catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

The British Combination Acts

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In case anyone is interested, it is not correct to claim that the English Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were deliberately designed to favour the employers and to prevent the workers from forming associations. The chapter “Labour’s Bitter Struggle” in The Strike Threat System by Bill Hutt sketches the history of the relevant legislation from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The chapter is on line .

From the thirteenth century, the conviction clearly emerged that certain antisocial practices affecting the pricing of products (including the product of labor) had to be restrained for the common good. Thus, practices known as ‘forestalling, engrossing and regrating’ were forbidden by ordinances and statutes because these were supply and pricing procedures which were perceived to be exploiting the common people through the contriving of scarcities of food and necessities.

In other words the clear intent of this kind of legislation was to control what we would nowadays call restrictive trade practices. Hutt cited numerous examples of the application of these laws: in 1298 an organization of coopers in London was prosecuted for having agreed to raise the price of hoops; in 1339 there were cases brought against London carpenters; in 1349 against shoemakers; in 1773 the publicans of Westminster were warned that if they raised the price of beer collusively they would be prosecuted for conspiracy. It is important to note that the merchant and craft guilds that were constituted by royal charter enjoyed the privilege of being above the laws that controlled restrictive trade practices by other people.

As to the idea that the Combination Act of 1799 and the amended Act of 1800 represented a carefully planned and premeditated onslaught on the rights of the workers, on Hutt’s account:

The 1799 Act came to be passed almost by accident…What actually happened in 1799 was that a bill, more or less in the form of the 40 or so other anticombination statutes already applying to particular trades, was introduced in Parliament. The original aim in 1799 was simply to forbid “conspiracy” on the part of millwrights. During the proceedings Wilberforce (the famous antislavery champion) suddenly and unexpectedly moved for an amendment to make the principle apply to all industries and occupations. There seemed to be no good reason for opposing this amendment and the bill became law…

Hardly a bad thing, given the intention to control restrictive trade practices.

The important point to remember is that the new combination laws did not make any activities illegal which had not already been criminal offenses for centuries…Yet they are described as ‘severe,’ as inaugurating ‘a new and momentous departure, ‘a far-reaching change of policy,’ an era of ‘legal persecution’ of would-be strikers or strikers. These are descriptions of the acts by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in a seriously slanted work characterized at times by meticulous scholarship—a work which has had an enormous influence in spreading the myth. The truth is, however, that the Combination Acts were just as leniently, almost half-heartedly, enforced as the common law against conspiracy (and the various special statutes forbidding conspiracy or combination in particular industries) had previously been. (STS, pp 31-32).

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Written by Admin

April 16, 2006 at 10:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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