The corn laws of 1815 were controversial, in their own time as well as when seen through the lenses of later historians. Agriculturalists then regarded them as not offering enough protection, thus endangering British agriculture in the long run and were therefore opposed. …
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On the other end of the spectrum were those who were in favour of free trade and who opposed the Corn Laws as being a government concession to the land barons of Ireland and Britain, against the interest of the poor. The opinion of the latter is perhaps most eloquently voiced by Blake (170, p. 15) who assessed the 1815 corn laws from a distance of more than 150 years as ‘class biased’ … ‘one of the most naked pieces of class legislation in English History, and a clear sign that the capitalist ideal was not going to prevail without a struggle’, a view clearly also later held by the authors of The Black Book.1 Yet, despite the concerns of the parties involved, Lord Liverpool was able to consolidate the opposing political forces within the Houses of Lords and Commons to pass the legislation with a 126 : 26 majority. Predictably, the poorer community fared badly as a result of artificially high corn prices and the next few years were marred by demonstrations and riots, followed by the passing of various pieces of repressive legislation in an attempt to control the rioters. Yet, despite these very unpopular measures, support for the conservative party and Liverpool rose - evidenced by the voting numbers during parliamentary business over the next few years. This has generally been attributed to post war problems facing Britain as well as Lord Liverpool’s skills in presenting these to his peers. This explanations is not disputed, however, this paper poses that there is a powerful additional factor, namely that once the corn laws had unleashed unrest, a fear factor developed which did not in fact constitute support for the policies of the conservative party at all but which nevertheless caused members of the parliament to act in semblance. It is also argued that this fear was by far the strongest motivation for giving continued support to the conservative party for as long as there was a danger of further riots. There can be no doubt that the post-war problems faced by Britain in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars were grave and that the modification to existing corn laws in 1815 can be understood as a short-term measure to avoid catastrophe. Corn laws had been in place in Britain since the 17th century and had basically consisted of a high rate of import duty imposed on a sliding scale to prevent imports and encourage exports, with import duties decreasing as corn prices increased (Fay, C. R., 1932, pp 28-43). This had kept corn prices relatively low and exports high until the middle of the 18th century when, for a variety of reasons, constant corn shortages forced frequent short-term measures to suspend import duties. In 1773 the government conceded that adjustments were required to reflect the real situation and lowered import duties to operate on a sliding scale, diminishing with increases in corn prices (Fay, C. R., 1932, pp 28-43). The underlying policies were to keep the farmers employed and making profits without inflating the price of corn to put it out of reach of the poor. The acts of 1791 and 1804 served a similar purpose, each one lowering the point at which corn import duties ceased. However, the income that was supposed to accrue from the imports did not eventuate as between 1792 and 1815 the price of corn was so high that virtually no import duty was collected (Hilton p. 3). This state of affairs continued with some further adjustments until 1804, by which time the system had been severely destabilized by the Napoleonic wars 1792-1815, which were fought along economic as well as military lines. Thus both parties engaged in economic blockades, bringing horrendous food shortages for England, ...
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