Bread and Butter Politics
The article below ‘On the Price of Meal’, originally appeared in a journal from Paisley named The Scotchman, and dates to around the year 1800. At first glance, a discussion about meal may not seem political, but it directly concerned the ability of working men and women to put food on the table. It is a good example of an issue that was economically and socially political, rather than narrowly party political. The word meal usually meant oatmeal in Scotland, but could be applied to any grain or seeds that had been put through a process of grinding in order to produce fine granules. Corn is another word for the seed or grain (particularly wheat) before it has been processed by grinding or other means.
Landowners had been lobbying the parliament in London to introduce legislation that would put high duties on imported corn and so protect the landowners’ profits at home. The first of the so-called corn laws was introduced in 1804, and so the price of bread became very high. In 1814 cheaper imports of corn led to a lowering of prices again so the Tory government passed a new corn law in 1815 to place higher duties on foreign corn, keep bread prices high, and landowners in profit. But this hit the working people badly because their staple food was bread and now they were paying much of their wages just to eat. A long struggle ensued and the corn laws were not finally repealed until 1846.
The author of the article is at pains to demonstrate the hypocrisy of those who complain about the scarcity of meal, blaming farmers for selling corn (grain) to brewers, and the high prices set by meal-mongers (sellers), while the complainers at the same time spend so much on drink. The writer tells us that a person will drink more grain in whisky in a morning than in meal that would feed him for a week but will complain about the scarcity of meal, and comments “It’s plain eneuch that gin we drink our corn we canna get it to eat.” He argues that the brewer cannot be blamed for getting more out of corn by making it into drink than a miller can from making it into meal, and should not try to forbid the brewer from buying up corn in scarce times, because this leaves then the farmer short of buyers. He states that it is not his intent to side with the farmers – and wishes there was no rise in the price of meal – but if people spend more on drink they should not complain about lack of food. People will say, he continues, that drink is much cheaper than food, but the government taxes make it artificially high, to which the author replies there is no law forcing people to drink. He finishes with the observation that we should not complain about the dearth of meal when we are not ourselves blameless: “Ye maun haud your tongue about taxes till ance ye quat taxin’ yoursel’s wi’ drinkin.”