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The Corn Laws had been introduced in 1815, during the ministry of Lord Liverpool to protect the interests of British corn growers. The laws were supposed to keep the price of corn artificially high by limiting the amount of foreign grain that could enter the country, thus meaning that British corn producers could turn over a reasonable profit. By the time of the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, despite the sliding scale that was introduced in 1828 and the numerous other minor adjustments that had been made in the intervening time, they had become economically obsolete. To many this was seen as the fundamental reason why the protectionists were unable to prevent the repeal of the Corn Laws. Whether the benefits of the Corn Laws outweighed the costs was always a highly debatable case when the Corn Laws were first brought into operation but by the 1840s it was quite clear that they no longer gave anyone any substantial benefit, even the farmers. It was always argued by the protectionists that if the Corn Laws were to be repealed that the British corn market would be flooded foreign imports and the price of corn would fall to a level where it was no longer possible for British corn producers to turn over a profit. This was quite true back in 1815 when the Corn Laws were first introduced and Britain was largely self sufficient in its corn needs. During this period the European continent was awash with cheap grain and the Corn Laws protected the British market form this. However, in the 31 year life of the Corn Laws the population of Britain had rose by approximately 6million, vastly increasing the need grain. Britain by the time of the Corn Law ‘crisis’ was a net importer of corn, mostly from northern Germany and Poland. Besides, Britain’s inability to feed itself was symptomatic of much of Europe at the time; meaning European grain was now more expensive.
Resistance to reform
In light of such facts it would seem the protectionists were fighting for a lost cause, despite this the Central Agricultural Protection Society was formed in 1843, largely in response to the actions of the Anti-Corn Law League. The Central Agricultural Protection Society (CAPS) was led by the Duke of Richmond, a Whig peer, who had been a member of Grey’s government and the Duke of Buckingham, who had recently resigned form Peel’s cabinet, demonstrating the bi-partisan nature of the Corn Law debate. Although the Anti – League, as it was popularly called, had undeniable success at rallying the support of farmers, it was far less ingenious in its methods of gaining wide spread popular support than its rival the Anti-Corn Law League. It also did not aspire to the same level of intellectual argument as the Anti-Corn Law League. It relied on such fear tactics as pointing out the number of dissenters who counted themselves among the free trader’s number, suggesting, less than subtly, that the anti Corn Law movement was a non-conformist plot to attack the very fabric of the state.
Needless to say, far more successful at disseminating their message, were the Anti-Corn Law League, who carried organised pressure to levels of sophistication not yet seen in British politics. The League was the product of many local anti-Corn Law associations, but only became a national entity in 1839, after the failure MP Charles Villiers motion to remove the Corn Laws. In its early years the League stuck to standard pressure group tactics: parliamentary petitions; public lectures; and publication of pamphlets. The League, led by its two great orators John Bright and Richard Cobden, argued that not only had the Corn Laws outlived their usefulness but also they were actively damaging the economy. Their argument was multifaceted: firstly British workers were pressing for higher wages that was being spent on food not manufactured goods. In turn, higher labour costs were making British manufacturers less competitive on the international market. Secondly, the Corn Laws prevented foreign countries from exporting as much grain to Britain as they would like because of this they had less British money to spend, and hence bought less British goods. On top of this, the League argued, exports of all types were being hurt by foreign countries placing higher tariffs on British goods in retaliation. These arguments were very popular with the manufacturing classes, giving the Anti-Corn Law League some very wealthy backers. This gave it an advantage over other mass movements that had been around at the time, like the Chartists. Monetarily, however, the League did not have an advantage over the Central Agricultural Protection Society, as it was backed by many rich landowners. Where the Anti-Corn Law movement did hold an advantage over the protectionist movement was in its methods and the calibre of it argument.
The arguments of the League not only revolve around the practical failings of the Corn Laws but on the overall merits of free trade, as a desirable goal. These arguments about the desirability of free trade were based on those of Adam Smith a famous economist, who had published his book, A Wealth of Nations, in the late 18th Century. Adam Smith had theorised that greater trade between nations would lead to a level of interdependency that would make war an economic impossibility. Smith saw the best way of achieving this interdependency as removing all the trade barriers and tariffs that existed between countries. The protectionists had no such grand theories in their armoury and increasingly left themselves open to charges of blatant self-interest.
The methods of the Anti-Corn Law League were also far superior to those of the protectionists. The League not only produced pamphlets and held public lectures but it started to concentrate on parliamentary pressure, as well the extra parliamentary pressure that was so detested by Robert Peel. This strategy started in the Walsall by-election of early 1841. The efforts of the League forced the Whig candidate, who was an agricultural protectionist, to withdraw from the by-election. Despite a free-trade candidate having to brought in all the way from Manchester, he lost the seat by only 27 votes to the Tory candidate, Captain Gladstone (William’s older brother). This narrow defeat provided the League with a lot of publicity and demonstrated that given more time to prepare and slightly more favourable local opinion, the League could probably return a candidate of their own in the future. Although the league suffered set backs in 3 elections in 1844, it stepped up its tactics by trying to encourage voter registration among its supporters. The League took tried to take advantage of the 40 shilling free hold rule for county elections and did everything short of providing the money for its supporters to purchase the necessary land to vote. This undoubtedly helped free-traders gain seats in South Lancashire and West Riding in 1845 and thus join Cobden and Bright in the House of Commons. Although their were scores of MPs in the house that had strong opinions both in favour and against the repeal of the Corn Laws, the free traders now possessed MPs who’s sole purpose was the removal of the Corn Laws. The protectionists had no equivalent.
Although there were only a handful of dedicated free trade MPs elected due to the efforts of the League, and nowhere near enough to form any significant voting block of their own, the League had laid an important blow square on the nose of the protectionists. Much of the League’s best work had been done in rallying greater public support for repeal. It questionable how much effect the League had over the ideas of Prime Minister Robert Peel. It did, however, leave him with one less group (the public) to win over to his free-trade policies and hence made it even less likely that the protectionists would be able to save the Corn Laws.
The efforts of the Anti-Corn Law League and even the famine in Ireland can only be seen, however, as small tributary factors in the protectionists lost battle against the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Protectionists biggest problem had to lie with the Prime Minister and key members of his cabinet, who from the time of taking office in 1841 had engaged in a set of economic reforms that were obviously in essence based on free trade ideals. These reforms had really been started by William Huskisson in the 1820s under Peal they had picked up a pace, starting in 1841 with a reduction of indirect taxation on foodstuffs. This was followed by the budget of 1842, which reduced substantially import duties on a range of goods; to make up for the loss of income, income tax was reintroduced at a rate of 7d (approximately 3p) in the pound. The Corn Laws were also altered again, lowering the tariffs levied on the sliding scale. This lowering of the tariffs on corn was significant for two reasons: firstly it set the tariffs against foreign grain at such a low level, that it became difficult to see what the Corn Laws were actually achieving, especially since Corn Prices remained stable after the change. Secondly it demonstrated, if it was in any doubt, that Peel recognised that the Corn Laws were politically sensitive but didn’t view them as a special case and hence would not exclude them from his drive to turn Britain into an industrial leader again, through free trade. Logically, if Peel were to be successful in fulfilling his vision the Corn Laws would have to go. It was also likely that the majority of the House of Commons were marginally in favour of repeal.
The protectionists greatest problem was that the majority of feeling in the country and to a lesser extent in the House of Commons was against them. When famine in Ireland struck in 1845 and brought the ‘Corn problem’ to a head, it already seemed inevitable which way the wind was blowing. On November 22nd Lord John Russell, leader of the Whigs made it clear that he was now totally converted to the repeal of the Corn Laws. It was clear that a majority of Whigs supported repeal and almost all the radicals/Irish, and there was enough Conservative support (including that of the Prime Minister) to get the remaining numbers required to carry a bill motioning repeal. Peel won over the remaining waverers in his cabinet, with the full weight of his political skill. The only, hope for the protectionists lay with the remainder of the Whig and Conservative Party who opposed repeal and a possible last ditch rejection in the Lord’s. These factors proved to be of little consequence. Lord John Russell used his considerable political skill to deter the Whig Peers from opposing repeal in the Lords and the worsening situation in Ireland hastened the need for cheep maize from America and hence forced Peel’s hand in the commons.
On May 15 the Corn Laws were repealed with a comfortable majority of 98 in favour of the government. A month later, thanks to a resignation threat by Lord John Russell the Repeal Bill also passed by a comfortable 47 vote margin in the Lords. The protectionists had been unable to stop the repeal for several reasons; firstly the Corn Laws had become obsolete, they no longer protected the interests of British Corn growers; they no longer needed to. Secondly whether the Corn Laws in fact had a damaging effect was always a question on a lot of people’s minds, a question which the Anti-Corn Law League used ingenious methods of pressure to persuade people to answer in the affirmative. Perhaps, most important though was the beliefs and actions of the politicians, most importantly Robert Peel. It would be fair to say that the defeat of the protectionists owes a lot to the political skill of Sir Robert Peel. It also owed a lot the way in which ‘democracy’ had developed in Britain after 1832. The 1832 Reform Act did not change the government from one of interests to one of numbers but it did significantly change the interests that the government represented. Britain had change from a country largely dominated by the aristocracy to one marginally dominated by industrial interests. It was quite clear that the Corn Laws were allowing the landed class to benefit at the expense of industry, this was something the government of industrial interests was not prepared to let continue. The Zeitgeist was most definitely that of free trade because that was what benefited the now marginally dominant industrial interests. Peel was the embodiment in spirit, if not in heritage, of these industrial interests and he was prepared to pay the ultimate political price for his beliefs. In the face of this protectionism never stood a chance.
sources: 'Forging of the modern state'-Eric Evans, 'Sir Robert Peel' - T.A. Jenkins, 'The Challenge of Democracy- Hugh Cunningham and too many history lessons.