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Free Trade Nation

Review by: Sean Kelly, Texas A&M University

Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, xiv, 450 pp.

Today, the phrase ‘free trade’ is generally associated with neo-liberal economics and anti-globalization protests. For late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britons, however, free trade was the ‘keystone of democracy, peace, and prosperity’ (p. 3), arguably rivalling parliamentary liberty as the national ideology of the United Kingdom. Free Trade Nation examines the creation of this Edwardian juggernaut, which until the outbreak of war in 1914 seemed unbreakable, and assesses why developments during the Great War and the 1920s stripped away the support of civil society, thereby ensuring that a defining feature of British politics for over four generations died with nary a whimper in the early 1930s. In doing so, Frank Trentmann breaks new scholarly ground. Rather than another examination of why Conservative efforts to enact tariff reform failed, Trentmann asks why and, more importantly, how free trade prevailed in the decades after William Gladstone’s Free Trade budget of 1860.

Unlike the Anti-Corn Law League, which operated in a pre-democratic system and commanded little popular support, defenders of free trade were able to mobilize support from almost every quarter of British society following Joseph Chamberlain’s demand in May 1903 for a two shilling duty on foreign corn. At a time when women and roughly one-third of men lacked the vote, consumption and public politics became inseparable. Although Britons enjoyed the highest living standard in Europe, tales from The Hungary Forties (1904) and the ‘cheap loaf’ emerged as potent symbols of the benefits free trade had brought. Cheaper food prices were actually a consequence of improved shipping technologies that created an integrated global food system, but the almost half a million copies of The Hungary Forties that were sold or given away in the ensuing decade drowned out the counter arguments put forth by tariff reformers. Poster and leaflet campaigns, along with public speeches, lectures and lantern slideshows delivered by both men and women profoundly reshaped Britain’s civic culture, even extending into the previously non-political seaside resort. By the end of 1912, a Yorkshire Conservative bemoaned the fact that ‘the poor people hereabouts look upon Free Trade as we do upon Trial by Jury… an absolute fundamental right, to buy eatables as cheaply as circumstances will allow’ (p. 79). The victory of the Edwardian ‘citizen-consumer’ seemed complete. Cheap white bread safeguarded Britons against starvation and the barbaric extremes that German workers were driven to by tariffs, including the consumption of course black bread, horsemeat, etc. The debate over tariff reform also polarized politics by eliminating moderate voices on both sides, thereby ensuring that Britain’s dogmatic adherence to unilateral free trade remained completely enacted.

Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, the government rejected calls for the public control of food in favour of the traditional laissez-faire approach. Legislating prices and/or specific rations entailed explosive questions about fairness and the rights and duties of the consumer, who grew increasingly angry over soaring prices and food shortages that seemed to hit working-class districts the hardest. The ‘milk famines’ in the winters of 1917-18 and 1918-19 signalled the failure of free trade. Moreover, free trade Britain had long resisted regulations adopted in the United States and Scandinavia that reduced the rates of tuberculosis-infected milk and infant mortality. Demands for the ‘cheap loaf’ gave way to calls for consumers to have a direct voice in government in order to ensure ‘fair’ and stable prices on essential foodstuffs. Malnutrition was replacing starvation as the main public health concern. Throughout the 1920s, with the First World War having broken the Liberal monopoly on the citizen-consumer, free trade was under attack by both the Labour and Conservative parties. All parties were also courting new women voters. The ‘Buy British’ and ‘Empire Shopping’ campaigns, in particular, proved effective in attracting middle-class, suburban and Middle-England housewives to the Conservative party and their vision of the imperial-consumer. For example, Sultanas from Australia were marketed as being purer/cleaner than those from Turkey. Consumer nationalism was now being used as both a pro- and anti-imperial statement. In the aftermath of the war, trade was seen increasingly as a political issue, whose co-ordination required trans-national institutions. Consequently, former supporters of free trade became proponents of the League of Nations while others joined the Labour Party. Still others put their faith in a revitalised ‘Third British Empire’. By the end of the 1920s, abandoned by its supporters, the death of free trade had become a question of not if, but when.

In writing Free Trade Nation, Trentmann set out to tell the personal histories of free trade and also to write a new political history. He succeeds admirably on both accounts. Supported by a seventy-seven page bibliography, which is available online, the book vividly illustrates that politics in early twentieth century Britain were far more fluid than standard accounts of high politics allow for. The hopes and fears of the average Briton had sustained free trade in an era when the rest of the world embraced protectionism. Once free trade became divorced from civil society, its legitimacy was fatally undermined, a point that both opponents and defenders of twenty-first century globalisation would do well to heed. Free Trade Nation should be read by anyone interested in the history of modern Britain.

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