The Peel Web
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Although Sir Robert Peel took office in 1841 on a platform of maintaining the Corn Laws, by the beginning of November 1845 he had decided that the legislation should be repealed. He had little support for the measure from his Cabinet and wrote the following memorandum setting out his arguments for his change of mind.
If we can place confidence in the Reports which we have received, there is the prospect of a lamentable deficiency of the ordinary food of the people in many parts of Ireland, and in some parts of this country, and of Scotland. The evil may be much greater than present reports lead us to anticipate. Potatoes which now appear safe may become infected, and we must not exclude from our consideration the contingency of a great calamity.
With the documents we have in our possession, with the opinions of our own Commissioners as to the probable extent of the evil, the pressing entreaties from the Lord Lieutenant for instructions, the possible contingency that in the course of two months the evil may prove to have been much more extensive than any one has yet contemplated, inaction and indifference might involve the country in serious danger, and the Government in the heaviest responsibility.
I recommend, therefore, that we should in the first place adopt some such measures as were adopted at former periods of much more partial scarcity - that we should authorise the Lord Lieuenant to appoint a Commission for the purpose of considering the mode in which relief, when necessary, can be applied, through the means of employment where employment can be had.... It appears to me that the adoption of these measures, the advance or promise of public money to provide food or employ labour, on account of apprehended scarcity of food, will compel the assembling of Parliament before Christmas. .
I cannot disguise from myself that the calling together of Parliament on account of apprehended scarcity - the prohibition of export in other countries - the removal of restrictions on import (sanctioned, as in the case of Belgium, by an unanimous vote of the Chambers) - the demand for public money, to be applied to provide sustenance for a portion of the people - will constitute a great crisis, and that it will be dangerous for the Government, having assembled Parliament, to resist with all its energies any material modification of the Corn Law. By material modification I mean of the law as it applies to the import of barley, oats, and wheat.
There are reasons - very good ones, under ordinary circumstances -for dealing specially with colonial grain, or with maize, or with rice; but I greatly fear that partial and limited interference with the Corn Law, under the circumstances under which Parliament will assemble (if it be assembled) at the latter end of this month, will be no solution of our difficulties.
Supposing it were granted to me, for the purpose of argument, that the suspension of the Corn Law is inevitable, the question arises, shall the suspension take place by an act of prerogative, or by legislation at the instance of the Government? In favour of suspension by prerogative, there is the argument that it is done at once, that it is decisive for the time, that it prevents all that suspense and stagnation which will follow the notoriety of facts as to the potato crop, the meetings of the Cabinet, the notice in a few days of the summoning of Parliament. It gives the earliest notice in foreign countries, and it gives to the proceeding the character of an act done on an urgent necessity, which no human foresight could have guarded against.
The objections to it are - that it compels instant decision by the Cabinet - that it imposes upon us the necessity of proving that there could be no delay. It may justly be said, Parliament, after much deliberation, sanctioned an elaborate and comprehensive system of Corn Laws. The Crown has the power to summon Parliament by a notice of fourteen days. Why should the Crown, by the stroke of a pen, abrogate laws so fully considered by Parliament, instead of summoning Parliament at the earliest period, and inviting Parliament to do that which it is the proper province of Parliament to do? There is this advantage also in doing whatever it may be necessary to do in the ordinary constitutional mode. It gives us some further time for consideration.
It is possible for us to take this course - to separate today under the strong impression that the meeting of Parliament on some day not later than the 27th of November is inevitable - to have a meeting of the Cabinet finally to decide our course at the latter end of next week. If we then resolve on calling Parliament, to fix the day for the Council at which the day of meeting for the despatch of business shall be determined.
This course is possible, but it leaves unaltered the necessity of determining, before we resolve on calling Parliament, the course we shall pursue. We must make our choice between determined maintenance, modification, and suspension of the existing Corn Law.
In writing the above I have merely considered the question on its own abstract merits, without reference to mere party considerations, or our own position as public men, the authors of the present Corn Law. I am fully aware of the gravity of the considerations connected with this part of the question.
Peel Memoirs, ii. 141-8
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