By the mid-1840s the case for free trade was, in the minds of political economists and those politicians who looked upon themselves as progressive, becoming almost unanswerable. Peel himself had been intellectually a free-trader, in an abstract sense, for some time, probably since as far back as the 1820s,1 and he might have moved more quickly, in office after 1841, towards giving effect to his opinions had he not been held back by the political restraints which his position at the head of the Conservative Party and his own, frequently enunciated defence of the corn laws placed upon his freedom of action. After the sweeping tariff reductions included in the 1845 budget (more extensive than those of 1842), the high duty on corn took on the appearance of an anomaly in the country’s financial system, and Peel was probably speaking the truth when he told Prince Albert in December 1845 that his intention had been to prepare the country gradually for a change in policy and to contest the elections which were due in two years’ time on a platform of free trade in corn. He meant thereby to deprive the Whigs of the electoral advantage to be gained from the cry of ‘cheap bread’ and so avert an election battle that would heighten class tensions and exacerbate whatever ill-feelings existed between urban manufacturers and rural growers.
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