Britain hoists the flag for free trade

Free Trade and Liberal England 1846-1946
May 14, 1999

No major power matched Britain's tenacious loyalty to free trade. This fundamental policy of liberalism is conventionally dated from the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 to the introduction of general protection in November 1931. Anthony Howe offers a very thorough political history of the policy, built on detailed study of extensive secondary and primary sources.

The simplest story is based on the appeal of cheaper food to the urban voter, but not to the rural landowner, farmer or even agricultural labourer. When urban power outweighed rural influence, tariffs on food imports had to go. Even without the Irish famine, the Corn Laws would have been repealed around mid-century purely because of the pace of British industrialisation. The persuasiveness of the Anti-Corn Law League was no political accident. After repeal, food tariffs were not replaced immediately by duties on manufactures because so few were imported. Late 19th-century free-trade Britain was rich because she was highly specialised, dominating global cotton textile production and ship-building and highly dependent on food imports. All this was changed by the 1914-18 war and its aftermath. Britain experienced painful and slow restructuring of her "overcommitted" industries to the inter-war world of economic nationalism. A domestic tariff response was not long coming.

Howe's account is richer and more complex. He is concerned with ideas and individuals, with the historiography and mythology of the repeal of the Corn Laws, and with the transmission of free-trade values as well. He explains that the most durable myth of repeal was that "millocrats" beat the landed interest, whereas actually the key was evangelical political economy. Prime minister Robert Peel was concerned to put country above party, not only where the famine was concerned but to free policy from interest-group pressures; repeal removed an opportunity for lobbying.

The most striking individual in the history of British free trade is Richard Cobden. He transformed an apparently banal theme into a symbol of universal brotherhood and became a key political figure in continental Europe. Free trade could unite interests across national boundaries and abolish war, he believed. The Cobden-Chevalier, or Anglo-French, tariff treaty of 1860 remains famous for the introduction of the most-favoured nation clause. Howe shows that for Gladstone the treaty was an alternative to war with France over the Italian question. Cobden's doctrines were carried forward by the Cobden Club. The club strongly influenced the background of liberal policy-making in 1866-86 by creating a public arena for discussing principles of Cobdenism and their application, such as internationalism and free trade, land law reform and limited fiscal policy.

By contrast, Palmerston's adhesion to free trade stemmed from an interest in cheaper government and greater exports. If governments were restricted in their tax instruments, their spending would be restrained. Cobdenism became the conventional wisdom for perhaps two decades after 1860. Thereafter, rising public expenditure, boosted by military budget costs and imperial adventures, put liberal economic policies under pressure. Foreign competition triggered a protectionist "fair trade" movement near the end of the century. Yet when the Conservatives mounted this bandwagon, they were decisively defeated in the 1906 election. Between the world wars, Labour briefly assumed Cobden's standard by repealing the McKenna duties, but soon after tariff reform triumphed in the world depression.

Howe concludes his persuasive history with a comparison with the Pax Americana a century after repeal. Britain's place in the world had shrunk and US policy-makers assumed Cobden's mantle through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

It would have been interesting to hear Howe's views on whether Europe's drive for a single market and a common currency can be seen as another strand of Cobdenite idealism or whether these policies were much more pragmatic.

James Foreman-Peck is a fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford.

Free Trade and Liberal England 1846-1946

Author - Anthony Howe
ISBN - 0 19 820146 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £45.00
Pages - 336

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