Looking into the origins of Manchester Liberalism initiated by Richard Cobden, John Bright and the Anti-corn law league, it would be assumed that their victory was based on sound economic theory which triumphed in intellectual debate. Instead the picture which emerges is a giant vindication for the concept of culture being downstream of politics. Manchester Liberalism arose from political conflict, was not coherent, and nor was it correct in what it advocated.
As the author of a book on the subject writes here:
“The story of repeal of the Corn Laws is a fascinating one which has intrigued researchers for 160 years as they continue to debate the extent to which its eventual success might be best attributed to (a) the intellectual and moral superiority of the principle of free trade over protection; (b) the well-financed and efficiently organized lobbying efforts of the Anti-Corn Law League; or (c) the role of political institutions (e.g., electoral reform in 1832 or the failure of the House of Lords to oppose repeal).”
Now I am going to go out on a limb here and dismiss A and C as serious candidates. To explain, let’s review what happened from an alternative viewpoint:
Two hyper moral figures in the form of Cobden and Bright with a seemingly messianic belief in one worldism through free trade begin a movement to repeal the corn laws which put a tariff on the price of imported corn. The arguments in favour of free trade are contradictory, unclear and scatter shot. It was a wild messianic moral attack against the tariffs conducted with venom and aggression, and it sounded suspiciously not too far off from Marx.
The movement whilst claiming to be of assistance to the workers in Manchester and the surrounding regions, was not supported by them at all, instead it was funded by industrial elites to act as a pressure group, going from a fund of £5,000 to £250,000 annually (£1.5 to £7.5 million-ish in today’s money.) in seemingly little time. With such “grass roots” supporters as James Wilson who set up The Economist to act as a propaganda organ, as the same author as the above quote writes:
“The less well-known part of the story is that the League provided substantial financial assistance to The Economist – for instance, in purchasing 20,000 copies of the paper to distribute to leading Tories who might be persuaded by the succinct and persuasive (and independent) arguments of The Economist to support free trade, and reputedly also in donating funds directly to the newspaper.”
I presume the inclusion of “independent” is sarcastic, but that is not clear in the least, in which case, in what way is a paper set up, and then funded by the movement “independent”? but then, this is a recurring theme in liberal movements.
Those advocating the Corn Law removal, such as Peel in this speech are not even remotely convincing. They didn’t win any arguments. Their wide ranging and weak claims go from economic arguments that don’t really hold beyond correlation, to claims that crime was reduced by free trade:
“by the removal of protection, domestic industry and the great social interests of the country have been promoted; crime has diminished, and morality has improved. I can bring the most conclusive proof that the public health has been improved, yet the national trade has been extending, our exports have increased; and this – and I rejoice in it – has been effected, not only without serious injury to those interests from which protection was withdrawn, but I think I have shown that it has been concurrent with an increase in the prices of those articles.”
Ultimately, there is no smoking gun “objective” evidence to prove that repealing the corn laws was a positive thing, because all of the arguments rest on contextless assertions and appeals to morality, and without context they are meaningless, as seem to be the case with almost all economic discussion (same to be said for ethics.) It was a religious movement really.
The movement was successful not because it was correct, but it would seem because it was valuable to a certain group of people – the industrial liberal elite – the ones able to bring to bear £250,000 annually in 19th century money in comparison to the paltry £2,000 the “oppressive” pro-corn laws movement managed – just who is the David, and who is the Goliath here? Now, there may well have been a reasonable argument for repealing the corn laws to move the economy to one more centred on industrialisation, but instead of doing so, crazy free trade arguments designed for propaganda purposes prevailed and became set in stone as the overwhelming arguments that won the day. So now we have to listen to free trade advocates and libertarians mouthing a web of claims that occurred from the demotic battle between power centres in 19th century England. It was wild and nonsensical then, and it hasn’t been put on stronger ground since.
The actions of the anti-corn-law movement were from start to last, comparable to black lives matter. The usage of private funds to instigate violence, public disturbance and generally illegal and nominally “anti-governmental” action acted to provide support for policies that the likes of Villiers and Peel were already trying to push through.
My contention, in case it is not clear already from previous posts, is that this whole process is the result of the inability of the executive to function in a manner required to re-orientate the country to a new industrial position cleanly. Instead the anti-corn law movement is directly comparable to BLM, the civil rights movement and the rise of Protestantism. In all case the Iron law of rebellious tools is in place and in each case a part cynical usage of crazies is employed by those in power as a means to effect change, making these increasingly crazy liberal movements (aka progress) nothing more than the uncharted, and un-recorded actions of power. The driving force behind liberal culture, theory and thought has been excessive and mindless high-low battles, in which crazy people where employed to overpower the rest of society. Each time that underlying reason is lost, and the crazy propaganda and foaming at the mouth crazyness is enshrined as the cause and then added to.
As some light relief, I figure I would leave you with Thomas Carlyle’s take on the Corn Laws in Past and Present:
“What looks maddest, miserablest in these mad and miserable Corn-Laws is independent altogether of their ‘effect on wages,’ their effect on ‘increase of trade,’ or any other such effect: it is the continual maddening proof they protrude into the faces of all men, that our Governing Class, called by God and Nature and the inflexible law of Fact, either to do something towards governing, or to die and be abolished, — have not yet learned even to sit still, and do no mischief! For no Anti-Corn-Law League yet asks more of them than this; — Nature and Fact, very imperatively, asking so much more of them. Anti-Corn-Law League asks not, Do something: but, Cease your destructive misdoing, Do ye nothing!
Nature’s message will have itself obeyed: messages of mere Free-Trade, Anti-Corn-Law League and Laissez-faire, will then need small obeying! — Ye fools, in name of Heaven, work, work, at the Ark of Deliverance for yourselves and us, while hours are still granted you! No: instead of working at the Ark, they say, “We cannot get our hands kept rightly warm;” and sit obstinately burning the planks. No madder spectacle at present exhibits itself under this Sun.
The Working Aristocracy; Mill-owners, Manufacturers, Commanders of Working Men: alas, against them also much shall be brought in accusation; much, — and the freest Trade in Corn, total abolition of Tariffs, and uttermost ‘Increase of Manufactures’ and ‘Prosperity of Commerce,’ will permanently mend no jot of it. The Working Aristocracy must strike into a new path; must understand that money alone is not the representative either of man’s success in the world, or of man’s duties to man; and reform their own selves from top to bottom, if they wish England reformed. England will not be habitable long, unreformed.”