The British Corn Laws were parliamentary statutes which attempted to regulate the trade in corn (mainly wheat, barley, rye, and oats) for the benefit of producers during periods of plenty and low prices. Legislation to prohibit or discourage importation can be traced back to the 15th century, though it only became effective with an Act of 1663, while bounties to encourage export date from the 14th century and became more systematic after an Act of 1689. However, no economic tracts or pamphlets seem to have been devoted exclusively to this subject before 1750 (Barnes 1930, p. 16) and it was only in the 19th century that such legislation became controversial, mainly because the growth of population and especially of towns fuelled the concern about food supply that had been provoked by the scarcity of 1795 and by Malthus’s Essay of 1798. In particular the 1815 Corn Law, which aimed to encourage domestic production by prohibiting importation until home prices had reached a certain level (80 shillings per quarter in the case of wheat), was the object of violent abuse both from radicals representing the interests of the consumer and also from middle-class manufacturers and exporters. In practice the 1815 Law satisfied no one. The sudden switch from total prohibition to total freedom of import at a particular price was destabilizing and failed to safeguard supply, since by the time (usually October or November) that prices reached the specified level, signalling a scarcity, the Baltic Sea was likely to have frozen over making cheap foreign imports unavailable for the remainder of the season. To meet these problems a sliding scale of duties was introduced in 1828, modified downwards in 1842, and finally abandoned seven years later after a major political crisis in 1846 had brought down Sir Robert Peel’s second government and fundamentally divided the Conservative Party. The repeal of the Corn Laws was considered to mark the final triumph of free trade theories in Britain and quickly acquired symbolic importance, though with the drying up of European wheat supplies from the mid-1830s the Corn Laws had ceased to make very much practical difference to the trade in grain (Fairlie 1965). Repeal did not (as was widely expected) lead to reductions in the price of wheat, though it did reduce fluctuations in the amounts annually imported.
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