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Corn Laws

The Corn Laws, in force between 1689 and 1846, were import tariffs in the early-mid 19th century, ostensibly designed to "protect" British farmers and landowner against cheap foreign grain imports being competitive with the crops of British landowners.

In reality, according to Prof. David Cody, they:

... were designed to protect English landholders by encouraging the export and limiting the import of corn when prices fell below a fixed point. They were eventually abolished in the face of militant agitation by the Anti-Corn-Law-League, formed in Manchester in 1839, which maintained that the laws, which amounted to a subsidy, increased industrial costs. After a lengthy campaign, opponents of the law finally got their way in 1846 - a significant triumph which was indicative of the new political power of the English middle class.

Britain at the time was the most economically developed country in the world, there were no other rivals other than off-land British companies. The protection thus was used not against foreign imports, but against cheap rival British imports that would have severely cut into the profit margins made by British landowners.

The corn laws, in reality represented the power of the British aristocracy, who were the landowners, and therefore crop producers. A repeal of the corn laws would have jeopardized not only the income generated by crops, but the political power that land ownership had historically represented. The debate over the corn laws was a crossroads in the transition of Britain from a feudalist society, to a more modern, industrial one.

The debate within the Parliament was a divisive one. Benjamin Disraeli made a name for himself as a Tory and a defender of the conservative corn laws. The debate over the corn laws split Tories and Whigs. The Tories represented the landed class who greatly benefited from the agricultural protections. The Whigs however were business owners. Following David Ricardo's economic views they believed a decrease in the price of grain would allow them to lower wages and increase profits. The Manchester Anti-Corn Law League was formed by men such as Richard Cobden and Sir David Roche and they battled for free trade.

The Repeal of the Corn Laws

Ironically on January 31, 1846 it was a Tory Prime Minster, Sir Robert Peel, who repealed the Corn Laws. In Ireland, a fungus, called the blight had attacked the staple potato crop, causing a loss of a food source and income for Irish farmers, most of whom were tenants of absentee landlords based in Britain. While some British Tories were willing to let their tenants starve, Peel, who had a personal knowledge of Ireland, having served in the Dublin Castle British administration in Dublin, pushed also by Queen Victoria, acted to try to alleviate the Irish situation by repealing the Corn Laws. Peel and a few other Tory MPs allied with the opposition Whigs and passed a measure abolishing the Corn Laws. This destroyed his government, however, as he lost the support of his own party and they along with the Whigs voted to repeal Peel. The repeal of the corn laws did little to aid the Irish, as 700,000-800,000 Irish people had already died from starvation and even more had emigrated.

The Canadian colonies greatly favoured the Corn Laws as they prevented competition from US and South American grain suppliers. The repeal of the Corn Laws showed Canadians that they could not expect favourable treatment from the British and encouraged movement towards confederation.