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Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846 was arguably influenced by the mass campaigning and debate aroused by the Anti-Corn Law league, however, it must be considered that there were a number of other important factors that contributed to Peel’s choice. It can be argued that it was rather more down to Peel’s free trade and other economic principles that the Corn Laws were eventually repealed in 1846.
The Anti-Corn Law league was certainly a major force in the years leading to repeal. It was the first National repeal movement, setting it apart from the numerous other Anti-Corn Law associations that had existed in the past. This national concept ensured that the movement had a very large following and was very well funded. Unlike the Chartist movement, the League was decidedly middle-class and in this gained a greater respectability; however, it still faced considerable suspicion from the Aristocracy.
They were from the start suspected of wanting to destroy the Aristocracy, and this limited their political impact. Modern historians have suggested that despite outwards appearances of respectability, it was in fact an instrument of class war The league was very well funded; at just one meeting in October 1842, they raised over ï¿½50,000 and this funding enabled a huge campaign of leafleting and supporting candidates who were sympathetic to their aims at election. Despite this, evidence of their success is limited; at their peak in 1843, they had only managed to get four MPs into commons. This suggests that their influence on Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws was not very great.
However, there was an economic dimension to their campaign, and it is this intellectual argument that could be considered as influential in Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws. Many members of the Anti Corn Law League were strong supporters of the new economic principles like free trade, and had reasoned that the Corn Laws were responsible for their low profits. The Corn Laws meant that the price of bread was relatively high, as it taxed the staple ingredient, wheat. As bread was a key part of the diet of the time, the factory owners had to pay higher wages to cover workers’ food costs, which meant that they were unable to maximise their profitability.
A further effect of the high food prices was the lack of disposable income; people had to spend such a high proportion of their wages on food that they could not afford much else, so there was very little demand for consumer goods. This coupled with the damage that protection did to Britain’s export market, meant that the economy was slow, and was not developing and expanding into new areas – a worry for Peel, who placed the economy very high on his list of priorities. However, many historians are of the opinion that so compelling was this argument that even without the league, the Corn Laws were already threatened.
However, Peel had other influences that could have played a part on his decision to repeal the Corn Laws. The potato famine in Ireland caused a problem for Peel. He already faced opposition from many religious groups over the immorality of keeping prices high; they cited the phrase “[he] that witholdeth corn, the people shall curse him” from the bible to illustrate their argument. For the government to be seen to be so openly keeping the price high whilst its people were starving was embarrassing for the government. Although the famine would not be affected by the repeal, so cannot be considered the cause, Evans suggests that it provided the occasion for it.
There is also the argument that Peel was simply being pragmatic in his decision to repeal the Corn Laws. Although Boyd Hilton suggests that Peel had decided that the Corn Laws had to be repealed as early as 1828, there is no direct evidence to suggest that even before 1844 Peel had made the decision to repeal the Law. In the election of 1841, over half of Tory candidates put forward the maintenance of agricultural protection as the main issue in their manifestos, and, as Evans wrote, “the 1841 election was properly a victory for Protectionist Toryism, not Peelite Conservatism.”
In 1842, Peel’s public position remained that he was improving the Corn Laws, and was not intending to repeal them. It was not until 1843 that Peel mentioned ideas of removing agricultural protection to close colleagues. Even then, it can be seen merely as a response to the extraordinary economic recovery of Britain following the success 1842 budget, which lead many to believe that complete free trade was the way forward. Following the 1845 budget in which even more tariffs were reduced and eliminated, the Corn Laws increasingly stood out as an anomaly that was unjustifiable. Therefore, we can consider that it was not Peel’s free trade principles that lead him to his decision.
The evidence suggests that although the Anti-Corn Law league was a formidable force in terms of its vast resources and stirring up of argument, it did not in fact have much impact on Peel’s decision. Peel was more concerned with the economy, and whether it is argued that he was committed to free trade early on or decided that it was a good idea after the experimental 1842 budget we can conclude that it was this preoccupation with the economy that was the main spark for Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws. However, the issue of Ireland must also be considered, and although repeal would not have an effect on the situation there, it provided an occasion for Peel to complete the development of Britain into a free trading nation.