Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

foresee the needs of the empire, nor realize that the rapid growth in the population of his day was largely
due to the absence from the proletariate of a standard of comfort and decency. Without the Industrial

Revolution Great Britain would not have been able to people the lands she had marked for her own.

This increase and shifting of the people put the finishing touch to the incongruities of the old political
system, in which vast centres of population teeming with life and throbbing with industry were

unrepresented, while members sat in parliament for boroughs so decayed that nothing was left of them

but a green mound, a park, or a ruined wall. The struggle with the French Revolution and then with

Napoleon gave the vested interests a respite from their doom; and for seventeen years after its close the

Tories sat, clothed in the departing glories of the war, upon the safety-valve of constitutional reform.

Then in 1832, after one general election fought on this issue, and after further resistance by the House of

Lords on behalf of the liberties of borough-proprietors and faggot-voters, the threat to create peers

induced a number to abstain sufficient to ensure the passing of the first Reform Bill. It was a moderate

measure to have brought the country to the verge of political revolution; roughly, it disfranchised a

number of poor voters, but enfranchised the mass of the middle and lower middle-class. Absolutely

rotten boroughs were abolished, but a large number of very small ones were retained, and the

representation of the new towns was somewhat grudging and restricted. A more drastic measure, giving

the vote to most of the town artisans was - being introduced by a Tory minister, Disraeli, in 1867 - passed

by the House of Lords without difficulty. The last alteration of the franchise, giving the vote to

agricultural labourers was - being introduced by Gladstone in 1884 - only passed by the House of Lords

at the second time of asking and after an agitation.

Political emancipation was but one of the results of the Industrial Revolution; commercial expansion was
another. England had now definitely and decisively specialized in certain industries; she could only do so

by relying upon external sources for her supply of other wants. The more her new industries gave her to

export, the more she required to import from customers upon whose wealth her own prosperity

depended. In particular, England became dependent upon foreign producers for her food supplies. During

the war the foreign supply of corn was so hampered that it was as dear to import as to grow at home; but

after the peace the price began to fall, and the farmers and landlords, whose rents depended ultimately

upon the price of corn, demanded protection corresponding to that which extensive tariffs on imported

articles gave to the manufacturers. The manufacturers, on the other hand, wanted cheap food for their

workpeople in order to be able to pay them low wages. As a compromise, the Corn Laws of 1814 and

1828 provided a sliding scale of duties which rose as prices fell, and fell as prices rose, a preference

being given to colonial wheat.

The Reform Act of 1832, however, and the rapid increase of manufactures, transferred the balance of
power in parliament from the landed to the manufacturing classes; factory hands were persuaded that the

repeal of the duties would largely increase the value of their wages; and the failure of the potato-crop in

Ireland in 1845-46 rendered an increase of imported food-stuffs imperative. Sir Robert Peel accordingly

carried a measure in 1846 providing for the gradual abolition of the corn-duties, saving only a

registration duty of one shilling, which was removed some twenty years later. This repeal of the Corn

Laws did not appreciably affect the price of corn, the great reduction of which was subsequently effected

by the vast expansion of corn-growing areas in the colonies and abroad. But it enormously increased the

supply at once, and gradually gave England the full benefit of growing areas and declining prices. It is

obvious that the retention of the duty, which had been fixed at 24_s. 8_d. in 1828 when the price was

62_s. or less a quarter, would have prevented prices falling as they subsequently did below the value of

the duty; and it is no less certain that it would have impeded the development of corn-growing districts in

 

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