This week in history: Corn Laws repealed

Robert Peel © Getty images
Robert Peel: a key victory for free trade

The battle over the Corn Laws was extremely important in early Victorian politics. It wasn’t just a fight between free trade and protectionism: the eventual outcome showed the declining power of agriculture and the countryside against manufacturing and the cities.

The Corn Laws were enacted in 1815 to protect the wages of agricultural labourers and farmers. They imposed punitive tariffs on imported corn and banned imports completely when domestic prices fell below a certain level.

As a result, the price of corn was much higher than it would otherwise have been. This reduced the living standards of urban workers, although it raised agricultural wages.

One of the original bill’s opponents was economist David Ricardo, who developed his theory of comparative advantage, arguing that it makes economic sense for nations to specialise in the specific areas they excel at, and to import the other goods they need.

The situation was complicated by voting being confined to a small proportion of the populace, and parliamentary boundaries giving disproportionate power to wealthy landowners. But the 1832 Reform Act increased the political power of the urban middle class, while many landowners had invested in industry, and so had less reason to oppose repeal.

A series of poor harvests, which devastated Ireland and drove up prices across the UK, increased pressure to act. In 1846, Prime Minister Robert Peel passed laws revoking the tariffs, which came into effect three years later.

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