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Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain Hardcover – 28 Feb 2008

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (28 Feb. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199209200
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199209200
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 4.3 x 16 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,669,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

Review

Trentmann has not only added a great deal to our knowledge through painstaking research but has written about it with verve and energy and produced a most readable volume...[a] fine book. (Peter J. Cain EH.NET)

Here we have 'a human history of Free Trade' that is at once a delight to read and a cause of profound intellectual stimulation. It graphically brings alive - with splendid colour reproductions of propaganda posters too - the popular passions and prejudices of a world that suddenly ended during the First World War...This is a book imbued with fine scholarship, but one that deserves a wide readership (Peter Clarke, Times Literary Supplement)

[An] absorbing book (History Today)

...an inspired history...Trentmann's book unfolds a dramatic story...gripping (Neue Zuercher Zeitung)

Thoughtful and well-researched. (Christopher Harvie, The Independent)

[A] lucid history of free trade in Britain (David Connett, Sunday Express)

This is terrific history that will inspire economists to remember their subject really can arouse passion. (Evan Davis, BBC Economics Editor)

brilliant (Sunday Telegraph)

[A] fascinating work (Il Riformista)

..paints a vivid picture of the ideological controversy over Free Trade that remains relevant to this day. (Luxemburger Wort)

offers a fresh look at a chapter in British and world history, while at the same time providing a historical perspective on today's debate about globalisation, challenging the ways we have come to think about trade, justice and democracy. (Society Now)

Free Trade Nation is history at its best: far-reaching and authoritative, its story of the rise and fall of free trade as a widely-held belief marked by justice, fairness, and peace provocatively refashions the history of early-twentieth-century Britain, reminds us of an age when popular politics exerted real power, and forces us to rethink our contemporary views of consumers, markets and morality. (Professor John Brewer, California Institute of Technology)

a landmark in economic history and the history of ideas...offers a new perspective on the contemporary process of globalization...Free Trade Nation describes with sensitivity and erudition the ideological milieu that gave birth to a "new liberalism" sensitive to the dangers of unbridled capitalism gone mad, such as John A. Hobson and John M. Keynes...Globalization, Trentmann shows us, is not just the fruit of economic interaction. It is first and foremost the product of debate over ideas within civil society and politics. (La Vie des Idées)

Frank Trentmann...has not only added a great deal to our knowledge through painstaking research but has written about it with verve and energy and produced a most readable volume. (Reviews in Economic and Business History)

About the Author

Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence. He has publised widely on modern economic history, most recently Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism (2007, with Kevin Grant and Philippa Levine) and Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives (2006, with John Brewer).


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Format: 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x98b90b40) out of 5 stars 1 review
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x99630cfc) out of 5 stars Fascinating and inspirational 17 Oct. 2008
By HuddsOn - Published on Amazon.com
Format: 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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