Saturday, April 27, 2019

Prince Albert and the Courage of Sir Robert Peel

Angry eyes turned to watch Prince Albert as he sat down in the public gallery of the House of Commons with a flourish. The day had finally arrived! The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, was about to call for the repeal of the Corn Laws, after many long years of hardship and deprivation for the poorer classes. As he got up to speak, Sir Robert knew that this would mean the end of his stellar career…

George Bentinck, the leader of the protectionists and a dilettante aristocrat who had hardly ever spoken in Parliament in eighteen years, was especially livid by the audacity of the German Prince in involving himself in politics. He stated firmly that the Prince’s presence gave ‘the semblance of a personal sanction of Her Majesty to a measure which be it for good or for evil, a great majority, at least of the landed aristocracy…imagine fraught with deep injury, if not ruin, to them’.

The Corn Laws
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 meant that corn could easily be brought in again from Europe, a prospect which most landowners and farmers welcomed. They demanded the introduction of Corn Laws by the Tory government which restricted the amount of foreign gran which could be imported. These laws only permitted the import of duty-free wheat when the domestic price reached ’80 shillings per quarter,’ an extremely high price. Parliament had to be surrounded by bayonet-carrying soldiers when the Bill was passed, due to the incredible anger on the streets.

The Corn Laws kept the price of bread artificially high, making life difficult for tenant farmers, farm workers, labourers and other poor people. This caused riots, demonstrations and even led to the horrific Peterloo Massacre.  Eventually, the horrors of the laws would create the Irish Famine.

The Anti-Corn Law League

The Anti-Corn Law League, formed by Richard Cobden and John Bright, was mostly financed by Lancashire textile-owners, leading to accusations by protectionists that they wanted to import corn to help their buyers, drive down wages and maximize profits. Cobden and Bright, however, were idealistic men, who argued that the laws entrenched aristocratic misrule and class privilege, and harmed the economy by keeping wages down and stifling progress.  The League grew into a strong organisation, conducting research, publishing many books and placing great pressure on politicians.

There were many entrenched forces, however, who most certainly did not want to see the repeal of the Corn Laws. They even included the Church of England. Many of the clergy benefited from the oppressive laws because they were tied to the collection of tithes. Tithes had been converted into payments of so many quarters of corn, or their value, so the Established Church profited from keeping the laws.

Portrait of Sir Robert Peel

The Repeal of the Corn Laws

Prince Albert summed up Peel’s attitude towards protectionism in his memorandum about his conversation withPeel in December, 1845. Although Peel had supported the Corn Laws for a long time, he had become influenced by the arguments of the Anti-Corn Law League, and he saw that the promotion of free trade in other areas had increased prosperity and helped to create jobs. 1. However, the terrible situation caused by the potato blight in Ireland was the final straw. Although the government set up a commission to find solutions for the blight, and Sir Robert offered to give away any chemical which would cure it, no answer was found.

Sir Robert, supported by Prince Alfred, knew what he had to do. Suffering from gout and sleep-deprivation, he made his big speech on 27 January, 1846. He was on his feet for three and a half hours.

The repeal of the Corn Laws led to the resignation of Sir Robert Peel and the splitting of the Conservative Party. Prince Albert, chastened by Bentinck, never appeared at the House of Commons again.

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