ABOUT HALF of most British people’s income in the 1830s and 1840s was spent on food. Hunger was commonplace, occasionally sparking riots. Contributing to the high cost were tariffs on imported grain, called the Corn Laws, which soared as high as 80%. The system enriched aristocratic landowners when most Britons were not allowed to serve in Parliament or vote.
Facing public anger, a famine in Ireland and fears of starvation in Britain, the prime minister, Robert Peel, introduced legislation to end the tariffs. On June 25th 1846 the House of Lords repealed the Corn Laws, following a House of Commons vote a month earlier. It marked a major moment in the history of open economies. How it was achieved offers lessons to those defending the global trading system today.
The first lesson is to organise a broad coalition and creatively use the media. It was not simply the poor who had an interest in lower grain prices. A new generation of prosperous manufacturers and moral-minded aristocrats joined forces. They established what might be one of the first lobbying groups, the Anti-Corn Law League, which hosted rallies, financed research and supported political candidates. Books and pamphlets sprang up to make the case. The Economist itself was founded in 1843 to campaign for the abolition of the Corn Laws and for free trade.
The second lesson is the need for small victories to generate momentum, rather than going for big wins immediately—Peel’s policy of “gradualism”. His plan did not fully remove sliding-scale tariffs until 1849, giving time for landowners to adapt. Meanwhile, Britain’s free-trade moves helped usher in a wave of trade agreements across Europe and with America.
The third lesson is the need for tangible benefits for the public. By 1850, people were paying around a quarter less for bread than if repeal had not occurred, according to Kevin O’Rourke of NYU Abu Dhabi. The real incomes of society’s top 10% fell, while those of the bottom 90% grew slightly, notes Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College.
Much can be learned from Peel’s approach. Today, free trade is promoted by stale policy wonks and rapacious executives, nothing like the broad, energetic coalition of the past. Opponents of globalisation use social media far more effectively than its supporters. Politicians vie for grand gestures rather than quiet incrementalism. And the benefits of free trade are largely hidden from consumers. Those who take to the ramparts to protest against globalisation fail to notice why their smartphones are so cheap.
Yet the most important lesson is about leadership. Peel had opposed repealing the Corn Laws but, faced with a crisis, he was willing to split his party and lose his job to do the right thing. The divided Conservatives rarely held power during the following 30 years. It was “the whole community” that mattered, Peel wrote in his memoirs, and whether “cheapness and plenty are not [better] ensured for the future” by free trade than by protectionism. What leader would be willing to do that today? ■
This article appeared in the Finance & economics section of the print edition under the headline “The appeal of Peel and repeal”