Sunday, 14 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League

From early 1840 the Chartists had generally been opposed to the Anti-Corn Law League[1]. There was suspicion on both sides. For Chartists, the League, with its single overriding objective, reflected middle class attitudes and a free-trade ideology[2]. Events since 1832 had fuelled class antagonism, which were directed particularly against the Whigs and their middle class supporters. In 1841, O’Connor advised his followers to vote Tory. This ranged him against the free-trade measures put forward by the Whigs in the 1841 budget. Chartist attitudes to free trade fell into three main types.

  • Some free-trade Chartists, especially grassroots members, accepted the arguments for repeal of the Corn Law but argued that the Charter should have priority.
  • Others thought repeal desirable but maintained that it would only benefit the working class if accompanied by other measures. The precise nature of these ‘other measures’ was a matter of considerable debate. For Chartists like Bronterre O’Brien, they were associated with fiscal matters like reducing indirect taxation and lowering the National Debt. Others were concerned with factory legislation or regulating wages. They argued that if repeal took place without further employment reform, the price of bread would fall but wages would also be reduced.
  • A third stream of thought was hostile to the anti-corn law agitation and was reflected in O’Connor’s protectionist attitudes. Repeal would reduce the acreage under wheat, which would increase rural unemployment and swell the ranks of those dependent on poor relief. They also argued for industrial protection. The repeal of the Corn Laws would logically be accompanied by repeal of protective duties on manufactures. This would lead to British industries being open to foreign competition and so threaten industrial employment.

Lucy Brown sums up Chartist attitudes to the League in the following way[3] “[it] was, then, neither consistent nor clearly thought out. Chartist speakers tended to flounder in discussion with the well-drilled lecturers of the League, and may at times have expressed themselves in the heat of a meeting in a way which did not do justice to their thought.”

The League hoped for substantial working class support in its early years but it had little need to show direct interest in Chartism. To achieve repeal the League needed either to persuade a majority in the House of Commons or to stir the electorate to such an extent that they would only accept candidates committed to repeal. As the working classes were not generally voters, their political support could not be of direct help in either of these aims.

Lucy Brown identified two phases in the relationship between Chartism and the League. Between 1840 and 1842 there were attempts, locally and nationally, to find common ground between the two organisations. Though the League had some success, especially in Wolverhampton and Sheffield, it was very limited. The events of 1842 – the failure of the Complete Suffrage movement and the strikes – destroyed any hope of class reconciliation and resulting in growing antagonism between O’Connor and the League. Growing economic prosperity between 1843 and 1845, however, helped to soothe fears of repeal and led to a gradual softening of Chartist attitudes. O’Connor continued to attack the ‘mountebank cosmopolities’ who saw free trade as the solution to all society’s ills but his growing interest in agricultural matters saw a change in his attitude to both Cobden and Peel in 1844-5. O’Connor appears to have been mesmerised by Cobden and especially Peel and came increasingly to support the case for repeal. Gammage was highly critical of this change in policy[4]

“When the League was in bad odour, nothing but ruin was predicted by O’Connor in the case of its success. Now it would make the Land Plan Triumphant, by bringing down the price of land, and thus enable the people more freely to purchase. In short, his laudation of Peel’s measure was the very antithesis of the amendment, which he proposed at the Northampton meeting. We ask, was not his whole opposition to the League a mere sham? And was there not a good understanding between himself and that body… A portion of the parties protested against the shifting policy of O’Connor: others were dissatisfied, and thought his conduct strange; but he so moulded the majority to his will that they yielded to him in blind obedience and charged the men who remained consistent with being in the pay of the Protectionists…O’Connor had an intense love of popularity, which often overcame any sense of duty. To have supported the League when it was unpopular, would have lost him that popularity which he enjoyed, he therefore opposed them; but he cared little for the question at issue…When the League became so popular as to force their measures upon the Government, the Minister who proposed those measures became more popular still. To oppose any longer, would lose him a portion of his popularity; he turned round therefore without any regard to principle or consistency. O’Connor was not a man without foresight….”

This judgement is harsh[5]. The years between 1845 and 1851 saw a ‘mid-century crisis’[6]. O’Connor was not unique in recognising the ‘spirit of the age’ in late 1845 and early 1846. He saw where events were going and changed tack. It paid off. In July 1846, he was elected MP for Nottingham at a by-election[7].


[1] Lucy Brown ‘The Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, London, 1959, pages 342-371 remains the major study of this issue.

[2] The relationship between the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League is also explored in volume 2: chapter 5.

[3] Lucy Brown ‘The Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League’, in Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, page 351.

[4] Gammage History of the Chartist Movement, pages 270-272.

[5] While Gammage’s view of O’Connor’s pragmatism may be valid, his analysis of the reasons for the success of the League is not. Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws was motivated less by pressure from the League than by the need to find a solution to the problems of famine in Ireland. In his resignation speech, he went out of his way to acknowledge his debt to Cobden. This has tended to muddy the historical waters.

[6] Richard Brown Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850, London, 1991, pages 530-543 deals with the ‘mid-century crisis’.

[7] Stephen Roberts ‘Feargus O’Connor in the House of Commons, 1847-1852’, in Owen Ashton, Robert Tyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 102-118 is a useful study of a neglected subject.

No comments: