Tory rows over Brexit flow from disagreements about how best to defend British capitalism.
The same was true about the Tories’ split over the Corn Laws in 1846—a split which deprived them of a parliamentary majority for nearly three decades.
The laws protected British agriculture by imposing tariffs on imported grain and keeping grain prices high. For wealthy landowners this meant more profit and power.
For ordinary people, it meant price hikes and shortages. Mounted troops had to defend parliament against furious crowds when the first Corn Law was introduced in 1804.
Some capitalists opposed the Corn Laws for their own immediate interests. They argued that the laws raised the cost of food so much that people had less to spend.
They had an interest in curbing British agriculture because they needed workers to move from the land to the factories.
Historian Robert Blake said the divide was over whether the Tories remained “an aristocratic landed interest group” or accepted the Industrial Revolution.
Supporters of the latter hoped it would “relax the tensions which in the hungry 1830s and 1840s threatened revolution in Britain”.
But the row went deeper. The rich feared radical change. The 1832 Reform Act reflected increasing pressure for parliamentary reform. And the Chartist movement for votes was growing.
The division over the Corn Laws was driven by a desire to protect the system—on both sides. Blake wrote that it wasn’t “a straight division of landed gentry against the rest”. Instead, one side saw the Corn Laws as “an essential bulwark of the society in which they believed”.
The other side thought keeping them was “even more dangerous to that order than abandonment”. So wrangling factions of the ruling class were united by a shared concern for the system.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that it understood that “the risk of revolution must be avoided at all costs”.
“Consequently the struggle between British industrialists and agrarian protectionists could be waged in the midst of the Chartist ferment without for a moment jeopardising the unity of all ruling classes against the threat of universal suffrage.” Tory prime minister Sir Robert Peel thought repeal would maintain stability and that free trade would boost British business. But he wasn’t anti-landowner.
During the Corn Law debates in May 1846 Peel said that maintaining an aristocracy was “of the utmost importance”.
He added, “The question is, what is the most effectual way of maintaining the authority of a territorial aristocracy?”
Most Tory backbenchers opposed repeal. For them, the Corn Laws were part of a system that protected their supporters and the system.
The Duke of Richmond founded the Anti-League, which fought repeal. He railed against “modern innovations” that would render Britain “dependent on foreigners”. He complained of society “constantly changing because there happens to be some popular clamour”.
The fear was that if there could be change on the Corn Laws, then why not on everything else? Eventually the bill passed in 1846—but only a third of Tories voted for it. And Peel was forced to resign the same night.
Many who opposed him left and eventually joined the Whigs, later the Liberal Party.
We shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of the current Tory crisis. But we should also remember that, for all the conflict, our rulers will work together to keep us down.