Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Towards repeal

In the late summer of 1845, disquieting rumours of the failure of some of the Irish potato crop reached England. The potato blight was not limited to Ireland: the whole of central and Western Europe was threatened by it during the wet and cold summer of 1845, but the blight was more serious because of Ireland’s dependence on the potato as the staple diet of much of its population. Peel realised the significance of the poor potato crop in Ireland almost immediately. If potatoes should fail completely in Ireland and Europe and the wheat crop fall short in England, then a widespread famine might occur. Peel well knew the appalling consequences of famine as he had witnessed an Irish famine while Chief Secretary in 1817[1].

As late as October, some optimism that most of the potatoes in Ireland could be salvaged still existed. However, by the end of the month, it was evident that the failure was extensive. The government was faced with two problems: to find adequate supplies of food; and to create the machinery for its distribution. Both Peel and Graham recognised that the government must act quickly and that every barrier to the efficient transport of food had to be removed. The most obvious barrier was the restrictive Corn Laws.

Peel and Graham believed that it would be impossible merely temporarily to suspend the Corn Laws. Its suspension on the grounds of alleviating scarcity would imply that the government favoured scarcity as a general policy should it be re-imposed. This reason alone argued strongly for Corn Law abolition.  Nor would it be possible to open the Irish ports to unrestricted grain imports and yet retain their closure in England.  Finally, if grain was to be supplied to Ireland using public funds, the public would reasonably expect that the purchase should be made in the cheapest markets and this could only be done if import barriers were removed.

Convincing the Cabinet

Peel and Graham first briefed the cabinet on the situation in Ireland on 31st October 1845. The first of Peel’s recommendations was the creation of a committee in Ireland to coordinate famine relief. This was favourably received by the cabinet on 1st November and two days later Graham informed Heytesbury of the decision.

The Famine Commission (or Scarcity Commission as it was also called) would have wide investigative and remedial authority.  The Commissioners would include the Head of the Irish Constabulary and the Inspector of the Coast Guard who would use their forces in gathering information. The Head of the Board of Public Works would encourage employment of the peasantry on roads, bridges, and railway and drainage projects. The Commissary in Chief would be responsible for the purchase and transport of food. The fifth commissioner was the new Poor Law Commissioner who was responsible for the distribution of food from union workhouses. In a letter to Heytesbury, Graham left open the possibility of appointing some ranking public servant to a sixth position. Peel suggested an Irish Catholic and Robert J. Kane, a professor at Queen’s College, Cork was named.  Although there were inevitable delays and administrative problems in the early days of the Commission, it had solid achievements to its credit within a few months. These included the creation of depots for imported Indian corn or maize (£100,000 of corn was imported and released on to the market as a way of preventing prices rising too high), the collection of £100,000 from private government subscriptions and the employment of 12,000 labourers a day.

In November and early December 1845, cabinet discussion continued on Peel’s second recommendation: the abolition of the Corn Laws. Parliament was not in session and it was decided to keep the discussions on the Corn Laws secret. However, the frequency of the cabinet meetings made it obvious to the public that there was serious disagreement among its members. Stanley was the firmest opponent of abolition arguing that it was too drastic. Lord Lincoln feared that small farmers would be swept away by repeal. Goulburn added his doubts to those of his colleagues believing that the failure of the Irish potato crop was only a temporary emergency. Like Stanley, Goulburn also feared the effect of Corn Law repeal on the Conservative party; the rank and file would regard the leadership as traitors and the party would be broken.

Peel’s attempt to covert his cabinet colleagues reached a climax in the first week of December. In meetings on 2nd, 4th and 5th, Peel produced a memorandum that made specific new proposals altering the Corn Law. The revisions made in the 1842 Corn Law established a duty of 20s per quarter when the domestic price reached 51s per quarter; the duty decreased by 1s for every shilling rise in the domestic price until only a nominal 1s per quarter remained after domestic wheat reached 73s per quarter. Peel proposed retaining the sliding scale, but a reduction of the duty from 20s to 8s per quarter.  In addition, the duty would be reduced by 1s a year following 1846 so that within eight years there would be no duty at all and corn would be duty-free.  This was a moderate and gradual approach to free trade and it continued the trend of state policy towards corn imports followed by successive governments since 1828. However, it was not well received by the cabinet. Stanley and the Duke of Buccleuch threatened to resign and the remainder only supported Peel reluctantly. In the light of the response from his closest supporters, Peel recognised that it was very unlikely that he could carry through any relaxation of the Corn Laws through Parliament, much less their abolition. On 6th December, he tendered his resignation to the Queen.

A Whig interlude

In November and early December, the Whigs had been manoeuvring to take what political advantage they could of the divisions within the cabinet. They were concerned that Peel might ultimately decide to steal a march on the Whig position on the Corn Laws. To preclude this, Lord John Russell made his position clear in his Letter to the Electors of the City of London, the so-called ‘Edinburgh Letter’ on 22nd November 1845. In it, he announced his conversion of Corn Law repeal, with the strong implication that this was also the line to be adopted by the Whigs in the next parliamentary session (though he had not consulted his colleagues on the issue). By placing the Whig position first before the public, Russell could claim to have prodded Peel into action, if the Conservatives came to similar free-trade conclusions.

Russell hoped the Whigs would gain a useful political initiative and when, within two weeks of the publication of the Letter Peel resigned, it seemed that Russell’s gamble had paid off. Unfortunately, he had not calculated very accurately the results of his action. By committing himself to free-trade, he had alerted the Protectionists and if they were strong enough to bring down Peel, then there was no guarantee that they could not do the same to the Whigs. Russell was not only engaged in finding support for Corn Law abolition outside Whig ranks, but in negotiating among his Whig colleagues for a viable cabinet. He soon discovered that two colleagues, whom he considered as indispensable could not be in the same cabinet. Earl Grey objected to the inclusion of Palmerston at the Foreign Office suggesting the Colonial Office instead. Grey was such a prominent free-trade supporter that Russell could not omit him from any free-trade cabinet. It was similarly unthinkable not to include Palmerston and he was unwilling to take anything other than the Foreign Office. The result was stalemate. As Russell explained in a letter to the Queen on 20th December 1845, a division among his colleagues in a minority government did not augur well for its continuance. Peel 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 in his ‘Edinburgh Letter’ but he was unenthusiastic about forming a minority administration. Peel was again summoned by the Queen. The ‘poisoned chalice’ was passed back.


[1] Cecil Woodham-Smith The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin Books, London, England, 1991, first edition, 1962 remains a graphic narrative. Christine Kinealy This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1997 and The Great Irish Famine, Palgrave, 2001 provide a more modern perspective.

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