Frederick Engels

The Corn Laws

Written: on December 22, 1842
First published: in the Supplement to Rheinische Zeitung, December 27, 1842
Marked with the sign ‘X’;
Source: MECW Volume 2;
Transcribed: in 2000 for by Andy Blunden.

From Lancashire, December 22. The end of the existing Corn Laws is rapidly approaching. The people are in a real fury about the “corn tax”, and no matter what the Tories do, they cannot withstand the pressure of the exasperated masses. Sir Robert Peel has prorogued Parliament until February 2 — six weeks for the opposition to fan the anger still more. When the new session opens, Peel will have to state his position on the sliding-scale at the very outset; it is generally believed that he has at least begun to waver in his attitude towards it. If he decides to drop it, the more extreme Tories will undoubtedly resign from the government and make room for the moderate Whigs, and then the Peel-Russell coalition will have come into being. In any case, the aristocracy will defend itself stubbornly, and I, for my part, do not think it can be induced to agree ‘ voluntarily to the free import of corn. The English nobility allowed the Reform Bill and Catholic emancipation to go through, but the effort that this cost it would be nothing compared with that which abolition of the Corn Laws would entail. [186] What is a weakening of the aristocracy’s influence at parliamentary elections compared with a 30 per cent reduction in the property of the whole English nobility? And if even the two above-mentioned Bills have evoked such struggles, if the Reform Bill was passed only with the aid of popular risings and stones thrown at the windows of the aristocracy, cannot the nobility be relied upon to test whether the people has enough courage and strength to ensure that its will is carried out? The summer disturbances certainly showed the nobility how ineffectual the English people is when it revolts. I am firmly convinced that this time the aristocracy will remain adamant until the knife is at its throat. There can be no doubt, however, that the people will not go on much longer paying the aristocracy a penny (10 Prussian pfennigs) on every pound of bread it eats. The Anti-Corn Law League b has seen to that. Its activity has been tremendous; I intend to write a more detailed report about it. [187] Suffice it to say that one of the most important results due partly to the Corn Laws, partly to the League, is the freeing of the tenant farmers from the moral influence of their aristocratic landlords. Up to now, no one has been so indifferent to political issues as the English tenant farmers, i. e., the entire agricultural section of the nation. As a matter of course, the landlord was a Tory and evicted every tenant who voted against the Tories at the parliamentary elections. The result was that the 252 Members of Parliament which the agricultural districts in the United Kingdom have to elect were, as a rule, almost all Tories. Now, however, due to the effect of the Corn Laws and the publications of the League, distributed in hundreds of thousands of copies, the tenant farmer has been awakened to political consciousness. He has realised that his interests are not identical with those of the landlord, but are directly opposed to them, and that to no one have the Corn Laws been more unfavourable than to himself. Hence a considerable change has taken place among tenant farmers. The majority of them are now Whigs, and since the landlords may now find it difficult to exert a decisive influence on the tenant farmers’ vote at the elections, the 252 seats held by the Tories will probably soon pass to the same number of Whigs. Even if this change-over only affected half the seats, it would already alter the character of the House of Commons considerably, since as a result the Whigs would be assured of a majority there for good. And that is bound to happen. Particularly if the Corn laws were repealed, for then the tenant farmer would become completely independent of the landlord, because tenancy agreements would have to be concluded under quite new conditions after the repeal. The aristocracy thought that it had achieved a remarkably clever stroke of business by passing the Corn Laws; but the money it has obtained as a result by no means outweighs the disadvantage which these laws have caused it. And this disadvantage lies precisely in the fact that from now on the aristocracy is no longer the representative of agriculture, but of its own selfish interests.