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Extracts from Peel's Speech on Repeal of the Corn Laws, 15 May 1846

In the early 1830s Peel had been well-known for his opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws and in 1841 had promised not to repeal the legislation. During the course of his second ministry (1841-6) he changed his mind and by December 1845 was considering repealing the Corn Laws. In the speech from which these extracts are take, Peel justified his change of mind.

My belief is, that in seeking the re-enactment of the existing law after its suspension, you would have had to contend with greater difficulties than you anticipate. I think you could have continued this law for a short time longer; but I believe that the interval of its maintenance would have been but short, and that there would have been during the period of its continuance, a desperate conflict between different classes of society, that your arguments in favour of it would have been weak; that you might have had no alternative, had the cycle of unfavourable harvest returned - and who can give an assurance that they would not? - but to concede an alteration of this law under circumstances infinitely less favourable than the present to a final settlement of the question. ...

It was the foresight of these consequences - it was the belief that you were about to enter into a bitter and, ultimately, an unsuccessful struggle, that has induced me to think that for the benefit of all classes, for the benefit of the agricultural class itself, it was desirable to come to a permanent and equitable settlement of this question. These are the motives on which I acted.

I do not rest my support of this bill merely upon the temporary ground of scarcity in Ireland, but I believe that scarcity left no alternative to us but to undertake the consideration of this question; and I think that a permanent adjustment of the question is not only imperative, but the best policy for all concerned. ... Now, all of you admit that the real question at issue is the improvement of the social and moral condition of the masses of the population; we wish to elevate in the gradation of society that great class which gains its support by manual labour. The mere interests of the landlords [and] occupying tenants, important as they are, are subordinate to the great question - what is calculated to increase the comforts, to improve the condition, and elevate the social character of the millions who subsist by manual labour, whether they are engaged in manufactures or in agriculture?

My earnest wish has been, during my tenure of power, to impress the people of this country with a belief that the legislature was animated by a sincere desire to frame its legislation upon the principles of equity and justice. I have a strong belief that the greatest object which we or any other government can contemplate would be to elevate the social condition of that class of the people with whom we are brought into no direct relationship by the exercise of the elective franchise. I wish to convince them that our object has been so to apportion taxation, that we shall relieve industry and labour from any undue burden, and transfer it, so far as is consistent with the public good, to those who are better enabled to bear it.

From Speeches of Sir Robert Peel, 1853, Vol. 4, 698-96.

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