Iain and I both spent a great deal of time researching on and writing about Britain’s Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 (McLean 2001; Schonhardt-Bailey 2006). The first question that comes to mind when one reflects on this fact is, why? More specifically, why would any modern political scientist find this specific episode in British history to be worthy of extensive academic study? As I write this, let me note that one of the lead articles in this week’s Economist draws upon the lessons of Repeal to explore the current challenges to free trade in America’s 2016 presidential campaign, namely that freer trade creates both winners and losers. Of course, The Economist prides itself as originating in 1843, as part of the Repeal campaign, and so its authors are particularly keen to draw parallels.
But, one need look no further than the current debate in the UK over the EU referendum to find other parallels with Repeal—e.g., an internal split in the Conservative party over British identity (particularly in a world with increasing trade linkages); the difficulty in ascertaining the winners and losers from a fundamental reorientation of trade policy, amidst inherent uncertainty; the existence of tensions between different sectors and regions, stemming from trade exposure; and so on. Repeal remains relevant because it is a fascinating puzzle of intertwining causes and effects, but also because the ideas, interests and institutions that lie at the heart of Repeal still have bearing on trade policy in the 21st century.
To understand how the lessons from Repeal remain relevant, let me briefly summarize Iain’s characterization of why Sir Robert Peel (the Conservative Prime Minister) was able to deliver the fundamental policy shift in 1846. Rejecting that parliamentarians were merely responding to the district interests of their constituents (something that Marxian and Chicago neoclassical approaches might advocate)—since the median parliamentarian represented an agricultural constituency that should have advocated protection for agriculture—Iain develops an explanation that relies both on ideas and individuals. He focuses on two pivotal individuals—Sir Robert Peel, and the Duke of Wellington (leader of the House of Lords)—and their perception of a threat to public order in Ireland (resulting from the potato famine). For these two leaders, Repeal was a price worth paying to ensure public order and to support the Queen’s government.
While I do agree that leadership was important to understanding how Repeal was passed through the Parliament of 1841-47, Iain’s focus on Peel and Wellington largely ignores the parliamentarians in the Commons and Lords who followed their leadership. My own interpretation accepts the importance of the trade-related interests of parliamentary constituencies, and the effect of these interests on the voting decision of MPs and Lords who struggled over the Repeal decision. Three sets of economic interests factored into the story: (1) the concentration of export-oriented producers in the Anti-Corn Law League; (2) the spread of export-oriented interests as more and more British manufactures became linked to the export trade; and (3) the interests of landowners whose diversification into industry-oriented ventures weakened the appeal of a staunch protectionist stance. Like Iain, I noted the role of ideas, but for me, the key ones were Manchester School Liberalism (as propagated by the pamphlets, letters and speeches of the Anti-Corn Law League); the appeals to class conflict and religiosity (again, as exploited by the League); and Peel’s own redefinition of Conservative ideology as a means to preserve traditional aristocratic control over Parliament. And finally, a key institutional change that advanced Repeal was the 1832 Reform Act, which enfranchised the middle class, thereby enhancing the representation of free trade interests in Parliament.
The difference between Iain’s approach and my approach lies first, in determining who mattered for Repeal. For Iain, the leaders mattered more than the followers. For me, no leader can succeed without followers so the interesting part of Repeal is how Peel managed to convince one-third of the Conservative party to reverse the traditional Conservative support for agricultural protection. But, we also differ on the balance between ideas, interests and institutions. For Iain, Wellington’s fixation with the idea of public order is the critical juncture in the story of Repeal. For me, economic interests provided the necessary context for Repeal to occur, but ideas and institutions are essential for understanding when and how it finally happened.
So, what lessons might one learn from Repeal—particularly lessons that shed light on contemporary debates in politics and political economy? Iain’s clear take-away for both the 2016 US presidential campaign and the 23rd June UK referendum on membership in the European Union is that leadership is critical. Leaders who can shift the goalposts of the contest to enhance their likelihood of success (as Peel did in the Commons, by shifting the focus to the Irish potato famine), and leaders who are committed to all-encompassing “big” ideas which resonate across demographics, across parties and across personalities (like Wellington’s concern with public order and maintaining the Queen’s government) can make the difference between policy success and policy failure. My contribution to these two current debates in contemporary politics is that, whatever the stature and motivation of leaders, ultimately it is the followers who are persuaded (or not) to follow the direction offered by leaders. This is particularly true when the outcome depends on the votes of millions (whether in a general election or in a referendum).
In the end, neither Iain nor I will have the last word on Repeal of the Corn Laws. But I think we both hope that our contributions will have a lasting impact on future scholars as they continue to dissect, analyse, acquire better data and better methodological approaches to help uncover the “true” story of Repeal.
McLean, I. (2001). Rational Choice and British Politics: An Analysis of Rhetoric and Manipulation From Peel to Blair. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Schonhardt-Bailey, C. (2006). From the Corn Laws to Free Trade: Interests, Ideas and Institutions in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
 The Economist, “Open Argument: The case for free trade is overwhelming. But the losers need more help,” (April 2nd 2016), p. 12.