Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Abolition of the Corn Laws A.D. 1846

The demand for universal suffrage was not the only reason 60,000 people attended the demonstration that led to the Peterloo Massacre on 16th August 1819. They wanted representation because they were hungry. During the Napoleonic wars, British agriculture had experienced a boom as the British market was effectively closed to cheap grain imports from mainland Europe. This came to an end when Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. As the prospect of foreign competition returned, pressure mounted on Parliament to come up with a means of sustaining the good times for British farmers. The Corn Laws were introduced to this effect, imposing a duty on imported corn, a policy known as 'protectionism.' With the price of bread set at an artificially high level (to keep British farmers happy), workers in Manchester and the surrounding towns struggled to be able to afford to eat – especially when harvest failure caused a reduction in supplies. This was one of the main reasons the city was gaining a reputation for political radicalism, what with Peterloo and the demonstrations that had attended the Duke of Wellington's arrival on board the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

The new urban middle class took an equally strong interest in this issue (even though they themselves were able to afford bread). The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in Manchester in 1838 by millowners Richard Cobden and John Bright with the aim of campaigning peacefully for the abolition of the Corn Laws. They advocated a policy of 'free trade': by removing the duties on imports, increased competition would drive down the price of bread. Rural landowners (those who stood to lose out over the changes) claimed that the millowners would use this as an excuse to lower wages and maximise profits. [On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Karl Marx was amongst those who agreed with this interpretation.] The 'free traders' argued that this was too simplistic; that it was not in their interests to reduce wages further; that the lowering of food prices would result in an increase in disposable income thus stimulating greater demand for the products being made in the factories. Industry, they claimed, was being suffocated by the Corn Laws.

Cobden (an Anglican from Sussex/Hampshire who had moved to Manchester in 1832 to work in the textile industry) and Bright (a Quaker from Rochdale who was renowned as a great orator) were elected to Parliament in 1841 and 1843 respectively and represented a formidable alliance. The now highly influential newspaper The Economist was founded in September 1843 to promote free trade and support the Anti-Corn Law League. In November of that year, The Times startled their readers by declaring in a leader that, 'the League is a great fact. It would be foolish, nay, rash, to deny its importance.' Prime Minister Robert Peel claimed to support the idea of free trade but voted against repealing the Corn Laws. His hand was forced by the impact of the the Irish Potato Famine in 1845, and the Corn Laws were abolished in 1846 to much fanfare from the Manchester Guardian. It was hailed by The Manchester Guardian as 'a decisive triumph of the principle of free trade.' Cobden and Bright were paraded as the heroes of Manchester's new middle class. In the years that followed, they maintained a consistent philosophy of 'small government' economics and principled anti-war liberalism even when this proved unpopular with general opinion.

The Free Trade Hall was built in 1853-1855 on the site of the Peterloo Massacre as a monument to the success of the Anti-Corn Law League. Although it has now been turned into a five star hotel, it still resonates as an enduring symbol of Manchester's political journey from Peterloo (1819) to the Abolition of the Corn Laws (1846). But there is a dichotomy here between two ideals: one – free trade – represents the urban middle class (of whom Cobden and Bright were the main spokesmen). The other represents the urban working class, the people who were massacred at Peterloo (while the middle class stood by and did nothing) and who had violently protested the Duke of Wellington's arrival on board the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830. On 24th September 1838 the biggest of the Chartist rallies was held on Kersal Moor, two miles to the north of Manchester, and attended by a crowd of 30,000 (or many more depending on various estimates). There was anger at the restriction of the franchise to men of property, a lack of democratic representation for working men and women. The people didn't just want bread, they wanted the vote. It was into this turbulent atmosphere that a thoughtful and well-read young German businessman first arrived in the city in 1842. His friendship with the man would come to be considered one of the great intellectuals of his time would have a dramatic effect on world history in the years to come.

The scene many people associate with Manchester in the 1840s is that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels huddled in the library at Chetham's, working on the Communist Manifesto. The scene is appealing on a number of levels. It combines old Manchester (opened in 1653, Chetham's is the the UK's oldest public reference library) with its Victorian status as the world's foremost industrial city and the birthplace of capitalism and a completely new class system. It has an almost surreal emotive appeal, one of the few places in the world where we can place the two men at the same time. In his book about the North of England, Pies and Prejudice, Stuart Maconie describes being taken to Chetham's Library on the tour of radical Manchester and being told by his guide that hardened Chinese Communist Party officials had wept when they took down books on economics from the shelves that Marx and Engels would have read. A 22-year-old Engels had arrived in the city from Berlin. Already a radical thinker, he became fascinated by the unstoppable phenomenom that was Manchester in the 1840s, the city which historian Simon Schama has described as, “the very best and the very worst taken to terrifying extremes, a new kind of city in the world; the chimneys of industrial suburbs greeting you with columns of smoke.' In 1844 Engels' Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England was published in Germany and it is in this context that the unqualified success of the Anti-Corn Law League should be placed. Ultimately the free traders wanted a more unrestrained form of capitalism and there were those who saw this a movement towards further exploitation. Marx would visit his friend and benefactor in Manchester and the two would share their ideas. But whilst there is resonance to the image of Marx/Engels sitting at the window of Chetham's Library – overlooking what would now be a wide open space, crowded with skateboarders, and the Urbis building – discussing the plight of the workers, it is an overly sentimental version of an extremely complex time in the city's history. There is something almost shameful about Marx's ambivalence towards the success of the Anti-Corn Law League. It is almost as if he saw the moment as a lost opportunity, that if the workers were starving then they would be more receptive to the idea of a revolution. In 1848, the year the Communist Manifesto was published, there were large-scale demonstrations throughout Europe, but Britain was largely unaffected by what must have seemed a tidal wave of revolution, and it is to the credit of the Anti-Corn Law League that this was the case. Marx would go on to write Das Kapital (1867) in the British Library in London but the workers of Lancashire were famously uninterested in his critique of the capitalist society. Harold Wilson would later claim that the labour movement in Britain owed more to Methodism than Marx.


  1. not sure how long you can keep this up for but thanks for such brilliant articles/writing...

  2. Thanks for reading them! I've got some free time at the moment so I'm trying to get as much done as possible whilst I've got the chance. It's nice to know that they're being read.

  3. Hello,

    I must say I have to thank you, I'm training to become a history teacher in France and I used you're explanation about the Anti Corn law league in a lesson about Manchester during the industrial age.

    I quite disagree your vision of Marx work. I don't think we can say that what communism has become in some countries is really related to what Marx has thought. Revolutions had happened before him and went bad before him too. The idea of communism was in the air before him. And it could have turn good or bad without him.

    And the other hand what liberalism has become now is nothing related to the well being of the urban working class.