Corn Laws

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The Corn Laws, in force between 1815 and 1846, were import tariffs ostensibly designed to "protect" British farmers and landowners, against competition from cheap foreign grain imports. It should be noted that British usage of the term corn included all grains, and not only maize as implied by the North American usage of the term.

According to Prof. David Cody, they:

... were designed to protect English landholders by encouraging the export and limiting the import of corn when prices fell below a fixed point. They were eventually abolished in the face of militant agitation by the Anti-Corn Law League, formed in Manchester in 1839, which maintained that the laws, which amounted to a subsidy, increased industrial costs. After a lengthy campaign, opponents of the law finally got their way in 1846 - a significant triumph which was indicative of the new political power of the English middle class.

Britain at the time was the most economically developed country in the world — there were no other rivals other than off-land British companies. The "protection" thus was used not against foreign imports, but against cheap rival British imports that would have severely cut into the profit margins of British landowners.

The Corn Laws, in reality, represented the power of the British aristocracy, who were the landowners and therefore the crop producers. A repeal of the Corn Laws would have jeopardized not only the income generated by crops, but also the political power that land ownership had historically represented. The debate over the Corn Laws was a crossroads in the transition of Britain from a feudalist society, to a more modern, industrial one.

Debate and Repeal

The debate split Conservatives and Whigs. The Conservatives represented the landed class who greatly benefited from the agricultural protections. The Whigs, however, were business owners. Following David Ricardo's economic views they believed a decrease in the price of grain would allow them to lower wages and increase profits. The Manchester Anti-Corn Law League was formed by men such as Richard Cobden, John Bright, Sir David Roche and Charles Pelham Villiers and they battled for free trade in and out of parliament.

The debate was hastened by the first appearance of the potato blight in Ireland. Sir Robert Peel, Conservative Prime Minister, responded to the crisis by purchasing cheap American wheat and proposing to remove all import duties on grain. It was hoped that these actions would lower the price of bread enough to put it within the reach of the Irish peasantry. By late 1845 Peel had become convinced that the Corn Laws had to be repealed, which put him at odds with a considerable section of his own party. The struggle for repeal began on 22 January 1846, when Benjamin Disraeli, then a rather minor figure, delivered a devastating polemic against Peel, his own party leader. Disraeli, along with Lord George Bentinck, a younger son of the Duke of Portland, led the protectionist wing of the Conservative Party against repeal. Opposing them was an alliance of pro-Peel Conservatives, Whigs, and radicals (Cobden, Bright, and their followers).

The debate, which made Disraeli's reputation, lasted until 16 May, 1846, when the bill to repeal passed by a scant 98 votes. Some twelve days later it cleared the House of Lords. Embittered, Disraeli and Bentinck organized a combination of protectionists, Whigs, Radicals, and Irish members to defeat government's Irish Coercion Bill on 25 June. Peel resigned, the government fell, and the Conservative Party was split in half. Those who sided with Peel became known as Peelites, numbering among them almost every Conservative of ministerial experience (Gladstone, Lord Aberdeen, among others). They eventually combined with the Whigs and Radicals to form the modern Liberal party in the 1860s. Disraeli, along with Lord Stanley, fashioned the modern Conservative party from the remnants of Peel's Conservative Party.

The debate over import duties on corn was left untouched until Joseph Chamberlain's crusade for Imperial Preference in 1903.

References

  • Blake, Robert. Disraeli. 1967.
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