Ch 13 Liberal Ascendancy

CH.13-LIBERAL ASCENDANCY

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CHAPTER XIII: LIBERAL ASCENDANCY

SECTION 2: THE CORN LAWS

 

THE LANDOWNING CLASSES LAST CLEAR VICTORY WERE THE HATED CORN LAWS OF 1815, BUT IT ISOLATED THEM FROM ALL OTHER CLASSES.

IT KEPT THE PRICE OF WHEAT ARTIFICIALLY HIGH. ALL WHEAT IMPORTS WERE FORBIDDEN WHEN THE PRICE FELL BELOW 50s/QUARTER. (A quarter equals eight bushels, or approximately one-quarter ton of grain.)

ATTEMPTS TO PROVIDE A SLIDING SCALE OF PRICES WERE UNSUCCESSFUL, AND THE MASSES SURVIVED ON FAMINE RATIONS AS A RESULT.

THE 1837 DEMANDS FOR CHANGE CAME FROM THE INDUSTRIALISTS, ANXIOUS TO REDUCE LABOUR COSTS, AND IN 1839 THE ‘ANTICORNLAW LEAGUE’ WAS FORMED BY AGITATORS COBDEN AND BRIGHT.

MARX DESCRIBED THEM AS HYPOCRITES BECAUSE THEIR STRUGGLE WAS REALLY IN SUPPORT OF FREE TRADERS, NOT THE CHARTISTS.

THERE WERE LIVELY DEMONSTRATIONS AND COUNTER-DEMONSTRATIONS, AND THE CHARTISTS, WHOSE AGITATION MADE A QUARREL WITH BOTH THE LEAGUE AND THE TORIES, DID MOST TO SECURE THE REPEAL OF THE CORN LAWS.

THE RULING CLASSES WERE FORCED TO BURY THEIR DIFFERENCES. APART FROM THE REPEAL, THEY WERE COMPELLED TO PASS THE FACTORY ACT, COAL MINES ACT AND THE TEN HOUR ACT OF 1847. IT WAS THE CHARTISTS AND WORKING CLASSES WHO REALLY FRIGHTENED THE TORIES.

MASSIVE FINANCIAL SUPPORT WAS RAISED, SOME £100,000, AND NINE MILLION LEAFLETS WERE PRODUCED. THE RAILWAY PLAYED A PART IN TRANSPORTING SPEAKERS, MOBILISING SUPPORT FOR MEETINGS, DISTRIBUTING PROPAGANDA MATERIAL AND SPREADING NEWS QUICKLY THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY.

THE GROWTH IN POPULATION MADE IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR ENGLAND TO FEED HERSELF AND HASTENED THE FREE TRADERS’ AIM TO SWEEP AWAY THE MASS OF TARIFFS AND DUTIES IMPOSED DURING THE WHIG ERA. BUT IT WAS WITH A TORY GOVERNMENT THAT MOST CHANGES TOOK PLACE.

PEEL’S LANDOWNING SUPPORTERS DID NOT DEFEND THE CHANGES. WHEN INCOME TAX WAS INTRODUCED, WHICH WAS SIMPLER AND MORE PRODUCTIVE YET LESS BURDENSOME ON INDUSTRY, IT LEFT THE CORN LAWS ISOLATED AND MORE DIFFICULT TO SUPPORT.

IT WAS THE IRISH FAMINE THAT PEEL USED TO PERSUADE THE LANDOWNERS THAT REPEAL WOULD NOT HARM THEM. WHEAT STOCKS IN ENGLAND WERE LOW, AS IN OTHER EUROPEAN COUNTRIES, BUT PEEL PLAYED A CLEVER GAME OF DECEPTION TOO.

HOWEVER, FACED WITH A POLITICAL REVOLT WITHIN THE TORY PARTY IN 1845, PEEL RESIGNED SUDDENLY. THE WHIGS, FORCED BY THE PACE OF CHANGE SET BY THE LEAGUE, SET ABOUT DECLARING A COMPLETE REPEAL. BUT WHEN LORD JOHN RUSSELL COULD NOT FORM A WHIG GOVERNMENT, HE HANDED RESPONSIBILITY BACK TO THE TORIES AND PEEL. HOWEVER, HE FORCED THEM TO DESTROY THE CORN LAWS WITH WHIG SUPPORT. RUSSELL’S COWARDICE IN NOT ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY AND HIS DEALINGS WITH THE TORIES PRECIPITATED A BREAK WITHIN THE TORY PARTY, WHICH LEFT IT HELPLESS FOR THE NEXT 20 YEARS.

THE REVOLT AGAINST PEEL WAS LED BY AN UNKNOWN JEWISH POLITICAN, DISRAELI, WHO RECREATED THE TORY PARTY. IT BECAME NO LONGER A PARTY OF THE LANDOWNERS, BUT ONE OF THE NEW POWER OF FINANCE CAPITAL. MANY FREE TRADERS JOINED THE WHIGS, AMONG THEM GLADSTONE, THEN AGED 41, AND IN JUNE 1846 THE CORN LAWS WERE REPEALED.

THE EFFECT WAS UNEXPECTED. THERE WAS NO FALL IN WHEAT PRICES. THIS WAS DUE TO AN INCREASED POPULATION, BAD HARVESTS AND THE INTERRUPTION OF IMPORTS DUE TO THE CRIMEAN WAR IN 1853.

TURKEY AND THE USA CONTRIBUTED SUPPLIES UNTIL THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR. AFTER THE MID-WEST WAS OPENED BY THE RAILWAYS, REALLY LARGE QUANTITIES OF CORN BEGAN TO COME IN.

THE MANUFACTURERS GAINED BY THE REPEAL, NOT THROUGH CHEAPER FOOD, BUT BY A STEADY FLOW OF IMPORTS AND AN EXPANDING MARKET FOR THEIR GOODS. WHEAT IMPORTS GREW AND MORE COTTON GOODS WERE EXPORTED. LANCASHIRE EXPORTS IN 1843 WERE £141,000 AND ROSE TO £1M BY 1854.

THE REPEAL OF THE CORN LAWS MUST BE SEEN IN LIGHT OF THE OVERALL LEGISLATION CONCERNING FREE TRADE. SUGAR AND TIMBER FOLLOWED CORN. NOTHING NOW STOOD BETWEEN THE BRITISH MANUFACTURER AND MARKETS OF THE WORLD.

ENGELS DESCRIBED THE SCENE AS ‘EXTRAVAGANT EXPECTATION OF PROSPERITY’. NEW IRON WORKS AND TEXTILE FACTORIES EMERGED, AND, WITH THE DISCOVERY OF THE CALIFORNIAN AND AUSTRALIAN GOLDFIELDS, STEAM FINALLY TOOK OVER FROM ALL OTHER FORMS OF TRANSPORT AND POWER. TRANSPORT BECAME FOUR TIMES FASTER AND FOUR TIMES CHEAPER. BRITISH MANUFACTURERS, FUELLED BY STEAM, EXTENDED THEIR POWER OVER FOREIGN DOMESTIC INDUSTRY, WHICH WAS ALL BASED ON MANUAL LABOUR.

THESE WERE GOOD TIMES FOR BRITISH CAPITALISTS, WHO EXPECTED THEIR FORTUNE TO LAST FOREVER.

HOWEVER, THE IMPACT ON AGRICULTURE OF REPEAL OF THE CORN LAWS WAS MUCH MORE SURPRISING. INSTEAD OF RUIN, THERE WAS EXPANSION AND PROSPERITY. THE AMOUNT OF ACREAGE UNDER THE PLOUGH, IMPROVEMENTS IN TECHNIQUES AND STEAM POWER AND LOW INTEREST RATES ENABLED LANDLORDS TO MAKE HANDSOME PROFITS FROM THEIR FARMER TENANTS, WHO WERE CHARGED FOR IMPROVEMENTS AT A MUCH HIGHER RATE.

THE INVENTION OF CLAY PIPE MAKING FOR LAND DRAINAGE IN 1845 EXTENDED LAND FARMED AND IMPROVED YIELDS. THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL MANURES, NITRATES, GUANO AND BONE MANURE ALL BECAME COMMONLY USED AT THIS TIME.

THE STIMULUS WITHIN THE INDUSTRY SAW AN INCREASE IN THE WAGES OF FARM WORKERS BETWEEN 1845 AND 1859. AS A RESULT OF THE DEMAND FOR LABOUR IN THE MINES AND FOR RAIL CONSTRUCTION, THIS LED TO A REDUCTION IN THE FARM LABOUR FORCE, YET THE AREA UNDER CULTIVATION EXPANDED BY MORE THAN HALF A MILLION ACRES. FARM SIZES INCREASED BETWEEN 1851 AND 1871. 100 ACRE FARMS DECREASED, WHILE 300 AND 500 ACRE HOLDINGS EXPANDED.

THE PERIOD OF PROSPERITY LASTED UNTIL THE SUDDEN LONG DEPRESSION, CAUSED BY THE ARRIVAL OF A GLUT OF AMERICAN WHEAT AND AUSTRALIAN WOOL, BUT THERE WAS ALREADY A DECLINE IN REAL WAGES BROUGHT ON BY THE RISE IN PRICES PRODUCED BY THE INFLUX OF GOLD.

THE PROSPERITY ALSO BROUGHT ABOUT AN ABSENCE OF OPEN CONFLICT BETWEEN THE MANUFACTURERS AND LANDOWNERS. NO GREAT POLITICAL ISSUES DIVIDED THE TWO CLASSES. POLITICS EVEN BECAME A PLEASANT GAME. THE GREAT EXHIBITION OF 1851, INTENDED TO USHER IN AN ERA OF UNIVERSAL PEACE, WAS IN FACT FOLLOWED BY A NEW ROUND OF EUROPEAN WARS. BUT THE PROSPERITY DID PRODUCE A PERIOD OF SOCIAL STABILITY.

THERE WERE MOUNTING EXPORTS AND IMPORTS AND LEAPING GOVERNMENT INCOME FROM TAX RETURNS.

IT WAS - par excellence - THE VICTORIAN AGE.

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