In Britain until 1846, laws used to regulate the export or import of cereals in order to maintain an adequate supply for consumers and a secure price for producers. For centuries the Corn Laws formed an integral part of the mercantile system in England; they were repealed because they became an unwarranted tax on food and a hindrance to British exports.
The Corn Law of 1815 Although mentioned as early as the 12th century, the Corn Laws only became significant 1815. After the Napoleonic wars, faced with agricultural depression, the landed interests in Parliament used their political power to prevent prices falling. The Corn Law of 1815 prevented the import of wheat unless the price of British grain rose to £4 a quarter (2.91 hl/8 bushels).
To a degree, the law was a success. It did help to protect British farming from foreign competition and to stabilize prices. As they were receiving a high price, farmers were able to continue to introduce improvements. However, the Corn Law pushed the price of bread too high, causing distress to the poor. Business interests argued that, by driving up prices, they also forced up wages and put British industry at a disadvantage in world markets.
William Huskisson, president of the Board of Trade, introduced a sliding scale in 1828 whereby the higher the price of British grain, the lower the duty on imports. The rate of duty was reduced in 1842. However, the principle of protection was still the same.
Repeal The Corn Laws aroused strong opposition and became a hotly contested political issue, as they were regarded by radicals as benefiting wealthy landowners at the expense of the ordinary consumer. The industrialists – whose power in Parliament was growing, especially after the Reform Act of 1832 – also opposed the Corn Laws; they argued that protectionism merely caused other countries to close their economies to British goods, and they wanted free trade. It was also argued that the Corn Laws allowed British farming to stay inefficient, and actually held back improvement. In 1838 the Anti-Corn Law League was formed to campaign for the repeal of the laws. Partly as a result of the League, and also partly on account of the Irish potato famine, the laws were repealed by prime minister Robert Peel in 1846, although it destroyed his career.
The Age of Reform: Politics and Social Change in 19th-Century Britain
Corn Laws by T R Malthus
Rebecca Riots cartoon
Robert Peel on horseback