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Chartism and the Anti-Corn-Law League
There was no organic connection between the Chartists
and the Anti-Corn-Law League because their aims
were totally different although they were not necessarily incompatible. Frequently,
both groups had been associated in radical politics in the early 18-teens and
1820s. The change came after the 1832 Reform Act
because of subsequent legislation. The Poor Law
and Ten-Hour agitations assumed that the
economic interests of the employers and workers were mutually hostile. The Anti-Corn-Law
League tried to show that all classes would benefit from the repeal of the
Corn Laws but met the suspicion of the working classes
because of the results of earlier agitations.
Anti-Corn-Law agitation was found among the working classes particularly in
towns like Sheffield, Halifax, Huddersfield,
Manchester, Liverpool and Bolton but the Anti-Corn-Law
League was very much a middle-class organisation and was seen by Chartists as
a rival. Early sympathy between political radicals and free traders was lost
There was much antagonism for the Anti-Corn-Law League from rank-and-file Chartists,
although some links existed, especially from ex-moral force Chartists who disliked
the physical force element of the movement. Also there was some co-operation
at leadership level among the Chartists from men like Sturge.
The Anti-Corn-Law League believed that Chartists were deluded by naive Utopianism and that constitutional reform could not solve economic or social hardship. They saw Chartism as a misdirection of energies. Physical force Chartism was seen as hooliganism, but the Anti-Corn-Law League did try to court working class support because they saw the landed interest as the greater enemy. The Anti-Corn-Law League perceived the landed classes as the symbol of past glory, yet still holding and exercising power against the national interest. After failing to win much Chartist support, the Anti-Corn-Law League ignored Chartism except as the 'threat' to the landed class. The Chartists therefore fell foul of the upper and middle classes.
The Chartists' attitude towards the Anti-Corn-Law League was more complex.
- Hostility to the Anti-Corn-Law League was based on class antagonism following the 'Great Betrayal' of 1832. This had strengthened since that time because of Whig legislation. In 1841 Feargus O'Connor advised his enfranchised followers to vote Tory, which automatically ranged the Chartists against the free trade measures of the Whig budget of 1841. The working class felt that they had been "sold out" by the Whigs in 1832. Some Chartists believed that the Plug Plots of 1842 had been engineered by the Anti-Corn-Law League to drive working men to violence and hence encourage stronger opposition to Chartism.
- Some Chartists were also free traders who thought that political reform should
have priority. This view was expressed in several localities and also by Lovett
and Place but not by other national leaders.
Lovett et al were more akin to the Anti-Corn-Law League in outlook
but could not agree with the League over the question of Trade
Unions: they were not interested in economics. Lovett wanted political
reform; Cobden and the members
of the Anti-Corn-Law League had already got the vote. Artisans were aspiring
middle class and were worlds away from the harsh realities of the industrial
- Neither Cobden nor Bright could guarantee workers that free trade would produce higher wages. This was the single biggest fault, because they could show that profits would rise. Chartists wanted legislation to control wages and factory conditions because they feared that manufacturers wanted the repeal of the Corn Laws in order to reduce wages. Cheap bread and falling wages often went hand-in-hand.
- Cobden and Bright were known to oppose the Ten Hour movement because it was believed that all profits were made in the last hour of work. Consequently they were reluctant to reduce working hours.
- Sturge - a friend of Cobden - had the closest contact with the League but after his return from America in 1841 found his belief in the need for prohibitive tariffs against slave-produced goods incompatible with and alien to the Anti-Corn-Law League's all-out free trade programme. Manchester depended on slave-grown cotton. Sturge abandoned the Anti-Corn-Law League in 1841.
- The middle classes were not interested in further political reform after 1832 because they had got what they wanted.
- Ebenezer Elliott (the Rotherham Corn
Law Rhymer) stressed that the Anti-Corn-Law League had two enemies:
"the tyranny of the aristocracy, and the foolish insolence of the Chartists, which has exasperated into madness the unnatural hatred which the have-somethings bear to the have-nothings".
- There was no point of contact between the violent (socialist) Chartists
like O'Brien and Harney,
and the middle classes.
- There was no single Chartist movement after 1842,
so with what could the Anti-Corn-Law League ally?
- The deliberate courting of the Chartists after 1842 - as Chartism began
to crumble - was quite successful.
- The Manchester Operative Anti-Corn-Law Association (and others) were established
- The Anti-Corn-Law League made the landed interest the common enemy
- Bright was persuasive in argument. He said,
"Your first step to entire freedom must be commercial freedom - freedom of industry. We must put an end to the partial famine which is destroying trade, the demand for your labour, your wages, your comforts, and your independence".
- The Northampton Debate of 5 August 1844 between Cobden and O'Connor made
O'Connor look ridiculous. Both Chartists and the League organised supporters
at this debate which was part of a rural campaign in agricultural towns conducted
by the League to win support. Cobden said that repeal would benefit everyone
and O'Connor was unable to produce an effective reply. He merely made a general
lament at the progress of machinery in industry. O'Connor played on class
hostility and the Charter was made to look ridiculous, especially since O'Connor
had supported the Corn Laws in 1834. The debate was an Anti-Corn-Law League
triumph which drew much ex-Chartist support to the League.
- The strength of the Anti-Corn-Law League grew almost in ratio to Chartism's
failure. Contact between the two organisations was almost bound to be
- the Anti-Corn-Law League was embryonic middle class liberalism that developed
into Gladstonian Liberalism and the
new Liberal Party after 1859
- Chartism was embryonic working-class Socialism and encompassed the Trade
Union movement and ultimately to the Labour Party (1906)
Between the two there was a fundamental philosophical gulf.
- When the Anti-Corn-Law League went national and the Northern Star became the main Chartist newspaper, antagonism between the two groups became open and general. This antagonism was encouraged by the Northern Star, which fostered contempt for the middle classes.
The Anti-Corn-Law League
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4 March, 2016