Petitions, Parliament and Sugar

04 April 2017

This month, Dr Richard Huzzey looks at parliamentary petitions and taxes on sugar.

Taxes on sugar

In the past, petitioners argued that lower taxes on sugar would help improve the health of the nation. They would be puzzled by the fact that, in the 2016 and 2017 budgets, the House of Commons approved government plans to introduce a sugar tax.

Designed to curb the consumption of unhealthy drinks, the new ‘sugar tax’ follows a 2015 petition to the House of Commons which attracted more than 150,000 signatures and hence secured a parliamentary debate.

But sugar has an even longer tradition of parliamentary petitioning, though it has tended to sour, rather than sweeten, political controversies over the past few centuries. In the eighteenth century, slave-owners in Britain’s West Indian colonies succeeded in lobbying for higher rates of tax on foreign sugar imported in the United Kingdom and across the British Empire. Petitions from sugar refiners, protesting that this would hurt consumers, did not dissuade the House of Commons from passing the 1733 Molasses Act. In fact, this was one of the measures which alienated American colonists in the build-up to their revolution against Britain.

Campaigns against slavery

As part of the campaigns against slavery in the 1820s and the 1830s, abolitionist petitioners sometimes suggested abolition of all preferential treatment for the West Indies – in favour of equal taxes for sugar coming from India or foreign colonies. This demand might form part of abolitionist hopes that free-labour sugar would prove that slavery was not necessary for imperial prosperity. However, it could also reflect the popular and commercial desires to see sugar prices drop and allow more Britons to include sugar in their shopping baskets.

In 1833, Parliament finally abolished slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. More than 14,000 people signed petitions to remove the higher tax on foreign sugar – though this was only a hundredth of the number of signatures supporting emancipation. Remarkably, the £20 million compensation paid to slave-owners (not to slaves) under the Emancipation Act was partly funded through increased taxes on foreign sugar – providing a double form of assistance to the proprietors of plantations.

In fact, sugar would remain at the heart of controversies over international trade policy – and second in importance only to the corn used in bread. Campaigners for free trade argued that removing the distinction between colonial and foreign sugars would allow poor Britons to move from alcoholic beverages to tea or coffee – a rather different model of how sugar taxes should be lowered, not raised, to promote public health.

Popular support for equalising the sugar duties was reflected in petitions supported by 34,000 people in 1840 and 66,000 in 1844. By contrast, there were relatively few signatures for petitions on the other side, from West Indian proprietors and those abolitionists who favoured protectionism for the produce of freed slaves.

Promoting public health

The equalisation of taxes on foreign and imperial sugars in 1846 would be followed, in the 1868-74 Liberal government, by the abolition of all duties on sugar. This was an immensely popular measure with the public, and was intended by Prime Minister William Gladstone to ease the costs of everyday food for workers. In fact, Gladstone thought the abolition of all sugar taxes would promote the health of the public by lowering the price of jam and thus ensuring people got more fruit in their diet. Today, trying to find your five-a-day is probably a wiser choice – and we can expect to see a return, not the abolition, of a sugar tax in pursuit of health benefits.

Dr. Richard Huzzey is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Durham University and Principal Investigator of the Petitions, Parliament and People project. This article is informed by research conducted as part of that project, which he leads alongside Dr. Henry Miller and is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2016-097).

Image: Parham Hill House and sugar plantation, Antigua (detail) by Thomas Hearne, 1779. © Trustees of the British Museum.

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