Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Sources: Crisis of 1845-1846

Peel’s Memorandum, read to his Cabinet on 1st November 1845

Peel took office in 1841 on a platform of maintaining the Corn Laws, but by the beginning of November 1845 he had decided on their repeal. He had little support for the measure from his Cabinet and wrote a memorandum setting out his reasons for his change of mind.

‘If we can place confidence in the Reports which we have received, there is the prospect of a lamentable deficiency of the ordinary food of the people in many parts of Ireland, and in some parts of this country, and of Scotland. The evil may be much greater than present reports lead us to anticipate. Potatoes which now appear safe may become infected, and we must not exclude from our consideration the contingency of a great calamity.

With the documents we have in our possession, with the opinions of our own Commissioners as to the probable extent of the evil, the pressing entreaties from the Lord Lieutenant for instructions, the possible contingency that in the course of two months the evil may prove to have been much more extensive than any one has yet contemplated, inaction and indifference might involve the country in serious danger, and the Government in the heaviest responsibility.

I recommend, therefore, that we should in the first place adopt some such measures as were adopted at former periods of much more partial scarcity - that we should authorise the Lord Lieutenant to appoint a Commission for the purpose of considering the mode in which relief, when necessary, can be applied, through the means of employment where employment can be had.... It appears to me that the adoption of these measures, the advance or promise of public money to provide food or employ labour, on account of apprehended scarcity of food, will compel the assembling of Parliament before Christmas. .

I cannot disguise from myself that the calling together of Parliament on account of apprehended scarcity - the prohibition of export in other countries - the removal of restrictions on import (sanctioned, as in the case of Belgium, by an unanimous vote of the Chambers) - the demand for public money, to be applied to provide sustenance for a portion of the people - will constitute a great crisis, and that it will be dangerous for the Government, having assembled Parliament, to resist with all its energies any material modification of the Corn Law. By material modification I mean of the law as it applies to the import of barley, oats, and wheat.

There are reasons - very good ones, under ordinary circumstances -for dealing specially with colonial grain, or with maize, or with rice; but I greatly fear that partial and limited interference with the Corn Law, under the circumstances under which Parliament will assemble (if it be assembled) at the latter end of this month, will be no solution of our difficulties.

Supposing it were granted to me, for the purpose of argument, that the suspension of the Corn Law is inevitable, the question arises, shall the suspension take place by an act of prerogative, or by legislation at the instance of the Government? In favour of suspension by prerogative, there is the argument that it is done at once, that it is decisive for the time, that it prevents all that suspense and stagnation which will follow the notoriety of facts as to the potato crop, the meetings of the Cabinet, the notice in a few days of the summoning of Parliament. It gives the earliest notice in foreign countries, and it gives to the proceeding the character of an act done on an urgent necessity, which no human foresight could have guarded against.

The objections to it are - that it compels instant decision by the Cabinet - that it imposes upon us the necessity of proving that there could be no delay. It may justly be said, Parliament, after much deliberation, sanctioned an elaborate and comprehensive system of Corn Laws. The Crown has the power to summon Parliament by a notice of fourteen days. Why should the Crown, by the stroke of a pen, abrogate laws so fully considered by Parliament, instead of summoning Parliament at the earliest period, and inviting Parliament to do that which it is the proper province of Parliament to do? There is this advantage also in doing whatever it may be necessary to do in the ordinary constitutional mode. It gives us some further time for consideration.

It is possible for us to take this course - to separate today under the strong impression that the meeting of Parliament on some day not later than the 27th of November is inevitable - to have a meeting of the Cabinet finally to decide our course at the latter end of next week. If we then resolve on calling Parliament, to fix the day for the Council at which the day of meeting for the despatch of business shall be determined.

This course is possible, but it leaves unaltered the necessity of determining, before we resolve on calling Parliament, the course we shall pursue. We must make our choice between determined maintenance, modification, and suspension of the existing Corn Law.

In writing the above I have merely considered the question on its own abstract merits, without reference to mere party considerations, or our own position as public men, the authors of the present Corn Law. I am fully aware of the gravity of the considerations connected with this part of the question.’

Peel Memoirs, volume ii, pages 141-148

Goulburn’s letter to Peel on the proposal to suspend the Corn Laws: 30th November 1845

Henry Goulburn was Peel’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and had supported Peel throughout the 1841-1846 ministry. However, Goulburn was reluctant to give his support to Peel in suspending the Corn Laws. The following is Goulburn’s letter expressing his concerns to Peel.

‘I have such an habitual deference to the superiority of your judgement and such an entire confidence in the purity of your motives, that I always feel great doubt as to my being right when I differ from you in opinion. But the more I reflect upon the observations which you made to me a few days since as to your difficulty in again defending a Corn Law in Parliament, the more do I feel alarmed at the consequences of your taking a different course from that which you have previously adopted. An abandonment of your former opinions now would, I think, prejudice your and our characters as public men, and would be fraught with fatal results to the country’s best interests; and as I probably hear many opinions on a subject of this kind which do not reach you, the view which I take of probable consequences may not be undeserving of consideration - at least you will not misinterpret my motives in stating it.

I fairly own that I do not see how the repeal of the Corn Law is to afford relief to the distress with which we are threatened. I quite understand that if we had never had a Corn Law, it might be argued that we should now have had a larger supply in our warehouses, or that from the encouragement given by a free trade in corn to the growth of it in foreign countries, we should have had a larger fund on which to draw for a supply. But I think it next to impossible to show that the abandonment of the law now could materially affect this year’s supply, or give us any corn which will not equally reach us under the law as it

Under these circumstances it appears to me that the abandonment of the Corn Law would be taken by the public generally as decisive evidence that we never intended to maintain it further than as an instrument by which to vex and defeat our enemies. The very caution with which we have spoken on the subject of corn will confirm this impression. Had we always announced a firm determination under all circumstances to uphold the Corn Law, it would have been more readily believed that in abandoning it now we were yielding to the pressure of an overwhelming necessity which we did not before anticipate. But when the public feel, as I believe they do, great doubts as to the existence of an adequate necessity - when greater doubts still are entertained as to the applicability of the abandonment of the Corn Law as a remedy to the present distress - they will, I fear, with few dissentient voices, tax us with treachery and deception, and charge us, from our former language, with having always had it in contemplation.

So much as to the effect on our character as public men. But I view with greater alarm its effects on public interests. In my opinion the party of which you are the head is the only barrier which remains against the revolutionary effects of the Reform Bill. So long as that party remains unbroken, whether in or out of power, it has the means of doing much good, or at least of preventing much evil. But if it be broken in pieces by a destruction of confidence in its leaders (and I cannot but think that an abandonment of the Corn Law would produce that result), I see nothing before us but the exasperation of class animosities, a struggle for pre-eminence, and the ultimate triumph of unrestrained democracy.

Believe me, &c.,


Peel Memoirs, volume ii, pages 201-204

1 comment:

Sian said...

Wow, this blog is amazing! I'm studying the Age of Peel for my History A-Level - it's just a pity I've only found this blog today, the day of the exam! I think I'll try and read through bits of it as a crash revision session, and I'll defintely keep checking back for other things...