Why Were the Corn Laws Repealed in 1846?

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Although the repeal of the Corn Laws is one of the most studied questions in 19th century tariff politics, its historical interpretations are still disputable today. The repeal of the Corn Laws is historically relevant because of “its alleged significance as an indication of the waning of aristocratic domination of British politics” (McKeown 1989: 353). Historiography has to solve the following empirical puzzle: in 1846 Charles Villiers (a leading member of the Anti-Corn Law League in parliament) proposed total and immediate repeal of the Corn Laws, just as he had in preceding years. The motion was overwhelmingly defeated. Yet, only a few weeks later, Peel laid his motion for repeal before the House. By 16 May, Peel’s version of repeal had passed its third reading (Brawley 2006: 467). Sir Robert Peel counted on more than 300 votes for passage of repeal in 1846, implying a winning margin of 90 votes (McKeown 1989: 356). However, this shift in political support began as soon as 1842. Moreover, from the beginning of their implementation the Corn Laws were not without controversy in the Tory Party itself (section 5). After having sketched the historical debate (section 2), as well as the implementation of the Corn Laws with the Importation Act 1815 (section 3), this essay analyses in how far external shocks (4), theoretical development (5) or interest groups (6) contributed most to the policy reform in 1846. Another possible cause of the repeal might be found in the different understanding of the adjustment process of repeal, changing the interests of landowners (7). Finally, this essay concludes that several long term developments, the increasing fear of a new Irish Famine as well as the changing nature of landowners’ interests can explain why the Corn Laws were repealed. Furthermore, Peel as a person plays a role insofar as he was open to new evidence and can be considered as an undogmatic politician: a typical representative of British Empiricism.

Originally the Corn Laws were designed to protect cereal producers in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland against competition from less expensive foreign imports between 1815 and 1846. The high import duties, which were imposed by the Importation Act of 1815 (repealed by the Importation Act of 1846) prevented the import of grain from other countries. The Corn Laws improved the economic situation of landowners by increasing the price of grain and inducing cultivation on less productive land; the land rents thus increased. Since grain was the major consumption good of labourers, the high price of grain necessitated an increase in the nominal wages of labourers and thusly reduced the profits of manufactures (Irwin 1996: 94). The essential matter was therefore food prices, since the price of grain influenced the price of the most important food staple: bread.

The Importation Act of 1815 thus “provided protection to British agriculture, primarily benefiting the landlords who dominated parliament” (Irwin 1989: 41). Landowners were a long-established class, who were heavily represented in Parliament. The Tory Party, dominated by the landowning aristocracy, and Peel supported protection of agriculture in the form of the restrictive Corn Law of 1815. Additionally, the political representation of the landowners’ interests was supported by Malthus at his concern about the dependence on foreign supply (Irwin 1996: 95-97). After having sketched the political and economic logic of the implementation of the Corn Laws, this essay will deal with the question as to how and why the Corn Laws got repealed in 1846. I will consider whether it was the shocks or long-range developments, a shift in political representation of interest groups or the change of personal or public beliefs, which caused the repeal.

One of the most obvious explanations can be...
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