|A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law League|
in London, 1846
The Corn Laws were a generic term for a whole system of legislative protection of agriculture. In 1815 there was a prohibition on the import of foreign agricultural products until the price at home reached a high figure (80s a quarter in the case of wheat). In 1828 this absolute prohibition was replaced by a sliding scale of import duties. This legislation was not solely dictated by class interests – there was also the desire to be independent in time of war.
However there was a strong body of opinion opposed to legislative protection for agriculture. In 1830, Ebenezer Elliott, the Sheffield ‘Bard of Free Trade’ published his Corn Law Rhymes.
At first this opposition was local and sporadic, but the situation changed in the depression of the late ‘30s when food prices rose. Elliott declared:
It was born ‘of empty pockets in a respectable neighbourhood’.Manufacturing free traders could argue that the Corn Laws had damaging effects throughout the economy: British workmen would agitate for higher wages, which would be spent on food rather than on manufactured goods. The only beneficiaries would be the aristocracy.
In 1836 an Anti-Corn Law Association was set up in London, but it lacked unity of purpose and effective leadership. However, after the 1837 election the Corn Laws moved to the top of the agenda, not because of the politicians but because, with the onset of an acute manufacturing depression, the cause attracted support in the country. The topic was brought annually before the Commons by Charles Villiers, Radical MP for Wolverhampton. But the Whig government refused to support him. Melbourne was against any more radical change and declared ‘before God’ that to leave the whole agricultural interest without protection was
‘the wildest and maddest scheme that has ever entered into the mind of man to conceive’.