Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2760

How the Corn Laws split the ruling class

This article is over 3 years, 0 months old
It has been 175 years since the repeal of the Corn Laws. Isabel Ringrose explores how the bosses’ arguments over trade can open the door for working class resistance
Issue 2760
A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law league in 1846
A meeting of the Anti-Corn Law league in 1846 (Pic: Wikicommons)

A post-Brexit trade war is currently raging where different sections of the ruling class are in conflict over how to proceed.

There have been times, similar to this, when arguments within the ruling class have led them to seek support from the working class.

But ultimately the bosses have chosen to stand together with their rivals and come together in an effort to hold down the working class.

This was true in the ­struggles over the Corn Laws—that were repealed 175 years ago.

The Corn Laws were ­introduced to stop the import of foreign corn in order to raise the price of British‑grown corn.

Between 1815 and 1846, laws introduced tariffs and other trade restrictions on grains, such as wheat, barley and oats. This made corn too expensive to import.

Far from being just a dusty set of Victorian trade laws, the battles around the Corn Laws represented class tensions.

Similar tensions lie behind arguments around Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Who gets the best deals from competing trade laws is crucial for nations battling for control of markets.

The Corn Laws meant ­landowners saw their profits and power skyrocket. They made money from extortionate rents paid by tenant farmers for the lease of their land.

Meanwhile wages and the cost of living rose and forced factory owners to raise wages.

These factory owners who were part of a rising industrial class were reaping their wealth from production in factories. They wanted to scrap the Corn Laws to keep prices low.

This wasn’t because they cared about the quality of life for ordinary people, but because they wanted to keep wages as low as possible.


Karl Marx wrote that these Free Traders were “the ­official representatives of modern English society.”

“They represent the party of in­dustrial capital striving to make available its social power as a political power as well, and to eradicate the last arrogant rem­nants of feudal society,” he said.

“By Free Trade they mean the unfet­tered movement of capital, freed from all political, national and religious shackles.”

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, corn prices decreased causing panic among farmers—many of whom were also Tory voters.

So the Tory government passed the Importation Act, excluding the import of foreign corn and driving up the price of domestic corn.

Economists in favour of the laws worried about Britain ­relying on imported corn because lower prices were used by bosses to reduce wages and purchasing power.

In fact the resulting high price of corn dropped the domestic market for manufactured goods, as people spent most of their earnings on food rather than other commodities.

The working class and the poor weren’t just bystanders as arguments raged at the top of society. As prices rose, ­rioting followed. One account explains how “in London and Westminster riots ensued, and continued for several days.”

It added, “At Bideford there were similar disturbances; at Bury, by the unemployed, to destroy machinery; at Ely, not suppressed without bloodshed, at Dundee, where owing to the high price of meal [crushed grains], upwards of 100 shops were plundered.”

In August 1819 a 60,000‑strong rally against ­poverty and hunger took place in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. The authorities killed at least 17 men, women and children were killed, with up to 700 wounded, in what became known as Peterloo.

By 1828 a new sliding scale was introduced in the latest Importation of Corn Act.

This sliding scale meant that buyers had more incentive to buy larger amounts of corn because the duty would decrease if they bought it bulk.

Tories’ last big split denied them a majority for 30 years
Tories’ last big split denied them a majority for 30 years
  Read More

The Whig governments of 1830-4 and 1835-41 were challenged by members of the first working class movement, the Chartists, and the Anti Corn Law League.

League members were mainly middle class manufacturers, merchants, bankers and traders.

They wanted the Corn Laws to be repealed as part of a general removal of restrictions so that they could sell more goods both in Britain and overseas.

But they promised the ­passing of the Ten Hours Bill—restricting hours of work—to get workers on side, despite wanting to reduce wages to maximise profits.

Tory Robert Peel became prime minister in 1841. He had voted against repeal every year from 1837 to 1845.

By 1845, poor harvests and the Great Famine in Ireland changed the situation.

Ireland exported food to Britain despite mass starvation—the price of food in Ireland was so high that the poor couldn’t afford it—but it wasn’t enough.

On 4 December 1845 it was announced in The Times ­newspaper that the government had decided to recall Parliament in January to repeal the Corn Laws.

Peel didn’t believe he could bring the majority of his party to support him, so he resigned on 11 December.

But when the opposition Whig party failed to create a government, Peel returned soon after despite the majority of his party opposing his proposals.

On 27 January Peel said the Corn Laws would be abolished on 1 February 1849 after three years of gradual reduction of the tariff.

The third reading of the bill on 15 May saw MPs vote 327 to 299 in favour, with the House of Lords persuaded to pass it on 26 June.

Peel’s Irish Coercion Bill was defeated the same night in retaliation—forcing him to resign.

Peel sacrificed his ­government. Reform was necessary in order to unite the ruling class.

The Whigs formed a ­government with the support of the rising industrial class. The Tories loyal to Peel later merged with the Whigs to form the Liberal Party. It would be 30 years before the Tories were back in government.


Following the abolition, farms in North America benefited from the development of cheaper shipping and the modernisation of agriculture.

They could export vast ­quantities of cheap grain, as could the Russian Empire which had a large peasant population.

By 1877 the price of British corn averaged at 55 shillings (£2.75) a quarter, and by 1886 dropped to 31 shillings (£1.55).

Wheat-growing land fell by a million acres by 1885.

In the 1881 census the number of agricultural ­labourers fell by 92,250—and it saw an increase of 53,496 urban workers.

Rural rents fell and Britain’s rich then threw themselves into becoming “the workshop of the word” during the Industrial Revolution.

During the battle to keep or abolish the Corn Laws, the ­landowners came into conflict with the rising industrial class.

Marx wrote, “The substantial founda­tion of the power of the Tories was the rent of land. The rent of land is regulated by the price of food.

“The repeal of the Corn Laws brought down the rent of land, and with the sinking rent broke down the real strength upon which the political power of the Tories reposed.”

But for the industrial ­bourgeoisie it meant ­“lowering production costs, expansion of foreign trade, increase in pro­fits, lessening of the main source of income and hence of power, of the landed aristocracy, enhancement of their own ­political power”.

The threat of losing their power meant the landowners also turned to win the support of sections of the working class.

Marx ­commented that the landed aristocracy “resolved to resist the ­middle classes by espousing the cause and claims of the working men against their masters, and especially by rallying around their demands for the ­limitation of factory labour.”


But the engagement of the working class in such battle could have seen the masses develop their own aims. Without a large peasantry, class conflict was clearer to see.

The industrial class wanted to avoid any reforms that could lead to major uprisings by the working class.

The threat of working ­people’s power eventually meant the industrial capitalists compromised with the landed aristocracy, to create a capitalist agriculture. They were more scared of the rising power of workers than the limitations and contradictions of compromising with political and ­economic rivals.

“If the aristocracy is their vanishing opponent the ­working class is their arising enemy”, Marx wrote. “They prefer to compromise with the ­vanishing opponent rather than to strengthen the arising enemy, to whom the future belongs.”

What the Corn Laws show is that behind arguments about tariffs and trade barriers are sharp class interests. It is possible for similar arguments to lead to intervention by working class people today.

At the rise of industrial ­capital, it wasn’t clear which section of the capitalist class would be the dominant force.

But those that suffered—either through wage cuts or hunger—were the working classes.

It’s workers who had, and still have, the ability to remove warring capitalists who make trade deals on international markets that benefit only the elite.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance