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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and inspirational, 16 Oct. 2008
This review is from: Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Hardcover)
These days, if the term "free trade" evokes any kind of response among the British public, it is likely to be a sort of weary resignation. We're sad to see our traditional manufacturing industries being decimated by cheap imports from the Far East. But what can you do? You can't stop progress, says the man or woman in the street. In the public mind there is still some vague association between free trade and modernity, efficiency and even increased material comfort. But free trade is perceived as something to be grudgingly accepted rather than celebrated.

In Britain 100 years ago, as Trentmann vividly demonstrates, things could hardly have been more different. To its proponents, free trade was nothing less than a secular religion. It was praised for instilling positive moral values such as thrift, honesty and initiative among both entrepreneurs and the general public, and for promoting international harmony. It was also upheld as the best guarantor of probity and transparency in public life. Protectionism, on the other hand, nurtured greed, jealousy, and xenophobia, and opened the door to sleaze and favouritism in government.

For much of the second half of the 19th Century, Britain's economy had functioned on free trade principles. Tariffs were only to be used as a means of raising revenue, not as a means of protection or even as a bargaining lever. An import tariff had to be accompanied by an equal excise duty on the equivalent home-produced article or commodity. By the end of the century, however, this approach was being called into question. Britain faced growing industrial competition from openly protectionist states such as Germany and America. The terms of the debate became deeply polarised when Joseph Chamberlain (leader of the Conservative-aligned "Liberal Unionists") launched his crusade for "Tariff Reform". He advocated a comprehensive tariff "wall" that would give preference to Empire goods while keeping out those of competitors.

The ensuing ideological struggle between free trade and protection was not the preserve of professional economists - it energised vast numbers of ordinary people. Pressure groups like the Tariff Reform League and Free Trade Union toured the country giving delivering speeches, lectures, and magic lantern shows. The Free Traders often leaned heavily on social justice concerns. They raised the spectre of higher food prices, which would hit the poor hardest. The Tariff Reformers, for their part, had the seemingly commonsense argument that working-class people would not benefit much from lower prices if it meant they'd be out of work.

Both sides employed various kinds of political theatre, satire, and agitprop to their advantage as well as facts and figures. For example, the Tariff Reformers opened 160 "dump shops" in one year alone. These would be stocked entirely with foreign-made goods with the country of origin prominently displayed, as an indication of how overseas manufacturers were destroying British jobs by "dumping" cheap products on the market. Typically a Swedish-made coffin would greet viewers at the entrance - the symbolism being all too obvious.

Against these formidable odds, it seemed by 1913 that the case for Free Trade was being won in Britain. Some other countries, notably the United States, were taking tentative steps in the direction of trade liberalisation as well. But the following year, the world was at war. Perhaps some Liberals hoped, or even assumed, that history was still on their side and that the appalling cataclysm of the Great War would be only a brief interruption in the onward march of the glorious Free Trade project. It was not to be. The War caused more than short-term devastation - it shook many fundamental assumptions about trade, progress, and the proper role of government. It became more difficult to argue convincingly that nations didn't need to be self-sufficient in food. Consumers, meanwhile, were painfully aware that free-market principles had failed to protect them from profiteering during the War. And there was increased public concern about the wholesomeness and nutritional quality of food - what the author calls "the cult of cheapness" could no longer be held up as the overriding principle. Meanwhile, the Labour Party had supplanted the Liberals as the main anti-Conservative force. While supportive of free trade in principle, they increasingly treated the trade debate as a distraction from more pressing questions of social inequality.

In a decisive break with free-trade purism, the post-War Government brought in selective tariffs, initially for certain "key industries". But the onset of the Great Depression, with soaring unemployment accompanied by a worsening balance of trade, proved the final nail in the coffin for free trade in Britain.

As well as providing a riveting and inspiring account of popular political culture in the first three decades of the 20th Century, the book gives the reader considerable insight into the evolution of the British party political system. Trentmann explains how the Liberals struggled to find a new role for themselves in the inter-War period. Divisions emerged between the individualist free-marketeers and the larger "progressive" wing who favoured a more extensive role for the state. This crisis of identity has continued to dog their present day successors, the Liberal Democrats.

In the present political climate of disengagement and postmodern scepticism, it is difficult to imagine people ever again being so passionate about a simple, big, world-changing idea like free trade. As the author points out, it is now actively reviled by many left-wing internationalists for undermining food security and leading to "sweatshop economies" in the developing world.

In the last chapter the author does reveal where his current sympathies lie, and it's not with the protectionists or anti-globalisers. But notwithstanding this he maintains a commendable lack of bias throughout. Free Trade Nation is immensely readable, well-illustrated, well-referenced, and sheds light on a largely forgotten phase in Britain's political evolution. I unreservedly recommend it.
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Location: Huddersfield, England

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