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Peel's speech on the repeal of the Corn Laws, 4 May 1846

The Corn Laws were passed in 1815 in an attempt to protect farmers from the competition of foreign grain imports. Maintaining this legislation was one of the main planks of Tory policy and was one to which Sir Robert Peel was committed. He was elected in 1841 on a protectionist platform.

He began 'tinkering' with the Corn Laws in his first budget (1842); increasingly it was clear that he intended to repeal the laws. The Irish famine of 1845 gave him the excuse for which he was looking. However, his change of mind led to a series of vicious debates in parliament. Early in 1846, Peel introduced his proposal to modify the existing Corn Laws. Following two speeches in parliament on 22 and 27 January he was faced with the defection of two-thirds of his party and a bitter argument about his personal political consistence and party leadership. Following the delivery of the following speech, on 15 May he made a speech in which he set out his attitude on the need for and justification of repeal.

Sir, it is because I cannot with truth allege that if you establish free trade in corn, you will probably become dependent upon foreign nations for your supply of the necessaries of life it is because I do not believe that the rates of wages vary directly with the price of food it is because I cannot persuade myself that with respect to the intelligent farmers, it can be considered that this protection is necessary to agricultural prosperity it is because I cannot establish these facts, I have come to the conclusion that the natural presumption in favour of unrestricted importation ought to prevail, and therefore it is unjust to continue these legislative restrictions upon food .

I do believe that, also, by increasing the resources from which you draw your supply of food, by bringing it from the United States, from Odessa, from the Baltic... you will receive supplies from so many sources, that dependence on any one nation will be impossible. I cannot contend that the probability of dependence upon foreign nations constitutes a reason for maintaining the Corn-laws. Look now at the different classes of the community. Take, first, the manufacturing population. Is it just towards them to continue these laws? I believe... that the great mass of the manufacturing population will be doubly benefited by the removal of these restrictions; first, by increasing the demand for those manufacturing articles upon which their labour is expended; and, in the next place, by giving them, from the wages which they receive, a great command over the necessaries and comforts of life...

Then, with respect to the agricultural labourer. Can we say that protection has operated for his advantage? Ireland is peculiarly agricultural; can it be said that the agricultural labourer has flourished in Ireland? Is it not the case, that in the part of the country where the agricultural labourer most abounds, he has been suffering scarcity and pressure of hunger? What is the answer made to our statement of the sufferings of the people of Ireland? ‘This is nothing extraordinary this is nothing unusual this is nothing out of the common course of nature; every year this is the same; there are districts where, every year, the potato crops fail, where it is impossible to make the two ends meet; the potatoes fail in June or early in July, and from that time till the new crop is dug up, the labourer is obliged to subsist upon charity, or whatever means will suffice for the purpose of maintaining life’. If that be, as you say, the normal state of the Irish agricultural labourer - if that be his ordinary condition, and therefore we are not justified in an extraordinary remedy can we contend that protection to agriculture has been greatly for the benefit of the agricultural classes in Ireland?

With respect to the agricultural class here, I do not deny that this change in the law will be altogether unaccompanied by distress. I cannot deny that so great a change can be made without involving some in distress. I deeply regret it. I wish it were possible to make any change in any great system of law without subjecting some persons to distress; but is it not the fact that the parties who will be most distressed of all, will be those who have neither science, nor skill, nor capital? Is it possible permanently to maintain a law which cannot be shown to be advantageous to the men of science, capital, and skill, but which can only be maintained in order to give the means of subsistence to those who have not science, capital and skill? Should we be justified in maintaining these laws, and taxing the food of the great body of the community, on the allegation, not that they are necessary for the protection of agriculturists who have science and skill, but that they are necessary for the protection of those who go on adhering to the old system and have neglected the means of improvement?

I believe that the agriculturist with capital and with skill, not only derives no advantage from these laws, but is subject to prejudice on account of them. I believe he has no interest in the maintenance of them...

I believe it to be of the utmost importance that a territorial aristocracy should be maintained. I believe that in no country is it of more importance than in this, with its ancient constitution, ancient habits, and mixed form of government ... I believe such an aristocracy to be essential to the purposes of good government. The question only is what, in a certain state of public opinion, and in a certain position of society, is the most effectual way of maintaining the legitimate influence and authority of a territorial aristocracy?... What I doubt is, whether it be the real interest of a territorial aristocracy to attempt to maintain its authority by continuing the restriction on corn... . I infer that the privileges of a territorial aristocracy will not be diminished or its influence destroyed by consenting to a free trade in corn, because I firmly believe, speaking generally, that the aristocracy will sustain no injury from it whatever. I do not believe, as I said before, speaking generally, that the value of land, or the privileges of land, or the influence of land, will be diminished...

I said long ago, that I thought agricultural prosperity was interwoven with manufacturing prosperity; and depended more on it than on the Corn-laws. Continued reflection has confirmed me in that opinion. I believe that it is for the interest of the agriculturist that you should lay a permanent foundation of manufacturing prosperity; and as your land is necessarily limited in quantity, as your population is increasing, as your wealth is increasing, that the true interests of land are coexistent with the manufacturing and commercial prosperity... It is because I believe the interests, direct and indirect, of the manufacturing and agricultural classes to be the same because I believe they are all interested in the extension of scientific agriculture, that I come to the conclusion that the natural presumption in favour of unrestricted import, ought to prevail.

Speeches of the late Right Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart. May 4, 1846 (London, 1853).

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