A return to the Corn Laws in the 21st Century - lessons from the past on keeping food affordable.

By Cary Mitchell,
Best for Britain's Director of Operations

History may not repeat itself, but it often marches to a familiar beat.

With Britain’s ragtag retreat from the European Union nearing that December waypoint which marks the end of our transition period, uneasy echoes some two centuries distant can be heard, if only we listen a little.

In 1815, the end of the Napoleonic Wars had the effect of driving down corn prices and, largely to protect the interests of landowners, Lord Liverpool’s Tory Government introduced Britain to the Corn Laws.

These laws imposed tariffs and other restrictions on grain imports, keeping grain prices – and food prices – high, and erecting huge barriers to protect domestic producers against foreign competition.

There was rioting in London and the situation worsened the following year when, thanks to a huge volcanic eruption, the ‘Year Without A Summer’ saw sharply reduced harvests.

Now, restrictions on grain imports were not new – they dated at least as far back as Tudor times – and the Corn Laws would not be repealed until 1846, when Ireland was tumbling into the Great Famine.

Although the story of the Corn Laws is a complex one, it holds valuable lessons for the world in which we now find ourselves – especially, of course, with regards to the risks of interfering with the price or availability of food.

The people are unhappy, the politicians are unhappy

Firstly, the introduction of the laws led to chaos, anger, civil unrest. The repeal of the laws, meanwhile, ended Robert Peel’s tenure as Prime Minister, split the Tories and led to the formal foundation of the Liberal Party. 

In both birth and death, the Corn Laws, with their stifling of international free trade and impact on food prices, were destructive. We would do well to bear this in mind, after years of disquiet over our relationship with Europe, as the spectre of food tariffs hovers over the end of the UK-EU transition period.

Nature trumps politics

Secondly, nature is no respecter of political timing, and the Corn Law era was bookended by natural disasters, which piled suffering upon suffering.

The Year Without A Summer wrecked harvests throughout Britain and Ireland (and abroad), families walked miles to beg for food and parts of Ireland were beset by famine. 

And disease was rife – sound familiar? – with typhus spreading from Ireland and killing 65,000 people.

The end of the Corn Laws coincided with Ireland’s Great Famine, when a combination of potato blight and Government economic policy conspired with other factors (not least an over-reliance on potatoes as a crop) to kill more than a million Irish people and force a million more to leave the Emerald Isle.

The Corn Laws were enacted to protect landowners, and repealed to help industrialists. But fine-sounding laws, as Britain is now being reminded, do not guarantee food security. 

A safety catch

We have come to rely extremely heavily on foreign trade to feed ourselves and to protect British consumers from the food shocks which nature inflicts upon us periodically.

When we damage that foreign trade network – and, without a comprehensive trade deal with the EU in particular, damage it we will – then not only do we inflict needless cost and inconvenience on consumers and businesses alike, we also take a sword to the biggest food safety net we have.

And we need that net because, as clever as we think we are at feeding ourselves, a strop by Mother Nature will always remind us who is really boss.

Should you think this is over-dramatic, consider this.

As we have been consumed by headlines about Covid-19 and tub-thumping Euro-chat, many farmers in Britain have been having a torrid year.

They have been sweating over staples ranging from potatoes to rapeseed, and with areas such as East Anglia wrestling with the worst crop failures for a generation.

Britain already imports between 48 and 80 per cent of its food, according to how you calculate the figures, and there have been plenty of warnings that supply chain issues will restrict those imports. 

That’s correct; just as it appears we may need to rely even more heavily on foreign food supplies, we’re going to slap tariffs on them and make it harder to get the produce into Britain.

Whatever deal is agreed between the UK and the EU, it will remain the case that you cannot feed a family with slogans.

Let them eat credit

A further lesson from the Corn Laws is that, with stomach-cramping inevitability, it is the most vulnerable who will go hungry if we mess up our food supply systems.

The Corn Laws kept food prices high enough to trigger a miserable economic spiral – high food prices meant little money left to buy other goods. That, in turn, squeezed sales, businesses contracted and unemployment rose. 

To be clear, the Corn Laws were not unique in adding to the burden of already poor and hungry citizens.

If truth be told, Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845-49 has the most shocking teachings on this topic, and it took hold as the Corn Laws were being abolished – abolished in no small part because of Ireland’s dire circumstances, and replaced by a laissez-faire approach that brought its own problems, not least of which was grain merchants enjoying 50 per cent markups on their goods while their countrymen starved to death.

Ireland, you see, was not short of food during the Great Famine. Ireland was short of affordable food.

And so, as poorer people perished by the hundreds of thousands – only 175 years or so ago – merchants were shipping out huge quantities of food. Seed, onions, rabbit, fish, peas, beans and a lot more besides were packed in cargo holds and sent to London, Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow.

In 1847 alone, 4,000 vessels carried Irish food exports, a year in which an estimated 400,000 Irish men, women and, of course, children perished from the effects of starvation.

It’s not enough that there is food. There must be affordable food.

That was then, this is now

And so back to the present day when, surely, the threat of starvation is minimal, the idea of Government actions driving up basic food prices laughable, and the stability of our food supplies guaranteed.

Not so. Starvation is a problem in Britain, and a growing problem. 

According to The Food Foundation, Britain performs worse than pretty much any EU country in terms of food insecurity, as illustrated by Unicef figures showing 19 per cent of under-15s live with a ‘food insecure’ adult.

Starvation is a thing in modern Britain.

As for Government action driving up food prices, check out the Affordable Food Deal report, which demonstrates clearly how a no-deal or thin deal exit from Europe would drive the prices of even the most basic foodstuffs up substantially, even as food bank use continues to grow at a distressing rate.

And the stability of our food supplies? You’ve already read about the challenges faced by British farmers. Add to that the difficulties faced by the logistics industry to keep supply chains functioning efficiently after transition ends in December, and you can see clearly why experts say there are storm clouds gathering over Britain’s food supplies. 

We have been warned

A Government that cannot feed its people has failed the most basic of tests. And, while you or I may not yet have turned to food banks and soup kitchens for help, huge numbers of people in this ‘developed’ nation have.

For those on, near or already below the breadline, even small rises in the price of foodstuffs can be catastrophic.

New figures from Citizens Advice point to 6million Britons struggling to pay household bills during the Covid-19 crisis, and hundreds of thousands going without food.

So we are already in a state of food crisis.

And, just as the Corn Laws forced food poverty upon the most vulnerable, so the tariffs that will be applied to foodstuffs in January, should we fail to agree a comprehensive EU-UK trade deal, will drag more into the same miserable trap.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but time is running out and, as things stand, negotiations appear to be ‘going backwards’, according to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

It is not stretching things to say that lives are at stake and, equally, it is fair to say that the Government faces a huge challenge to help those whose lives have been turned upside-down by Covid-19.

Be that as it may, it is unacceptable for our political leaders to knowingly make that situation far, far worse, for little more than bragging rights.

While those leaders may not find themselves starving, history teaches us that they are likely to pay a high price in other ways.

People do not readily forget hunger. And our leaders should not forget that.

Make sure your MP doesn't forget, contact them now


Cary Mitchell
Director of Operations, Best for Britain

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