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From the Corn Laws to Free Trade: interests, ideas and institutions in historical perspectives

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Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey|
MIT Press (June 2006)

The repeal of Britain's Corn Laws in 1846 - one of the most important economic policy decisions of the nineteenth century - has long intrigued and puzzled political scientists, historians and economists. Why would a Conservative prime minister act against his own party's interests? The Conservatives entered government in 1841 with a strong commitment to protecting agriculture; five years later, the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel presided over repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws, violating party principles and undercutting the economic interests of the land-owning aristocracy. Only a third of Conservative members of Parliament supported the repeal legislation and within a month of repeal, Peel's government legislation fell. The Conservatives remained out of power for decades. In this definitive book, Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey examines the interacting forces that brought about the abrupt beginning of Britain's free-trade empire.

Using a wide variety of methodological tools to measure both qualitative and quantitative data (including computer-assisted content analysis of thousands of pages of parliamentary debates), Schonhardt-Bailey concludes that economic interests provided the momentum behind repeal, a momentum that overshadowed almost all else. Indeed, as part of a broader momentum of democratic reform, these same interests, left unsatisfied, may have snowballed into revolution - as Sir Robert Peel and others feared. But interests alone did not explain why reform rather than revolution emerged in mid-nineteenth century Britain. In order to resolve more fully the long-standing puzzle of repeal, Schonhardt-Bailey traces the overlapping and intertwined forces of interest, ideas and institutions.


'This is one of the most interesting, innovative and intelligent works that I have ever read in the area of legislative studies. It juxtaposes roll calls and parliamentary debates in a systematic way. It shows how the mobilisation of constituency interests could shape lawmaking action nearly two centuries ago. Schonhardt-Bailey offers a new kind of window into legislative politics.'
David Mayhew, Sterling Professor of Political Science, Yale University

'We try to explain social phenomena by the interaction of interests, institutions and ideas. Yet this is the only work I know of that actually brings all three forces to bear to forge an explanation, and does so in the context of one of the most pivotal economic and political events in the modern world: Britain's movement towards laissez-faire in the nineteenth century. This book is essential reading for any scholar or student of political economy and history.'
James Robinson, professor of government, Harvard University

'This is a marvellous book. Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey's definitive account of one of history's great political U-turns is a model of rigor and sophistication, with important implications for political science, economics and economic history.'
Kevin O'Rourke, Department of Economics and Institute for International Integration Studies, Trinity College Dublin

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