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Learn from history : the Corn Laws

Posted by on Nov. 11, 2016 at 4:01 AM
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Corn Laws

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Corn Laws were measures enforced in the United Kingdom between 1815 and 1846, which imposed restrictions andtariffs on imported grain. They were designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers. The laws did indeed raise food prices and became the focus of opposition from urban groups who had far less political power than rural Britain. The Corn Laws imposed steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. The laws were supported by Conservative landowners and opposed by Whig industrialists and workers. The Anti-Corn Law League was responsible for turning public and elite opinion against the laws, in a large, nationwide middle-class moral crusade with a Utopian vision.

The first two years of the Irish famine of 1845–1852 forced a resolution because of the urgent need for new food supplies. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, a Conservative, achieved repeal with the support of the Whigs in Parliament, overcoming the opposition of most of his own party.

"Corn" included any grain that requires grinding, especially wheat. The laws were introduced by the Importation Act 1815(55 Geo. 3 c. 26) and repealed by the Importation Act 1846 (9 & 10 Vict. c. 22). The laws are often considered examples of British mercantilism.[1]

The economic issue was food prices. The price of grain was central to the price of the most important staple food, bread, and the working man spent much of his wages on bread.

The political issue was a dispute between landowners (a long-established class, who were heavily over-represented in Parliament) and the new class of manufacturers and industrial workers (who were under-represented). The former desired to maximise their profits from agriculture by keeping the price at which they could sell their grain high. The latter wished to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers—the difficulty being that men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families; hence, in practice, high grain prices kept factory wages high also.

The Corn Laws enhanced the profits and political power associated with land ownership. Their abolition saw a significant increase of free trade.


Effects of repeal

Robert Ensor wrote that these years witnessed the ruin of British agriculture, "which till then had almost as conspicuously led the world, [and which] was thrown overboard in a storm like an unwanted cargo" due to "the sudden and overwhelming invasion...by American prairie-wheat in the late seventies."[28] Previously, agriculture had employed more people in Britain than any other industry and until 1880 it "retained a kind of headship," with its technology far ahead of most European farming, its cattle breeds superior, its cropping the most scientific and its yields the highest, with high wages leading to higher standard of living for agricultural workers than in comparable European countries.[26] However, after 1877 wages declined and "farmers themselves sank into ever increasing embarrassments; bankruptcies and auctions followed each other; the countryside lost its most respected figures," with those who tended the land with greatest pride and conscience suffering most as the only chance of survival came in lowering standards.[29] "For twenty years," Ensor claimed, "the only chance for any young or enterprising person on the countryside was to get out of it."[29] The decline of agriculture also led to a fall in rural rents, especially in areas with arable land. Consequently, landowners, who until 1880 had been the richest class in the nation, were dethroned from this position. After they lost their economic leadership, the loss of their political leadership followed.[30]

The Prime Minister at the time, Disraeli, had once been a staunch upholder of the Corn Laws and had predicted ruin for agriculture if they were repealed.[31][32] However, unlike most other European governments, his government did not revive tariffs on imported cereals to save their farms and farmers.[33] Despite calls from landowners to reintroduce the Corn Laws, Disraeli responded by saying that the issue was settled and that protection was impracticable.[34] Ensor claimed that the difference between Britain and the Continent was due to the latter having conscription; rural men were thought to be the best suited as soldiers. But for Britain, with no conscript army, this did not apply.[33] He also claimed that Britain staked its future on continuing to be "the workshop of the world," as the leading manufacturing nation.[29] Robert Blake claimed that Disraeli was dissuaded from reviving protection due to the urban working class enjoying cheap imported food at a time of industrial depression and rising unemployment. Enfranchised by Disraeli in 1867, working men's votes were crucial in a general election and he did not want to antagonise them.[35]

Although proficient farmers on good lands did well, farmers with mediocre skills or marginal lands were at a disadvantage. Many moved to the cities, and unprecedented numbers emigrated. Many emigrants were small under-capitalised grain farmers who were squeezed out by low prices and inability to increase production or adapt to the more complex challenge of raising livestock.[36]

by on Nov. 11, 2016 at 4:01 AM
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