Thursday, 18 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Anti-Corn Law League 2

The Anti-Corn Law League was the first modern and national-level political pressure group to emerge in Britain. It began in London in 1836 as the Anti-Corn Law Association, but by 1838 had found its natural base in Manchester. The leaders of the League were manufacturers and professionals engaged in export trade, most of whom were concentrated in the county of Lancashire. Foremost among its leaders were two cotton textile manufacturers, Richard Cobden and John Bright. In the course of the struggle against the Corn Laws, both were to become Members of Parliament, Cobden for Stockport and Bright for Rochdale. Another key MP in the Corn Law struggle was Charles Villiers, Member for Wolverhampton who became famous for his annual motions for repeal of the Corn Laws that began in 1838 and continued through 1846. Historians refer to the League as “the most impressive of nineteenth-century pressure groups, which exercised a distinct influence on the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.”[1]

It was called the ‘league machine’, whose organisation “presents one of the first examples of a recurring feature of modern political life, the highly organised political pressure group with its centralised administration and its formidable propaganda apparatus.”[2] The Times even led with an article announcing the League as “a great fact”.[3]  The two key features of the League’s operational strategy were its nationwide propaganda and electoral registration campaigns. First, the League raised substantial subscriptions to finance its propaganda campaign. It maintained a small army of workers and speakers, who toured the country distributing numerous tracts (most notably, the famous Anti-Corn Law Circular[4]) and giving thousands of speeches on the virtues of free trade and the evils of protection.

Secondly, the registration campaign was the League’s tool for replacing protectionist landowners in Parliament with free trade supporters. After electoral losses in 1841-2, the League focused its energy and resources on returning a free trade majority in the anticipated general election of 1848. In order to achieve this, its leaders adopted a tactical strategy that included manipulating the voter registers and employing propaganda devices on existing voters. Looking toward the 1848 election, the League sought to add as many free traders and delete as many protectionists from these registers as possible. The latter they accomplished by making objections against thousands of protectionists at the annual revisions of the registers. The former required a different tactic: it exploited a loophole in the 1832 Electoral Reform Act. This loophole was the forty-shilling county property qualification that Bright referred to as “the great constitutional weapon which we intend to wield”. While the 40s qualification had been a feature of the system since 1430, the increase in county seats from 188 to 253 (an increase from roughly 29% to 38% of the total seats) magnified the importance of this overlooked loophole in the 1832 Reform Act[5].

The League used the 40s qualification to create several thousand new free trade voters in county constituencies with large urban electorates, constituencies whose representation was increased by the Reform Act. Leaguers went so far as to urge parents, wanting to create a nest-egg for a son, to make him a freeholder: in Cobden’s words, “it is an act of duty, for you make him thereby an independent freeman, and put it in his power to defend himself and his children from political oppression”. In spite of an Appeal Court ruling in February 1845 and January 1846 that votes created by the 40s freehold qualification were valid, protectionists continued to challenge the constitutionality of the League’s registration campaign and Leaguers continued to defend their activities.

The propaganda and registration campaigns, moreover, were brought together to further the political success of the League. As its agents distributed propaganda tracts to every elector in 24 county divisions and 187 boroughs, they submitted to the League headquarters consistent and complete reports on the electorate in their districts. These reports provided the League with a comprehensive picture of the electoral scene throughout England, thereby allowing it much greater knowledge of, and control over, electoral districts than either the Conservatives or Liberals possessed “with their more limited and local organisation.” The earlier distribution of propaganda tracts therefore provided the League with an extensive data base from which they could inflict political pressure on Members of Parliament, who were concerned with their bids for re-election in the anticipated 1848 election.

In 1844, as the League’s success particularly that of its registration campaign in the counties became more conspicuous, a defensive Anti-League (or, Agricultural Protection Society) emerged. This group of protectionist landowners and farmers did not, however, obtain the momentum or backing of the League. According to W.H. Chaloner[6], the Anti-League “failed to make an impression on British agricultural policy because Conservative politicians were reluctant to speak or vote against Sir Robert Peel until 1846, and it cannot be said that its literary contribution was as solid or as logical as that of the Free Traders.” In financial terms, while the League grew from a £5000 annual fund in 1839 to one of £250,000 in 1845, the latter year saw the core of the Anti-League (the Essex Agricultural Protection Society) scraping together the paltry sum of £2000 to fund its campaign[7].

A second challenge to the League was the Chartist movement. The Chartists were an organised working class movement that sought Parliamentary reform, arguing that reform must encompass the entire social and political horizon. In contrast, the League chose a single-issue strategy: to gain repeal. Clashes between the Chartists and the League often erupted in open hostility and violence, as Chartists viewed Leaguers as traitors to the reform movement, and conversely, Leaguers criticised Chartists for pushing unrealistic reforms and thereby threatening to sabotage their focused strategy.


The stimulus for repeal came not from extra-parliamentary agitation but inside the Cabinet and Parliament as a result of the Irish crisis of 1845-6. The League can perhaps take credit for the conversion of the Whig leader in his ‘Edinburgh Letter’ of November 1845. However, it doubtful whether the same can be said of Peel’s decision. Peel had accepted the arguments in favour of free trade in the 1820s and by 1841 recognised that the Corn Laws eventually had to be repealed. The moves to free trade in the 1842 and 1845 budgets made the continuance of the Corn Laws increasingly untenable. Yet Peel did not announce his conversion to repeal until the end of 1845.

Peel may have not been prepared to repeal the Corn Laws if this could be seen as surrendering to external pressure but, by 1845, there were powerful practical arguments that repeal was in the national interest. The Corn Laws were designed to protect farmers against the corn surpluses, and hence cheap imports, of European producers. However, by the mid-1840s there was a widespread shortage of corn in Europe. Peel reasoned that British farmers had nothing to fear from repeal because there were no surpluses to flood the British market. The nation would benefit, the widespread criticism of the aristocracy would be removed and the land-owning classes were unlikely to suffer. This was too sophisticated for the Protectionists. Their case can be seen, in retrospect, as narrow but contemporaries did not have that advantage. For small landowners and tenant farmers, the most vocal supporters of protection, repeal meant ruin. Peel’s argument that free trade would offer new opportunities for efficient farmers made little impact.

He had come to the conclusion that the Corn Laws could not be defended before the Irish crisis but for reasons which were more complex than the League’s. He saw the Corn Laws as divisive and that retreat by the aristocracy was necessary. But it was an ordered, strategic retreat, a sacrifice in order to keep intact the main strongholds of aristocratic power made by a Prime Minister and Parliament and not as the result of an electoral contest or ‘pressure from without’. Peel’s first reading of the repeal legislation reflects the competing arguments for repeal in the 1846 debates. Peel argued that the principle of free trade was welfare-enhancing because it would:

  • Allow Britain to retain its pre-eminence in world trade (thereby staving off foreign competition).
  • Be a winning strategy, regardless of whether or not other countries reciprocated with lower duties.
  • Not result in a loss to public revenue, as the trade and industrial prosperity combined with the new income tax would offset the lost income from duties.

Quoting League sources, Peel explained why he believed that the prosperity following the 1842 reduction of duties could not continue without further liberalisation.  At the heart of Peel’s speech was a plea to the opposing manufacturing and agricultural interests to accept a policy of mutual concessions. He urged manufacturers to forfeit their remaining protective duties on woollens, linen, silks, and other manufactured goods, in order to adhere to the general rule that no duty should exceed 10% (15% for silks). He introduced a further simplification of the tariff code and reduced tariffs on a number of other items (shoes, spirits, and sugar). His greatest hurdle, however, was to gain the support of the agriculturists. Duties on certain foods (butter, cheese, hops and fish) would be reduced while those on others (meat, beef, port, potatoes, vegetables, bacon, and other non-grains) would be abolished. And, of course, grain protection would be abolished as of 1849. After discounting the link between bread prices and wages, Peel sought to address two issues associated with the clash of interests.  First, in regard to class conflict, Peel argued that agitation had grown to such an extent that the government had no option but to act to appease the industrial and working classes.  Secondly, the “heavy” financial burden of the landowning classes was lessened by a number of incentives to agriculturists: a consolidation of the highways system, relief to rural districts from pauperism, a number of expenses shifted from the counties to the Consolidated Fund, and finally loans for agricultural improvements at moderate interest rates

Peel told his cabinet in late 1845 that he proposed repealing the Corn Laws. Only Viscount Stanley and the Duke of Buccleuch resigned on the issue. Peel nonetheless felt that this was sufficient for him to resign. He hoped that Lord John Russell and the Whigs would form a government, pass repeal through Parliament and perhaps allow him to keep the Conservative Party together. Lord John Russell may have recently announced his conversion to repeal but he was unenthusiastic about forming a minority administration. The ‘poisoned chalice’ was passed back. Peel returned. Predictably repeal passed its third reading in the Commons in May 1846. The Whigs voted solidly for the bill but only 106 Tories voted in favour of repeal compared to 222 against. The divisions cannot be seen simply in terms of commerce versus land. The great landowners voted solidly for repeal which, they perceived, did not threaten their economic position. It was the MPs representing the small landowners that formed the bulk of the opposition.

What was the significance of the ACLL in middle class radicalism in this period?

Both the economic and political consequences of repeal have been exaggerated. Certainly neither proved immediately disastrous to the landed interest and aristocratic government easily survived the crisis of 1846. The realities of political power remained unaltered and no further major constitutional reforms were passed until after 1865. Repeal did mean that the gospel of free trade became a central tenet of policy and thinking and it did mean the increasing recognition of the aims and interests on the urban middle classes in legislation. But these were processes that were already well underway in the 1830s. The resilience of the aristocratic elite after 1846 is a measure of the real political weakness of the ACLL and the middle classes in the 1840s.

The League claimed to act as the spokesman for the middle classes but, though it received strong support from northern manufacturers, not all members of the business community were prepared to give it unlimited support and some, like the financial elite in London, were actively hostile to free trade. It is important not to over-simplify the agitation into a straight urban/manufacturing versus rural/landed conflict. The League fought a national campaign and yet the strength of the middle classes lay in local not national politics, on their businesses and the status acquired through local office. This parochialism, and many businessmen’s support for the League reflected this parochialism, was reinforced after 1846 with the growing acceptance of free trade and the ‘entrepreneurial ideal’ and they abandoned national politics. The difficulty in providing any focus for the formation of a new united Radical party in the late 1840s and 1850s was a reflection of the League’s success in achieving its economic objective. In terms of its organisational structure, its use of propaganda and its tactics the ACLL looked forward to the radical politics of the second half of the nineteenth century. But in the late 1840s, middle class radicalism lacked, as it had in the mid- 1830s, leaders, unity and coherent policies.

[1] Anthony Howe The Cotton Masters, 1830-1860, Oxford University Press, 1984.

[2] Norman McCord The Anti-Corn Law League 1838-1846, George Allan & Unwin, 1958, page 187.

[3] According to Archibald Prentice History of the Corn Law League, 1853, Frank Cass, 1968, page 136, the Times ‘had an influence, for good, beyond that of any other journal’ and its leader article gave ‘fresh impulse to the agitation against the then existing Corn Laws’.

[4] The Circular was published under three titles: The Anti-Corn Law Circular, numbering from 1 to 57, Vol. II (16th April 1839 to 8th April 1841) and published in Manchester; secondly, The Anti-Bread Tax Circular, numbering from 58, Vol. III to 140, Vol. IV (21st April 1841 to 26th September 1843) also published in Manchester in a larger size; and finally, The League, numbering 1 to end (30th September 1843 to 1846), published in London, at the League’s Fleet Street office: C.R. Fay The Corn Laws and Social England, Cambridge University Press, 1932, page 91 fn.

[5] Norman Gash Politics in the Age of Peel, Longman, 1977, page 91 explains that ‘until the Reform Act an elector claiming a vote for the county under the property qualification had to be assessed to the land tax. This necessity was abolished by the act and the way was thus thrown open for a flood of 40s freeholders from the urban and industrial areas to join the county electorate’. Upon realising this loophole’, the League encouraged and actively helped arrange purchases of 40s freehold voting qualifications for free trade supporters.

[6] W.H. Chaloner ‘The Agitation Against the Corn Laws,’ in J.T. Ward (ed.) Popular Movements 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1970.

[7] Travis L. Crosby Sir Robert Peel’s Administration 1841-1846, David & Charles Ltd., 1976.

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