Corn Laws abolished

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Corn Laws abolished

The 26th of June 1846 AD

The end of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the high prices they set before foreign grain could be imported had been reduced twice previously – is one of the great watersheds of British history. It is from this time that the balance of power in Britain shifts from the landed aristocracy to the industrialists and eventually to those employed by those industrialists, reflecting the change in the economic balance in the country: in 1815 agriculture was the greatest part of the economy; but thirty years later the value of industrial output dwarfed it.

The Corn Laws had been introduced in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, protecting British agriculture by preventing the importation of foreign grain until British grain exceeded a set price. This was done partly to reward the farmers who had invested in their land and machinery to improve the grain harvest – Napoleon had attempted to starve the country during the long wars with France – and partly to prevent British grain producers being overwhelmed by their foreign competitors. It was protectionism.

Radical opposition to the Corn Laws sprang up. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 happened at a gathering in opposition to the laws. The Anti Corn Law League was established in 1838, with some major industrialists funding it, and MPs John Bright and Richard Cobden as mouthpieces for the league in the Commons.

The Corn Laws were hardest on the poorest, for whom bread was the great staple. But factory owners, disregarding factors closer to home, blamed the high prices for the poor health and low productivity of their workers. And the slump in British industry in the 1840s was likewise blamed on the laws as it was reasoned European grain exporters could afford more British manufactured goods if they could sell their grain in Britain.

Tory PM Robert Peel had explored dropping the laws previously, and during the Irish potato famine of 1845 he had pushed for repeal only to be defeated in cabinet. When the full extent of the famine was seen – over a million deaths, and the same number of people forced to emigrate or starve – Peel in December 1845 decided on action. His party resisted, but with a third of Tory MPs voting with him, and supported by the Opposition, Peel won, at the cost of his own career, forced out of the Tory party and bitterly criticised by the Duke of Richmond and his fellow members of the Central Agricultural Protection Society which had been formed in 1844. Peel was never to hold office again.

The Repeal Act was passed by the Commons on May 15 1846, and with Wellington ’s support it got through the Lords on June 25, receiving royal assent the next day. On June 29 Peel resigned, graciously saying the repeal was Cobden’s victory.

Although the repeal signified momentous political change, ushering in an era of free trade as well as signalling the declining influence of the aristocracy, the effect on the price of grain was minimal, prices remaining stable for several years.

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