The Corn Laws which the farming industry imposed on the country in 1815 were not designed to save a tottering sector of the economy, but rather to preserve the abnormally high profits of the Napoleonic war-years, and to safeguard farmers from the consequences of their wartime euphoria, when farms had changed hands at the fanciest prices, loans and mortgages had been accepted on impossible terms. [Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution (1999), p. 175.]
lthough England regulated prices of corn since the seventeenth century, the Corn Laws to which people in the nineteenth century refer originated in 1815. At the end of the French Wars that year Parliament passed legislation that stated that no foreign corn could be imported into Britain until domestic corn cost 80/- per quarter. 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.
In 1828 the Corn Laws were revised by the Duke of Wellington's government. A sliding scale was introduced which allowed foreign corn to be imported duty-free when the domestic price rose to 73/- per quarter. 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.
In 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to a sizeable proportion of the industrial middle classes. This piece of legislation meant that the manufacturers now had more importance in the governance of Britain and some notice had to be taken of their opinions. The Whig government seemed to have little idea about economics although in 1840 it set up a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the actions of import duties. Robert Peel asked on 18 May 1841:
Can there be a more lamentable picture than that of a Chancellor of the Exchequer seated on an empty chest, by the pool of bottomless deficiency, fishing for a budget?
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. 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.
Last modified 18 November 2010