lords to approve the repeal of the Corn Laws (following the Commons).

The conversation is really great and a lot of interesting points are made. Both Davies and Irwin explain clearly how grain protectionism functioned. Steve Davies captures the political spirit of the age, placing the Anti-Corn Law League in context and alluding to the power of that movement, perhaps one of the first that really heralded contemporary politics by putting together “a mass movement which made use of all of the means of communication that were becoming available at the time, such as the use of the newly established railways and turnpikes, to build a national organization”. Circumstances of course helped. This is a crucial point, a point often overlooked by politically oriented people, either classical liberal/ libertarians or, I suppose, within different political movements too, hardly see. “The Anti-Corn Law League was increasingly pushing, if you like, at a door that was being slowly opened by the Whig aristocrats.” One crucial part of the League’s success was rooted in its circumstances, which of course does not imply to diminish the role and courage and commitment of people like Cobden and Bright, nor the admirable ability to communicate with people they displayed, nor their organizational efforts.

Davies sees the long term consequences of the League not so much in the Repeal itself (Peel may have been persuaded purely on intellectual grounds: quite a sentence to write about a prime minister!) but on two fronts:

One is it ensured that when the repeal came, it was total and immediate—well, free of a phasing-in period, but effectively immediate. It wasn’t a kind of slow, gradual or half-hearted process. It was an abrupt and dramatic one.

But the other, more important thing was the thing you alluded to that Frank Trentmann talks about. They had a huge effect on the popular culture, and they fixed in the minds of the British working class in particular, right up to the present day, the profound belief that free trade is good for the poor and the working man and woman and that protectionism is basically a conspiracy by the rich and special interests to screw over the working class.

On this latter point, how the repeal influenced long term consensus, see also this admirable essay by Sam Gregg on Law & Liberty. Gregg refers to Clement Attlee endorsing a free trade position vis-à-vis Neville Chamberlain. See how long allegiance to free trade lasted.

My favorite bit of the conversation is a summary of a recent paper of his by Irwin:

The Corn Laws had been revised in 1815. There was a huge debate that involved David Ricardo and a bunch of others. Some pressure to reduce it in the 1830s, but it was really appeals for reforms in the 1840s that got rid of it. At that time, when the Corn Law tariff, the ad valorem equivalent, hit about 40%, it was basically prohibitive. In the late 1830s, early 1840s, there were no imports of grain for certain periods when world prices were low. Therefore, the tariff was high.
But right around the time of the repeal, the tariff was about 28%. So what Maksym and I do in our paper is we do a simulation of, what is the economic consequences of getting rid of a 28% tariff on grain? This is a time when agriculture is a pretty big sector in Britain. About 9% of employment was in grain agriculture. About 24% of total British employment was in agriculture altogether.
First of all, that’s an important note, that grain agriculture was not all of British agriculture it was just a segment of it. There was pastoral agriculture, which is actually exporting from Britain.

BOUDREAUX: That would be things like sheep farming and—

IRWIN: Exactly. Wool, meats, other things like that. That’s important because the claim is always “You can’t open up your market because it will devastate the sector.” Well, there’s different components of the sector, and some actually did very well after the repeal of the Corn Laws. Not grain agriculture, which is important for bread, as Steve was saying.
When you get rid of an import tariff, you’re going to import more of those commodities. You’re going to have to pay for that, so your exports of other goods will go up. You’re going to be reshuffling resources around the economy when you do that, and we basically find three things.
One is, yes, there are efficiency gains from doing this. You’re going to reallocate capital labor to where you have a comparative advantage, and the economy will be better off for that. But also, Britain was a large player in world markets at this time, and there are some adverse terms-of-trade effects, namely that the prices of your exports will go down because Britain was a big player in the world textile market. You might depress some of those prices.
You’re going to drive up the world price of grain and cotton because you’re once again drawing on the world’s resources, and Britain was such a major economy. It turns out what we find is the terms-of-trade losses and the efficiency gains basically wash out. They offset each other.
The second thing is that there’s going to be a lot of redistribution of income within the country. Here’s where David Ricardo and others really nailed it. Land grants went down, and that’s what we find in our simulation, but real wages will go up and the return to capital will go up.
Then the third thing we find is we actually disaggregate income distribution effects a little bit in a very crude way. What we find is that the top 10% of income earners were worse off and the bottom 90% were better off.


Brexit, the Corn Laws and the Common Market: a brief history of Britain’s trade deals

They allow consumers to buy more, better-quality products at lower prices, and as such are credited with driving economic growth and encouraging innovation. It’s little wonder, then, that the future of Britain’s trade deals post-Brexit are dominating headlines worldwide. Here, Professor Kevin O'Rourke charts the history of Britain’s trading agreements and explains why they have often proved divisive…

This competition is now closed

Published: February 21, 2019 at 2:40 pm

On 2 July 2018, Theresa May was preparing for a crucial cabinet meeting to be held four days later in Chequers. The United Kingdom had finally been given the green light to start negotiating with the European Union on the future trade relationship between the two parties, but in order to do so it needed to decide what it wanted. And this was proving difficult, given the huge gulf that existed between Tory Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Broadly speaking, the former group wanted a relationship between the UK and EU that was as close as possible, involving no new barriers to trade or costly border formalities. The latter wanted Britain to be free to make its own laws and regulate its trade as it saw fit. Mrs May’s problem was to find a common position behind which the two warring factions could unite.

Robert Peel’s Corn Laws

A backbench Conservative MP named Jacob Rees-Mogg warned Mrs May in a newspaper article published that morning (2 July 2018) that unless she held firm to her Lancaster House promise to leave the EU’s Single Market and customs union, she would suffer the fate of Robert Peel in 1846. Peel had taken a decisive move towards free trade in that year [1846] by abolishing the Corn Laws. This was surprising, since Peel was a Conservative, and the Conservatives had traditionally been the party of landowners. Allowing tariff-free imports of grain would, everyone assumed, lower food prices and agricultural incomes. And so the Conservative party split the Liberals came to power and the Tories were largely excluded from government for a generation.

1846 was a traumatic year for the party, and Rees-Mogg has not been the only Conservative to invoke it at times of stress. In 1961 Harold Macmillan, who was trying to engineer the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), faced opposition from Tory backbenchers worried that this would undermine Britain’s links with the Commonwealth. In his diary he noted that things were “getting terribly like 1846” [see The Macmillan Diaries, Vol II: Prime Minister and After (1957–66) edited by Peter Catterall (Macmillan, 2011)].

Trade deal facts

  • The UK’s decision to leave the EU (by 29 March 2019, under Article 50) will fundamentally change its terms of trade with the 27 other member states, and with the rest of the world
  • As a member of the European Union (EU), the UK is part of some 40 trade agreements which the union has with more than 70 countries. If the UK leaves the EU in a ‘no-deal Brexit’ on 29 March, it will immediately lose these deals

Trade policies are about economics, but they are also about a country’s place in the world, and they have often proved divisive. By the late 19th century the virtues of free trade had become an article of faith for most British politicians, but some Conservatives remained sceptical. In 1881 the Fair Trade League was founded, advocating an end to commercial treaties with other countries “unless terminable at a year’s notice” so as to avoid “entanglements” that might limit the country’s freedom of action.

It also argued in favour of moderate tariffs on imports of foreign food, and tariffs on manufactured goods coming from countries not treating British exports “fairly”. The Conservative party was split on the issue of fair trade in the 1885 general election: Sydney Henry Zebel, a historian of the controversy, commented that: “Many found it wiser to declare themselves free-traders and opposed to any reversal of the fiscal legislation of 1846. Others attempted to gain fair-trade support in the constituencies by a frank espousal of that cause. Still others attempted to straddle the issue”.

Imperial Preference

The Conservative Party split again over trade after 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain began his famous crusade for Imperial Preference. Chamberlain wanted to use trade policy to promote the political integration of the Empire: he argued that the UK ought to have lower tariffs on imperial than on foreign goods. Since British tariffs were for the most part zero, it would be necessary, in George Dangerfield’s words, to “build a tariff wall around England for the single purpose of knocking holes in it, through which Imperial goods might pass” [see The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1966 (first published in 1935)].

But this meant imposing tariffs on imports of foreign wheat and meat, thus increasing food prices and lowering workers’ real wages. The then-prime minister Arthur Balfour sought desperately to keep his party together – in the words of Alan Sykes, a historian of the period, Balfour was a great believer in “verbal formulas as a means of resolving genuine conflicts of belief”. And so he constructed tortuous policy platforms involving inter alia tariffs that did not have protection as their “primary object” – whatever that meant. The Conservatives were trounced by the Liberals in the 1906 general election.

It fell to Chamberlain’s son Neville to implement the policy of the father: no sooner had he been appointed chancellor of the exchequer, in November 1931, that he set about introducing tariffs. And those tariffs fell disproportionately on foreign goods (as opposed to goods from the Empire/Commonwealth). As he said to the House of Commons on 4 February 1932, with his mother in the visitors’ gallery and his half-brother Austen sitting on the Conservative benches:

There can have been few occasions in all our long political history when to the son of a man who counted for something in his day and generation has been vouchsafed the privilege of setting the seal on the work which the father began but had perforce to leave unfinished. Nearly 29 years have passed since Joseph Chamberlain entered upon his great campaign in favour of Imperial Preference and Tariff Reform. More than 17 years have gone by since he died… His work was not in vain. I believe he would have found consolation for the bitterness of his disappointment if he could have foreseen that these proposals, which are the direct and legitimate descendants of his own conception, would be laid before the House of Commons, which he loved, in the presence of one and by the lips of the other of the two immediate successors to his name and blood.

Imperial Preference remained a cornerstone of British economic policy in the aftermath of the Second World War, and it reflected the very real human, economic, political and strategic ties that still existed between Britain and the Dominions and which had been crucial in allowing Britain to emerge triumphant from two world wars. The Commonwealth was the political expression of these ties, and it had functioned effectively before 1945 despite its lack of a formal rulebook.

It is understandable that many British politicians should have wished to see these ties continuing into the future. But it is also understandable that many also hoped to create closer links with Europe. There was no apparent reason why Britain should have to choose between these alternative sets of relationships, and alternative identities: loose free trade arrangements and loose political arrangements would allow Britain to enjoy free trade with the European continent while retaining Imperial Preference. Or so many hoped.

Customs union

But then, in the 1950s, the Europeans decided that they wanted not a free trade area, but a customs union. Not only would goods exported from one member state to another be exempt from tariffs all member states would have the same tariffs vis à vis third countries. This would mean that there would be no need for checks at borders to ensure that wine being shipped from Italy to France, say, was actually Italian (and thus not subject to tariffs) rather than Argentinian – since all Argentinian wine would be taxed at the same rate no matter where it entered the EEC. And a common tariff policy would also increase the new community’s bargaining power.

It all made perfect sense from the European point of view, but the decision placed British politicians in a painful dilemma. If they stayed aloof from the Common Market they would face discrimination in Europe’s biggest markets. But if they joined it, they would by definition have to abandon Imperial Preference. Which is one reason why Britain did not join the EEC from the outset, and why Harold Macmillan found himself worrying, in the spring of 1961, that it was all “getting terribly like 1846”.

Britain’s 19th-century past thus mattered a lot during the critical years when European integration took a decisive step forward. And the fact that Britain initially remained aloof meant that it eventually joined a Common Market that had been shaped by other countries in a way that reflected their own histories. Not only did it make sense for them to form a customs union rather than a mere free-trade area, it also made sense for them to complement that customs union with a range of policies that protected farmers and helped to ensure that the EEC would have a social and a political, as well as an economic, dimension.

For while it was important to obtain the economic benefits of continent-wide free trade, it was equally important to ensure that economic competition did not lead to regulatory ‘races to the bottom’: the aim was to create institutions that would accommodate not only markets, but the welfare state mixed economies and regulations that were felt to be necessary in order to protect workers and consumers, and avoid a repeat of the disastrous 1930s.

This basic function of European integration may sometimes have been honoured as much in the breach as the observance, but it continues to shape European attitudes and ‘red lines’ today. For example, it would be inconceivable for the European Union to allow a country on its very borders, as large as the UK, to freely access European markets without there being constraints on its ability to deregulate its economy.

It is the interaction between these distinct British and European histories, not to mention the history of Ireland, which produced not only Brexit, but the negotiations that followed the 2016 referendum. A history of Tory party division not only gave rise to the ill-fated (and Balfour-esque) Chequers plan that Mrs May concocted last summer, but the referendum itself: as David Cameron told the leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg in 2012, it was “a party management issue”.

History cannot tell us how this story will end. But history is essential if we are to understand how we got to where we are today, and it will also help us to make sense of whatever it is that will happen tomorrow.

Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke is Chichele Professor of economic history at All Souls College, University of Oxford. He is the author of A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop (Penguin, 2019).


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The Corn Laws

The Manchester School of Economics and the Anti-Corn-Law League were the end product of 60 years of evolution of the idea of free trade. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations , published in 1776, first advocated the principle of free trade as the basis for the development of a nation's 'natural economy', especially an industrial nation. Pitt the Younger made initial moves towards free trade in the 1780s and 1790s, mainly to combat smuggling and hence the loss of Customs and Excise revenue. The Vergennes Treaty of 1786 is, perhaps, the best example of this.

The war years 1793-1815 arrested economic developments in free trade. Much marginal land was enclosed to produce grain for the home market and to supply Britain's allies: 1,934 Enclosure Acts were passed in this period. The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.

Napoleon introduced the Continental System by the Berlin Decrees in 1806 and the Milan Decrees in 1807. This gave British farmers a virtual monopoly of domestic markets because all trade with Europe was ended. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices almost halved, causing panic among the farmers - many of whom were also voters. Consequently, the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815. Various men justified the legislation in parliament. Lord Binning spoke for the landowners and farmers:

In the depressed state of agriculture for the last twelve months, some relief was absolutely necessary. Numbers of persons had been turned out of employment, and the pressure of the poor rates was become intolerable. Most enormous losses had been suffered in the last year and if some speedy remedy was not administered by the wisdom and firmness of the legislature, the agricultural interest of the country might soon be completely ruined. (Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, vol.29, (l8l5) Col. 984)

Nothing could be more obvious than that the reduction of the price of corn was attributable to the importation of foreign grain. (ibid, col.1222)

Samuel Whitbread, a Radical Whig and member of the brewing family, agreed, saying

The proposition was not that rents were too high, but that corn was too low, and that it ought to be raised to such a price as to enable the farmer to cultivate his land with advantage, without reducing the landlord to the necessity of lowering his rents. (ibid., col.1240)

F.J. Robinson spoke as a member of the Government, saying that

He was of the opinion, on the whole, not only that our security would be greater, but even that the price of corn might in the end be cheaper, by home cultivation, than by depending on foreign countries. (ibid., col.802)

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. No foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the expanded grain farms and failed to solve the problem of high prices: what they did do was to subject food prices to violent fluctuations at high levels and encouraged the hoarding of corn. This in turn had an averse effect on domestic industry and foreign markets and really only served the interests of the landowners. The Lancashire cotton industry was particularly badly hit as it relied on raw imports and on the export market for its finished goods. However, parliament was unreformed and represented only landowners all MPs had to be landowners to sit in parliament.

The high price caused the cost of food to increase and consequently depressed the domestic market for manufactured goods because people spent the bulk of their earnings on food rather than commodities. The Corn Laws also caused great distress among the working classes in the towns. These people were unable to grow their own food and had to pay the high prices in order to stay alive. Since the vast majority of voters and Members of Parliament were landowners, the government was unwilling to reconsider the new legislation in order to help the economy, the poor or the manufacturers who laid off workers in times of restricted trade.

There were MPs who opposed the passing of the Corn Laws. For example, G. Philips said

The committee are invited to adopt measures intended expressly to raise the price of corn, and in his judgement to raise it permanently. If you raise the price of provisions without proportionably raising that of labour, to what privations and evils must you necessarily expose the labourer! . The labourer must go to the parish, or turn to some more profitable employment, if by chance any can be found, or he must emigrate, or work himself out by overstrained exertion.

If we artificially raise the price of provisions, we shall raise the price of labour, and in the same proportion we shall assist our rivals against ourselves. Is it possible to suppose, that the richest nation in the world . . . is to be starved, if it does not provide a sufficiency of corn for its subsistence because, forsooth, other nations, wanting its commodities, and having more corn than they can consume, will refuse to relieve its deficiency out of their own superfluity?. . . An importation of corn cannot take place without a corresponding export of commodities on which British industry has been employed. That export will increase your natural wealth, that wealth will increase your population, and that increased population will provide an increased demand for your agricultural produce. (ibid., cols. 811-817)

William Cobbett wrote (Political Register, 21 May 1814)

I deny that it is in the power of even A body of men, who have been called omnipotent, to cause the farmer to have a high price the price depending on the crop, and not upon any law or any regulation. I am no advocate for law that is now pending. I know, that the thing will, and must, regulate itself.

There were popular agitations against the Corn Laws, including a radical meeing in Manchester in January 1819. At this meeting, which preceded the meeting at St Peter's Field in August 1819, the following Declaration was drawn up:

The conduct of the late Parliament in passing the Corn Bill, which was obtained under false pretensions and passed at the point of the bayonet, in defiance of the united groans and supplications of the People, was oppressive in its design and cruel in its operation being neither more nor less than a vile conspiracy between the great Landholders and the Ministers, to extort from the industrious labourer and mechanic, through the very bread they eat, an immense portion of Taxes for the support of the Borough system, and to enrich themselves and their pensioned minions, by the sweat of the poor man's brow.

In 1815 there was a series of riots against the Corn Laws: the Annual Register (vol. 57, 1815, p. 6), commented on the results of the legislation:

The consequences of this measure were by no means such as were expected either by its promoters or opposers. The effects either of former importations, or, more probably, of two plentiful harvests, and a greatly extended culture of grain, were to produce a gradual steady reduction of price, so that, instead of approaching the limits fixed for importation, it sunk to a level below that of several years past. The farmers, who were labouring under exorbitant rents, in addition to other increased expenses, were general sufferers and the landlords found it necessary in many instances to make great abatements in their dues. In the result, many leases have been voided, and farms have been left without tenants.

In 1828 the Corn Laws were revised by the Duke of Wellington's government. Huskisson introduced a sliding scale which allowed foreign corn to be imported duty-free when the domestic price rose to 73/- per quarter. When he considered the effects of the legislation passed in 1815,

he lamented, from the bottom of his soul, the mass of evil and miseries and destruction of capital which that Jaw, in the course of its twelve years' operation, had produced. And he did believe that . the effect of the bill, as far as regarded the agriculturists themselves, had been to keep the prices of produce lower, for those twelve years, than they would have been, even if the corn trade had been entirely open.

The more the price of domestic grain fell below that figure, the higher the duty became. The sliding scale still did not really help the poor or the manufacturers. sliding scale which was a partial improvement on the situation.

Foreign imports prohibited

Imports by regulated degrees

Free entry of foreign grain

The 1820s also saw the growth of the 'Manchester School' of free traders. The Manchester Times and the Manchester Guardian (a free trade journal) were established to spread the economic doctrine of the new middle class industrialists. Free trade ideas were strong in Manchester because of the cotton industry's reliance on imports and exports.

The 1832 Reform Act came as a result of much political activity from the Political Unions and enfranchised much of the middle class. This, and the Catholic Association, provided models and a lever with which to pressurise parliament. In 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to a sizeable proportion of the industrial middle classes and meant that the manufacturers now had more importance in the governance of Britain, so some notice had to be taken of their opinions. The Whig government seemed to have little idea about economics: however, it did set up a Select Committee to investigate 'the Several DUTIES levied on imports into the United Kingdom'. Sir Robert Peel asked on 18 May 1841:

"Can there be a more lamentable picture than that of a Chancellor of the Exchequer [Sir Francis Baring] seated on an empty chest, by the pool of bottomless deficiency, fishing for a budget?".

The 1830s was also a time of economic depression which gave an edge to the free traders' arguments, especially since it followed an upturn in the economy in the period 1822-28. The 1830s saw the start of the railways: the pride of the middle classes, and the start of the second industrial revolution. The potential of the railways was strangled by tariff impositions which in many ways restricted productivity. An increased volume of industry meant that there was a greater need for free trade to create the incentive for people to put capital into the railways and to use the railways as a means of transport. There was a need also for greater sales both at home and abroad.

The Anti-Corn-Law League was a plea for more political power and a criticism of the landed, aristocratic parliament. The Corn Laws were the king-pin of protectionism and free trade had been a "stop-go" policy since the days of Pitt. Free trade would only work if a nation was economically supreme or holding a specialist monopoly - or both, as Britain did.

After 1835, the new Conservative Party sought an alliance of land and industry in a planned programme of socio-economic reform, as opposed to constitutional Whiggery. Peel was from a cotton background and in his Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 he said , "Our object will be . the just and impartial consideration of what is due to all interests - agriculture, manufacturing and commercial". This was a fundamental break with high Toryism and served to encourage middle-class agitation.

The Whig governments of 1830-4 and 1835-41 were challenged by many different groups of agitators including the Chartists, the Anti-Poor Law movement, the Ten Hour Movement, and the Anti-Corn-Law League.

The Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London in 1836 but had little success there it was re-formed in 1838 in Manchester and in 1839 was re-named the Anti-Corn-Law League (ACLL). The members of this movement were mainly middle-class manufacturers, merchants, bankers and traders and included Richard Cobden and John Bright. They wanted the Corn Laws to be repealed so that they could sell more goods both in Britain and overseas. The keystone of the protectionist system was thought to be the Corn Laws: once they were repealed, the ACLL thought that free trade would follow. The ACLL headed a nation-wide campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws which ended in success in 1846 when the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel repealed the legislation.

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English Reformation, 1534

Brexit means taking Britain’s signature off the treaty of Rome, a cue for comparisons with Henry VIII’s repudiation of the jurisdiction of the pope. The Tudor king had several motivations, not least the need to find a wife who would produce a male heir. A major consequence of this was to separate Britain from much of the continent by giving it a different state-approved religion from most other European states.

As with Brexit, the Reformation unleashed bitter struggles about sovereignty, identity and authority under Henry and several of his successors. As with Brexit, it divided families, turned friends into enemies, generated fabulously arcane doctrinal disputes and martyrs of both faiths. Many members of the governing class ended up on the scaffold. Mercifully, no one has yet suggested Brexit arguments be settled by burnings at the stake, but the deadly ferocity of the struggle between Catholic and Protestant finds an alarming echo in the violence of the language used by some Brexit protagonists.


A History of English Corn Laws : From 1660-1846

Beginning with The Portrait of a Lady, this book shows how, in developing his unique form of realism, James highlights the tragic consequences of his American heroine's Romantic imagination, in particular, her Emersonian idealism. In order to expose Emerson's blind spot, a lacuna at the very centre of his New England Transcendentalism, James draws on the Gothic effects of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe, thereby producing an intensification of Isabel Archer's psychological state and precipitating her awakening to a fuller, heightened consciousness. Thus Romanticism takes an aesthetic turn, becoming distinctly Paterian and unleashing queer possibilities that are further developed in James's subsequent fiction.

This book follows the Paterian thread, leading to "The Author of Beltraffio" and Théophile Gauthier, and thereby establishing an important connection with French culture. Drawing on James's famous analogy between the art of fiction and the art of the painter, the book explores a possible link to the Impressionist painters associated with the literary circle Émile Zola dominated. It then turns to "A New England Winter," a tale about an American Impressionist painter, and finds traces leading back to James's "initiation prèmiere." The book closes with an exploration of the possible sources of Kate Croy's "unspeakable" father in The Wings of the Dove and proposes a possible intertext, one that provides direct insight into the Victorian closet.


The Anti-Corn Law League

The second Corn Law of 1828 sparked a wave of radical protest amongst Britain’s urban classes by introducing a sliding scale of duties on foreign wheat, thus causing bread prices to fluctuate excessively during a period that was plagued by high unemployment and poor harvests. The Corn Laws were seen to safeguard the interests of Britain’s traditional country landowners, at the expense of her new and growing industrial class and urban dwellers soon took exception to the resulting rise in food prices.

Formed in 1839, the Anti-Corn Law League became the leading proponent in the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws and was later recognised as an inaugural model for the modern day pressure group. The League rejected protectionism on the grounds that it impeded political and economic progress and harmed Britain’s export trade in manufactured goods, by restricting the ability of foreign traders to acquire British currency through the sale of foodstuffs.

The roots of the Anti-Corn Law League stemmed from the establishment of the National Corn Law Association in London, in 1836, and the subsequent formation of the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association in the Autumn of 1838, when the campaign first evolved into a mass movement. The following March, a conference of Association delegates formally voted to establish an Anti Corn Law League, with headquarters in the northern city.

The League’s Manchester base had particular poignancy given the city’s reputation as a leading importer of raw materials and key centre of manufacturing. The site of the infamous Peterloo massacre, at St Peter’s Field, became home to the organisation, which was so large that no building in Manchester had the capacity to hold a full meeting of its members. The organisation therefore constructed it’s own accommodation and a temporary pavilion, opened in January 1840, was soon succeeded by a brick structure, before finally being replaced by a stone building in 1856.

In March 1838, the Wolverhampton MP, C P Villiers moved the first in a series of annual motions calling for a full enquiry into the operation of the Corn Laws. Although a handful of Whig ministers supported his motion the following year, the League soon discovered that it’s desire for a complete repeal of the legislation was not shared by most members of the Government. Despite hesitation in some quarters, the organisation decided to assert its independence and thus became estranged from the Whig administration. The League then embarked on a campaign to secure direct representation at Westminster and supported the election of the cotton manufacturer, R H Greg, as an MP for Manchester, in September 1839. The League decided to contest it’s own seats in the General Election of 1841 and after a promising result, the organisation’s founding member and leader, Richard Cobden, led a number of his colleagues into Parliament. Cobden, an Alderman, elected as the MP for Stockport, became the League’s leading parliamentary personality and strategist. In 1843, he was joined in the Commons by the Rochdale cotton spinner and Quaker, John Bright. Elected as the MP for Durham, Bright was the League’s most accomplished and powerful public speaker and toured the length and breadth of the country with his free trade message.

The League was the first organisation of its kind to employ a range of popular campaigning techniques that are still used today. Various methods from petitions, to mass meetings and strikes were utilised in order to spread antipathy towards the Corn Laws and highlight the unjust nature of protection, which was harming the interests of the masses by inflating the cost of bread, a staple part of the working man’s diet.

From April 1839, the League began publishing an anti-Corn Law circular, which later evolved into a weekly publication, known simply as The League. Moreover, the organisation published hundreds of books and pamphlets on the merits of free trade, which they were able to distribute cheaply following the introduction of the penny post in April 1840. Supported by a high level of subscriptions, the League was also able to spread its message by employing hundreds of paid public speakers to address meetings throughout the country. These paid campaigners were able to supplement and professionalise the work of the League’s existing army of volunteers. The League was able to popularise its appeal by penning anti-Corn Law songs and hosting anti-Corn Law dances. The organisation also arranged major events such as the Anti-Corn Law Bazaar, which was held at the Manchester Theatre Royal, at the beginning of 1842 and followed by a Great Exhibition -style event at Covent Garden, in May 1845.

In 1841, the Whig Government fell and was replaced by a Tory administration under Sir Robert Peel. To some extent, Peel neutered the free trade campaign in 1842, when he opted to combine the re-introduction of income tax with a lowering of the sliding scale on corn. Nonetheless, Cobden and Bright were able to sustain support for their cause by presenting protectionism as a tool of repression used by the aristocracy, to retain their privileged position over the masses. This sparked a great debate about the legitimacy of the interests of the landed classes, as opposed to those of industrialists and the working population hence the League gained further support as Chartism became increasingly redundant as a populist cause. By 1845, the League was the most well funded and sophisticated political organisation in Britain, having secured backing from a number of the country’s leading industrialists.

Following Peel’s fiscal reforms, the League stepped up its electoral activity, with the aim of securing a Parliamentary force strong enough to achieve a complete repeal of the Corn Laws. Every voter in the country received a packet of publications promoting the merits of free trade and committees were founded in each borough to ensure that eligible supporters were placed on the electoral register. Cobden also drew up a list of target seats where supporters of the League were most likely to win, in order to focus campaigning efforts more effectively.

The full abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 marked the successful culmination of the League’s work in mobilising popular support against protection. Some historians have since claimed that the League’s success also acted as its achilles heel, possibly deterring Peel from moving towards complete repeal at an earlier date. Certainly, the League attracted criticism from its opponents over the use of questionable election tactics, such as bribery and corruption, but these methods were used in equal measure by both sides. The League was also accused inciting disorder amongst the working classes during the depression of 1841-42, which may also have discredited its campaign. Nonetheless, by disseminating a range of popular propaganda and gaining a foothold in Parliament, the Anti-Corn Law League was able to capture the public imagination and become the most influential pressure group of its time.


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Watch the video: Fuelling the Debate: The Corn Law Returns - DMaris Coffman


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