On September 18th, 1838, the most successful single issue pressure group of the 19th Century was established as a nation-wide organization dedicated to free trade. Specifically, it demanded repeal of the Corn Laws, introduced in 1815 to keep cereal prices high in Britain by taxing foreign imports of cereals.
The laws prohibited the import of foreign corn at less than 80s a quarter (28 lb), a limit replaced in 1828 by a sliding scale. The laws served the interests of the landed classes and aristocracy, who had dominated Parliament. They were opposed by the rising class of industrialists and merchants emerging from the Industrial Revolution, and who wanted cheap food for their industrial workers to stave off upward pressure on wages.
Richard Cobden was its leading strategist, with John Bright as its most eloquent orator. The League organized grass-roots opinion by distributing pamphlets, by correspondence (using the new Penny Post), by newspaper articles, public meetings and speeches. They built on the tactics used by the earlier anti-slavery lobbies. Crucially they based themselves in Manchester, surrounded by the textile trade, and had the financial support of many of the Northern industrialists.
They were well-funded, tightly organized, centrally planned but with numerous local branches, and above all with dedication to a strong central purpose. Thy were for free trade, above all in food. They elected MPs to influence Parliament with their arguments and oratory. Gradually, they built up a huge popular following and either won over or wore down the opposition. Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel is reported to have said at one stage, “You answer them, for I no longer can.”
The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846 when Peel converted to their cause, spurred by the catastrophe of the 1845 Irish famine that the potato blight triggered. The Parliamentary vote result was announced to the applause of Cobden and Bright. Today there are busts of the two of them in both the Reform Club and the National Liberal Club.
They had given free trade ideas a lively popular support within British political culture, a support that would last for half a century until the will-o’-the-wisp of Imperial Preference encroached upon its intellectual territory. There are signs that the movement towards free trade, so ably backed by Cobden and Bright, is gaining traction again, after decades of subservience to the EU’s protectionist Common External Tariff. Once out of the EU, the UK will be free to sign free trade deals that will prosper its citizens instead of French farmers and EU manufacturers. Indeed, it has already negotiated many such agreements, and is in the process of agreeing many more.
It’s a pity that Cobden and Bright look so stern in the busts of them on display. They should be smiling.