The state of mind in the Conservative party is crabby. Backbench MPs are inconsistent with their own PM. An issue that has been gurgling endlessly underneath the surface for quite a long time has blasted out into fratricidal fighting. Ireland is fundamental to the political crisis.That was Britain in mid 1846 when Sir Robert Peel utilized the Irish potato starvation to push through the annulment of the Corn Laws, part the gathering simultaneously yet the parallels between mi-nineteenth century Britain and today are self-evident. The dread for the Tories is a long spell in the political wild: it took 28 years after 1846 for the Conservatives to shape a dominant part government.
The mood in the Conservative party is fractious. Backbench MPs are at odds with their own prime minister. An issue that has been bubbling away beneath the surface for decades has burst out into fratricidal warfare. Ireland is central to the political crisis.
That was Britain in early 1846 when Sir Robert Peel used the Irish potato famine to push through the repeal of the Corn Laws, splitting the party in the process but the parallels between mi-19th century Britain and today are obvious. The fear for the Tories is a long spell in the political wilderness: it took 28 years after 1846 for the Conservatives to form a majority government.
What’s more, the battles that were fought then – protection versus free trade, producers versus consumers – are still being fought. The basic notion that has underpinned free trade theory ever since – that a country should remove barriers and open its borders even if other countries don’t reciprocate – would find little support in today’s White House.
The Corn Laws were introduced in Britain at the end of the Napoleonic wars. They defended the landed interest at the expense of consumers by providing for a prohibitively high duty on imported foreign corn if the domestic price fell below a certain level (80 shillings a quarter).
Import duties meant dearer bread and from the outset the tariffs aroused fierce passions. There were banners attacking the Corn Laws on display at Peterloo in 1819 and one of the earliest examples of a lobby group – the anti-Corn Law League – was set up to campaign for abolition.
The pressure for change had some success. A sliding scale of duty was introduced in the late 1820s to replace the sudden application of full protection, and Peel – who was won over to free trade long before 1846 – reduced this sliding scale in the early 1840s.
A combination of an exceptionally wet summer in 1845 and the arrival in Ireland of potato blight provided the prime minister with his opportunity. Peel’s bill was never going to be a solution to the terrible famine in Ireland, in part because many people were so poor they couldn’t afford bread even at a lower price and partly because duties were tapered down to nothing over three years rather than abolished immediately.
But the decision opened up a schism between the Conservative party’s modernising wing and those who favoured the status quo. Almost every member of the cabinet supported Peel, but the vast majority of backbenchers did not. Eventually, there was a realignment of British politics that saw the Peelites join the Whigs to form the Liberal Party.
The economic consequences of the repeal of the Corn Laws were just as significant. For a period in the mid-19th century, Britain was run on pretty much pure free-market lines. Wages were set by the interplay of demand and supply, the lack of a social safety net meant the workhouse beckoned for the destitute, there was a commitment to balance the budget and the gold standard acted as a discipline on any central banker tempted to play fast and loose with inflation. Repeal of the Corn Laws was the last piece in the jigsaw.
Britain not only embraced free trade itself but also sought to use its influence to export the doctrine around the world. Britain and France signed a free trade treaty in 1860 which contained a clause that committed both nations automatically to extend any trade benefits concurred on a third country to each other. This notion – the most-favoured nation principle – still governs the way the World Trade Organization works.
But that’s not the only similarity. Britain is just as divided a country as it was in the 1840s, only the regional divide has been turned on its head. Strongest support for the anti-Corn Law League came from the middle classes in the towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution and much more prosperous than the rural counties south of a line from the Wash to the Severn Estuary.
The debates about whether policy should be set in favour of producers or consumers still rages. Those who railed against the Corn Laws would doubtless be just as opposed to the common agricultural policy. Today’s backlash against globalisation is not the first attempt to ensure that the benefits of growth are more widely shared. The pure free market of the mid-19th century proved just as politically unsustainable as the model that collapsed a decade ago.
There are, of course, significant differences between the current civil war in the Conservative party and the one 173 years ago. The severest critics of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement are free traders not protectionists. Members of the European Research Group tend to be hardcore economic liberals.
Rows within the Conservative party about Europe have been going on for as long as the arguments about the Corn Laws. But 1846 settled the issue of protectionism versus free trade; within a few years those who brought Peel down accepted that they had lost the argument and moved on.
Anybody who thought the referendum of 2016 would be a similarly cathartic moment has been proved completely wrong. It is not just the Conservative party but Britain as a whole that is split over Europe and it is hard to see how that divide is going to be bridged. Leavers will carry on fighting and so will Remainers.
Finally, there’s May herself. The chronicler of the modern Conservative party, Robert Blake, said Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws was “surely as right as any major political decision has ever been”. Downing Street’s current incumbent will be lucky to receive so kind an epitaph.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010