The Economic History Review

Laissez‐faire, the Irish famine, and British financial crisis

Volume 69 Issue 2
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Pages: 411-434Authors: Charles Read
Published online: December 3, 2015DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12274

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The decision in 1847 to cut Treasury spending on public relief efforts during the Irish famine is generally attributed by economic historians to the pervasive influence of ‘laissez-faire’ ideas on the Whig government of Lord John Russell. This article draws on the papers of political leaders and contemporary financial information to argue that economic reasons were the trigger for the change in policy. Robert Peel and Charles Wood’s macroeconomic policies of the 1840s, including the gold standard, the Bank Charter Act, and corn law repeal, left the Whigs unable to borrow to finance relief efforts in Ireland without panicking markets. The scaling back of public assistance programmes that resulted from this–and which increased mortality at the height of the Irish famine–was the unintended result of Peel and Wood’s economic policies, in the context of the Whig government’s parliamentary weakness.