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Placing political economy: organising opposition to free trade before the abolition of the Corn Laws

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 15:27 authored by Carl GriffinCarl Griffin
he unfurling of global capitalism – and its attendant effects – has long been fertile intellectual terrain for geographers. But whilst studies of the processes and mechanisms of globalisation undoubtedly assume a talismanic importance in the discipline, geographers, with few exceptions, have left examinations of early economic liberalism to historians. One such critically important episode in the evolution of the liberal economic project was the repeal of the so-called ‘Corn Laws’ in 1846. Whilst the precise impact of the Manchester-based Anti-Corn Law League (ACLL) continues to be a matter of conjecture, Eric Sheppard has asserted that their particular take on political economy managed to assume a ‘truth-like status’ and worldwide universality. But the ACLL’s campaign represents only one, albeit decisive, stage in the long intellectual and practical struggle between ‘protectionists’ and the disciples of free trade. Studies of the non-’Manchester’ components have tended to focus squarely upon national politics. This paper examines a pivotal attempt in 1838 by Lord Melbourne’s Government to experiment with the effective elimination of import duties on fresh fruit. Unlike most agricultural commodities, table fruit was produced in a tightly defined area, thus allowing the Government’s experiment to play out, in theory, without national political fallout. Whilst the Government’s clandestine actions left little time for a concerted opposition to develop, Kentish fruit growers soon organised. A formidable lobby was forged that drew wide local support yet also evolved beyond the original ‘epistemic community’. Whilst the coalition failed in their efforts to reintroduce protective duties, their actions allow us to see how protectionist ideologies and policies were vivified through practices at many different spatial scales and to better understand the complex spatiality of protectionist takes on political economy. Their campaign also changed – at least in the short term – the course of British mercantile policy.


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Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers









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