“We are on the eve of great changes” Richard Cobden told Parliament in February 1846. He was correct. Britain stood poised to embark on a period of growth unparalleled in its history, which would, in a few short years, bring it wealth and power not seen since ancient Rome. A major reason for this was Britain’s path breaking adoption of free trade, and the man behind that as much as any other was Richard Cobden.
By the late 1830s it was apparent that the Whig government led by Earl Grey and then Viscount Melbourne had exhausted itself in the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. This had given the vote to propertied males, enfranchising many of those made rich by the Industrial Revolution. The Radical faction within the Whig Party sought a new cause with which to restore the momentum which had carried the 1832 Act and settled on repeal of the Corn Laws.
The Corn Laws was a catch all name for the thicket of tariffs which had been erected to keep foreign wheat out of Britain. Justified on the deathless grounds of ‘food security’, these laws also had the handy effect of benefiting the landowning classes, many of whom sat in the Commons and Lords as Tories.
The Corn Laws, as with any tariff, had the effect of making the product in question and associated goods more expensive. The burden of this was borne disproportionately by the members of the emerging working class in burgeoning industrial centres such as Manchester and Leeds who spent a large percentage of their incomes on food. By extension, they raised labour costs. And blocking foreign producers from selling in Britain prevented them from earning the money to buy the output of the new industries.
Out of this shared interest between workers and bosses (and other factions such as dissenting churchmen) came the Anti-Corn Law League, established in Manchester in 1838. One of its founders and leading lights was Richard Cobden.
Cobden was born the son of a poor Sussex farmer in 1804 and started his own textile printing business in 1828. It quickly became a success and in 1832 Cobden moved to Manchester, the centre of the booming British textile industry.
Immersed in the city’s Radical politics Cobden quickly became active. He was instrumental in the shift from broad based reform agitation to a single issue focus which had led to the creation of the League, noting that “the English people cannot be made to take up more than one question at a time with enthusiasm”. Throughout the campaign Cobden would hold to the principle of single minded focus on full and immediate repeal of the Corn Laws.
He became a prolific writer, and in his work he revealed the broader purpose behind the activities of the League. In Cobden’s mind free trade and peace were linked, he wrote in 1842 that “Free Trade by perfecting the intercourse and securing the dependence of countries one upon another must inevitably snatch the power from the governments to plunge their people into wars”.
With the Corn Laws Cobden and the League faced a problem of concentrated interest. While the benefits of repeal were spread across society, the costs were concentrated. Each person in Britain might benefit by a few pounds a year from repeal (though that was no small sum to impoverished workers) but those relatively few people who would be adversely affected by repeal stood to lose far more. The landowners were incentivised to act more strenuously in fighting against repeal than individual consumers were in fighting for it.
Partly because of this the League was frustrated during its first two years. Copying the tactics of the campaign for the 1832 Reform Act and the contemporary Chartists, the League attempted a strategy of mass agitation with open meetings and lectures. These suffered from frequent attacks by Chartists who resented any reforming competition, after one meeting Cobden wrote: “The Chartist leaders attacked us on the platform at the head of their deluded followers. We were nearly the victims of physical force; I lost my hat, and all but had my head split open with the leg of a stool”. The failure of this strategy left the League short of money. Attempts to petition Parliament were heavily defeated and the League members were frequently tempted away into movements for wider reform.
In 1841 Cobden convinced the League to change strategy. He wrote to a fellow member “You will perhaps smile at my venturing thus summarily to set aside all your present formidable demonstrations as useless; but I found my conviction on the present construction of the House of Commons, which forbids us hoping for success. That House must be changed before we can get justice”
From now on the League would seek to make Parliament its battleground, starting with a by election in Walsall in February 1841. The Tories allied with their Chartist arch enemies in an effort to defeat the League which still came a close second. Cobden’s strategy had been a success, the Morning Chronicle noting that “one consequence of the contest at Walsall is that the Corn Laws are, and must henceforth be, throughout England, a hustings question”. With a general election approaching the Whig leaders adopted a stronger free trade stance.
The election of summer 1841 saw the Whigs defeated by Robert Peel’s Conservatives, heirs to the Tories, and seemingly dashed hopes of Corn Law repeal for the foreseeable future. But the situation was brighter than it might have appeared. The election saw a number of League members returned to Parliament including Cobden, now widely recognised as the League’s leader, who was elected MP for Stockport. Also, by the end of the year, ‘operative’ associations attached to the League, mostly consisting of working class supporters, had organised to protect League meetings from the violence of the Chartists. But perhaps more importantly, in Peel, Britain now had as Prime Minister one of the most remarkable statesmen in her history.
With Britain in economic depression Peel deliberated before finally announcing his budget in February 1842. Despite his Tory lineage, Peel recognised that the Conservatives must learn to accommodate themselves to changing circumstances if the wilder, revolutionary wing of the Chartists was to be held at bay. Given the revolutions across Europe in 1848, this was no minor threat. Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834, as close to a foundational act as the modern Conservative Party has, had been an act of reconciliation with the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.
Peel’s fiscal proposals were in this tradition, proposing a drastic tariff reduction with revenues to be made up by a new income tax. The moves were warmly welcomed by liberals and, while it represented a significant vindication of the League’s arguments, it also brought danger. As Cobden predicted “The greatest evil that could befall us would be a bona fide concession – The middle classes are a compromising set”.
After some debate about strategy (during which Cobden squashed a move to declare a general strike by factory owners) the League stepped up its propaganda. Millions of leaflets, posters, handbills, and newspapers were distributed with the aim of reaching every voter in Britain, though that was only about 600,000 people at the time.
But despite all this activity the League found it needed an event, a shift in circumstances beyond its control, to provide proof of its arguments and swing opinion behind them. That came in 1845 when the potato crop failed. Particularly in Ireland, where much of the population depended on potatoes, this caused great suffering, culminating in a famine which killed an estimated one million people.
Cheap food was needed and quickly. Faced with this unfolding catastrophe, supporters of the Corn Laws were helpless. A further vital, final, factor was Peel’s reaction. Acting on humanitarian grounds and the perennial desire of Conservative Party leaders to pick fights with their backbenchers (in this case the land owning Tories) in order to prove they are ‘different’, Peel moved for full repeal in 1845. In May 1846 repeal was passed and the Anti-Corn Law League wound itself up.
The benefits for Britain were immense and immediate. The effects of famine receded and a wider program of free trade enacted. Between 1815 and 1842 Britain’s exports edged up from £47,250,000 to £50,000,000. By 1870 they had rocketed to £200,000,000.
How had Richard Cobden and the League managed to defeat the special interests in favour of keeping the Corn Laws?
First, and most importantly, they were right. Free trade became the orthodoxy to such an extent that we can forget that while the League was working its ideas were one strand of a lively discourse. There was a long tradition of bad economics arguing for protection and Friedrich List was giving these old doctrines a new outing even as the League was campaigning.
Second, their strategy of exclusive focus on Corn Law repeal was a success. Cobden refused to be, and refused to let the League become, distracted by any other reform or campaign. This ensured that while the Chartists got nothing from a long list of demands the League actually got more than its comparatively modest aims with Britain quickly embracing free trade generally.
Third, they were tactically flexible. There were three fronts to their activities. First, were the mass meetings. These were of limited success largely owing to the competition, both ideological and physical, of the rival Chartists. The second front was education. Here the League had more success, sending literally tons of propaganda out every week. They pitched to all sections of society, sending lurid drawings of emaciated families to lowbrow readers and helping found The Economist for the highbrow. Third, and most effective, was the Parliamentary front. It was arguably the fact that the League engaged here while the Chartists didn’t that guaranteed the success of the League relative to the Chartists.
The fourth factor was, as Harold Macmillan put it, events, or, more broadly, circumstance. Without Peel’s transformation of the Tory Party into the Conservative Party and its concomitant embrace of free trade, the League would have had to wait until at least 1848 and the possible election of the Whigs who, under Lord John Russell, had finally adopted full repeal as a policy. And without the famine in Ireland it is doubtful whether either party could have carried repeal in as full a form as eventually happened.
To a large extent however, this event is not so exogenous. It could be, and was, painted as the predicted outcome of the bad policies of the Corn Laws.
As a result, when circumstances combined in 1845-1846 in the advents of Peel and the potato blight, thanks to Cobden and the League the arguments for free trade were widely enough known to be accepted as a viable possibility. The lesson is to have rigorous, well tested arguments. Pick a definite, achievable aim then work hard to spread and publicise your views until they become the ‘white noise’ of the debate. Then position yourself to take advantage of changing circumstances and move quickly when circumstances change.
When Richard Cobden died in 1865 the French foreign minister wrote that he was “in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear; whilst essentially of his country, he was still more of his time; he knew what mutual relations could accomplish in our day for the prosperity of peoples. Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man”.
At the end of three successful years The Cobden Centre can continue to draw on its namesakes rich example as it looks forward to furthering his goals of peace and prosperity.
This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre