Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Corn Law debates

Peel was undeterred by protectionist anger and introduced the bill to repeal the Corn Laws on 27th January 1846.  Outlining his new tariff policy, he proceeded ‘on the assumption that protective duties, abstractedly and on principle’ were objectionable. In doing this, he widened the potential benefits of free trade from Ireland alone to the whole kingdom. He pointed to the falling crime rates and increased social stability in the country since the 1842 Corn Law.

The heart of the new proposal was the abolition of all duties in corn after February 1849 in order to allow the landed interest time to prepare for the change the laws. After this date all imported grains would pay only a ‘nominal’ registration duty of 1s a quarter.  Until then, there would be a duty of 10s per quarter when domestic corn was less than 48s per quarter, falling to 4s when the price rose to 53s and above. Although it was slightly less generous towards farmers than the original proposal in December 1845, the scheme retained its gradualist nature.  There was a great deal more to the proposal than Corn Law abolition. It immediately repealed duties on salt and fresh pork, live cattle, and all vegetables and reduced butter and cheese duties. The differential between colonial ‘free’ sugar and slave-grown sugar was further reduced.  Peel’s tariff reductions affected more than imported goods. As in 1842, he reduced or abolished duties on a range of manufactured goods including textiles, timber, shoes and soap.

The landowners lost their protection but were offered several things by way of compensation including the reduction on seed duties and the free import of maize and buckwheat. This would reduce the cost of fattening cattle and make stock farmers more competitive. Arable farmers would be provided with state loans at low interest rates to improve their agricultural practices especially poor drainage. Further compensatory measures included the assumption by the public treasury of certain expenses previously borne by the localities: the prosecution and maintenance of prisoners and the expenses of Poor Law medical officers, school-teachers and auditors. The highway rate would be reduced by consolidating local highway administration from 16,000 local authorities to only 600. The law of settlement that had allowed urban authorities to return the unemployed poor to their original rural residences during slumps in the economy was abolished. The lightening of these local taxes, paid largely by farmers, would, Peel hoped, make them more amenable to Corn Law repeal.

The tariff scheme in 1846 can be seen as the culmination of Peel’s attempt to bring orderly economic growth and social stability. It was a well-structured and complementary package that simultaneously reduced the cost of living, compensated the farmers and gave manufacturers cheaper raw materials. By reducing the threat from the Anti-Corn Law League, Peel also hoped to further reduce levels of public tension and class division.

The debate

Peel emphasised the social benefits of free trade and this gave his opponents reason to thin that the Irish famine was merely a pretext for Corn Law repeal. They did not believe that the potato blight was as serious as Peel maintained. Nor did they believe that the compensations offered would enable farmers to meet successfully the threat from lower prices of foreign agricultural produce on the domestic market. Most galling to the Protectionists was the change in Peel’s mind about the Corn Laws and the ‘treason’ to his party. During the debate on the Queen’s Speech, Peel candidly admitted that he had changed his mind and that he recognised that the proposals were ‘the worst measures for party interests that could have been brought forward’. Protectionists hinted broadly that Peel ought to resign his leadership of the party or, at the very least he should go to the country on the tariff scheme. Peel was, however, determined that the matter should be settled in Parliament and not at the polls.

The Protectionists did more than merely complain about Peel. On 9th February 1846, they implemented the Duke of Richmond’s implied threat of delay by moving an amendment asking for a six month postponement. The debate lasted twelve nights and culminated on 27th February with the first speech of Lord George Bentinck, soon to be the acknowledged leader of the Protectionists. He dismissed the ‘pretended’ potato famine and produced a mass of statistics to prove the protectionist case. At the end of the speech, Peel had a comfortable majority ob the first reading of 97 (337 against and 240 for). However, of the 337 who voted for the government, only 112 were Conservative. Two-thirds of his party had deserted Peel.

The Protectionists continued their delaying tactics but were unsuccessful in preventing the second reading in late March. During the third reading in May, the personal attacks on Peel grew in intensity and reached a climax with Disraeli’s speech during the final night of the debate. He declared that Peel’s political life was nothing more than ‘one great appropriation clause’ and that he had ‘traded on the ideas and intelligence of others’. He described the other Peelite ministers as ‘political pedlars that bought their party in the cheapest market and sold us in the dearest’. Disraeli’s voicing of genuine back-bench anguish could not overcome the Whig-Peelite combination and the bill was given its third reading in 15th May 1846 (majority of 98 but only 112 Conservative MPs voting in favour) and sent to the House of Lords.

While Corn Law repeal was making its tortuous way through Parliament, the government was also pushing ahead with other Irish measures.  In March, it introduced the Fever Bill that would create a Board of Health in Dublin to supervise the construction of fever hospitals and to provide medical assistance to those suffering from fever because of scarcity.  More controversial was the Protection of Life Bill that proved to be the most crucial measure in the session because it was this proposal that saw Peel’s defeat in the Commons and the end of his government. The Bill was introduced in the House of Lords in February 1846. Its aim was to pacify Ireland and it represented a retreat to the more coercionist policies of 1843. It was a harsh measure though no more than the Whig 1833 Act and there was little opposition in the Lords.

Initially, there was little opposition in the Commons apart from Irish MPs like O’Connell and other groups seemed to support the first reading. The Protectionists supported it because the ensuing debate would inevitably delay repeal. Lord John Russell did not favour the bill and was displeased by the Whig peers’ support for it. However, he did not want to jeopardise Peel’s government until after repeal was achieved. This led him to temporise during the early stages of the bill while reserving his options until the later stages. He recognised that should there be a conjunction of Protectionists and Whigs against the bill, the ministry would be defeated.

Corn and coercion absorbed parliamentary energies throughout April and May 1846. A well-founded rumour of a projected alliance between Irish Whig peers and Conservative protectionist peers was motivated by the growing distaste for the disorders in Ireland among the Irish peers. Desiring a coercion bill, they were willing to compromise on Corn Law repeal, if the Protectionists would support coercion. To counter this threat, Russell convened them at Lansdowne House on 23rd May and threatened resignation as party leader if they voted against Corn Law repeal and the revolt collapsed. Russell’s action had three important consequences: It gave the Whigs, for the first time in years, a party unity; removed the last obstruction to Corn Law abolition; and, removed any reason among the Protectionists for delay on the Protection of Life Bill.

When the debate on the second reading of the Protection of Life Bill started in the House of Commons in early June, Bentinck announced that the Protectionists had changed their minds and now opposed the legislation. On 25th June, the Commons voted against the second reading of the bill. An uneasy combination of Whigs, Irish liberals, Leaguers and Protectionists had turned out the Peel government by a vote of 292 to 219. Peel had the satisfaction of seeing half the Protectionists vote for the coercion bill. Their anti-Irish feeling had overcome the factious desire to oppose on this occasion.

The defeat left Peel with two alternatives: he could appeal to the country in a general election or resign. He chose the latter. In any case, the Corn Bill was safe having already received the Royal Assent. In his resignation speech on 28th June, Peel widened the breach with his former supporters by giving the whole credit for repeal to Richard Cobden, who was in their eyes no better than a demagogue. He ended with a prayer that he might leave a name sometimes remembered with expressions of goodwill in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour, and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice[1].

The Protectionist tactic of trying to break Peel was probably the right approach for without Peel, it is unlikely that Corn Law repeal would have been successful in 1846. Of course, it was not his achievement alone. He was closely supported by Graham and, in the later stages of the debate Russell had lent timely assistance. But it was Peel who, since late 1845 when the first rumours of famine reached England, had provided the determination to relieve Ireland and it was this determination that won his cabinet to a policy of Corn Law repeal.


Retribution was swift and Peel did not hold office again. He did not regret his expulsion from office seeing it as a relief from ‘an intolerable burden’. Nor did he take an active part in Conservative party politics after 1846 despite numerous appeals from non-protectionist MPs to do so. In his last four years, he refused to lead his ‘Peelites’ and offered advice and support to the incoming Whig government, particularly on economic matters. He stood above the party fray, an elder statesman who had put the interests of the nation above all others. Peel’s legacy was an uncomfortable one for the ‘Peelites’, especially William Gladstone, whose careers dominated the next thirty years. The driving force of British politics had become the party system yet the Peelites were not ‘party men’. Like Peel, they found that their consciences did not always fit well with the need to play politics and take account of prevailing party opinions. Peel’s death, after a horse-riding accident, in July 1850 was universally mourned.

[1] Hansard 3, 87.1055

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