The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Corn Laws

Category: 19th century

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.

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