Saturday, 24 January 2009

Sources: Crisis of 1845-1846: 2

An extract from Lord John Russell’s ‘Edinburgh Letter’ of 22nd November 1845

A heated debate had been raging since 1840 about whether the Corn Laws should or should not be repealed. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel decided that the legislation should be repealed and in this letter, Lord John Russell supported Peel’s decision. This meant that Whig MPs would vote with the Conservative government in the Commons’ vote

TO THE ELECTORS OF THE CITY OF LONDON

GENTLEMEN

The present state of the country, in regard to its supply of food, cannot be viewed without apprehension. Forethought and bold precaution may avert any serious evils; indecision and procrastination may produce a state of suffering which it is frightful to contemplate...

Two evils require your consideration. One of these is the disease in the potatoes, affecting very seriously parts of England and Scotland, and committing fearful ravages in Ireland.

Another evil, however, under which we are suffering, is the fruit of Ministerial counsel and Parliamentary law. It is the direct consequence of an Act of Parliament, passed three years ago, on the recommendation of the present advisers of the Crown. By this law grain of all kinds has been made subject to very high duties on importation. These duties are so contrived that the worse the quality of the corn the higher is the duty; so that when good wheat rises to 70s. a quarter, the average price of all wheat is 57s or 58s., and the duty 15s. or 14s. a quarter. Thus the corn barometer points to fair, while the ship is bending under a storm.

This defect was pointed out many years ago by writers on the Corn Laws, and was urged upon the attention of the House of Commons when the present Act was under consideration.

But I confess that on the general subject my views have in the course of twenty years undergone a great alteration. I used to be of opinion that corn was an exception to the general rules of political economy; but observation and experience have convinced me that we ought to abstain from all interference with the supply of food...

Let us, then, unite to put an end to a system which has been proved to be the blight of commerce, the bane of agriculture, the source of bitter divisions among classes, the causes of penury, fever, mortality, and crime among the people....

Prince Albert’s memorandum on the Corn Laws 25th December 1845

This memorandum written by Prince Albert is a record of a conversation that he had with Peel concerning Peel’s views on the repeal of the Corn Laws. Peel had just resumed office as Prime Minister following his resignation on 5th December and the inability of Lord John Russell to form a ministry.

It is to his own talent and firmness that Sir Robert will owe his success which cannot fail. He said he had been determined not to go to a general election with the fetters the last election had imposed upon him, and he had meant at the end of the next Session to call the whole Conservative Party together and to declare this to them, that he would not meet another Parliament pledged to the maintenance of the Corn Laws, which could be maintained no longer, and that he would make a public declaration to this effect before another general election came on. This had been defeated by events coming too suddenly upon him, and he had no alternative but to deal with the Corn Laws before a national calamity would force it on. The League had made immense progress, and had enormous means at their disposal. If he had resigned in November, Lord Stanley and the Protectionists would have been prepared to form a Government, and a Revolution might have been the consequence of it. Now they felt that it was too late.

Sir Robert has an immense scheme in view; he thinks he shall be able to remove the contest entirely from the dangerous ground upon which it has got - that of a war between the manufacturers, the hungry and the poor against the landed proprietors, the aristocracy, which can only end in the ruin of the latter; he will not bring forward a measure upon the Corn Laws, but a much more comprehensive one. He will deal with the whole commercial system of the country. He will adopt the principle of the League, that of removing all protection and abolishing all monopoly, but not in favour of one class and as a triumph over another, but to the benefit of the nation, farmers as well as manufacturers. He would begin with cotton, and take in all the necessaries of life and corn amongst them. The experiments he had made in 1842 and 1845 with boldness but with caution had borne out the correctness of the principle: the wool duty was taken off, and wool sold higher then ever before; foreign cattle were let in, and the cattle of England stood better in the market than ever. He would not ask for compensation to the land, but wherever he could give it, and at the same time promote the social development, there he would do it, but on that ground.

Letters of Queen Victoria, A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher (eds.), 1908, volume ii, pages 65-66

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