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Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption and Civil Society in Modern Britain

Author(s):Trentmann, Frank
Reviewer(s):Cain, Peter J.

Published by EH.NET (October 2008)

Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption and Civil Society in Modern Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xiv + 450 pp. ?25/$50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-19-920920-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter J. Cain, Department of History, Sheffield Hallam University.

In discussions and analyses of trade regimes in Britain from the late nineteenth century through to the 1930s, protectionist campaigns have hogged most of the attention of historians and free trade ? the ruling regime before the 1930s ? has been relatively neglected. For that reason alone, Frank Trentmann?s account of free trade and its supporters would be a welcome addition to the literature: the bonus is that author, Professor of History at Birkbeck College in London University, 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 on a subject that can be very dull indeed.

Trentmann?s case is that support for free trade in Edwardian Britain did not mainly rely on calculations of interest, though he does not totally ignore that, but was driven by a highly emotional, even passionate, commitment akin to nationalist or religious fervor, and was seen by its advocates as a crucial element in defining what they thought of as Britishness. He admits that around 1900 the free trade movement was in poor shape as foreign manufactured imports mounted and foreign tariffs rose, and that some form of protectionism was being discussed even at government level. Chamberlain?s tariff campaign starting in 1903 changed all that. Faced with a clear and open challenge, the free trade cause gathered an astonishing momentum which swept the previously ailing Liberal party into office in 1906 and helped to keep them there through two further elections. Masterminded by the Free Trade Union (which, ironically, learned much from its rival the Tariff Reform League) the electorate was aroused by a campaign of propaganda that successfully associated protection with poverty by reminding the nation of the ?Hungry Forties? when protection had last held sway. The free traders also succeeded in accusing protectionists of attempting to revive an oppressive state; of undermining free trade?s natural tendency to bring peace through economic interdependence; and of serving the interests of a minority of landed and business elites whom they branded as selfish vested interests, intent on creating monopolies and cartels that would exploit the majority of the nation. As Trentmann acutely notes, the campaign had a great effect in politicizing women as key consumers and, more widely, in putting consumers? interests at the center of policy, something that anticipates many modern political movements. All this made for a very lively politics that sometimes erupted into violence and which led to extraordinary organizational developments, such as the great series of lectures and entertainments that the FTU took to the seaside towns of Britain.

After 1914, that momentum proved increasing hard to sustain. The war shook faith in laisser-faire and made state control and big business seem much more natural. Under state auspices, some protection was introduced to regulate imports and ensure that they served the cause of winning the war: free trade thus began to appear as a policy that ministered to individual needs rather than to the national interest. That encouraged the idea of ?safeguarding? key industries after the war in case conflict should erupt again; and the much higher unemployment rates in the 1920s also undermined the long-held idea that free trade naturally meant prosperity. Again, the rise of nutritional science meant that more stress was placed on health and the need for the state to improve it, rather than on the ?cheapness? lauded by free traders that now began to seem synonymous with undernourishment and poverty. Moreover, free trade had clearly failed to keep the peace internationally and radicals who had once been fervent Cobdenites were thinking, by the 1920s, much more of the need for international organizations like the League of Nations to regulate international intercourse rather than relying on the invisible hand of the market. As visions of world peace and prosperity under free trade were challenged, empire increased in appeal and, naturally enough, greater stress was placed on the need to bind the empire to Britain through tariffs. All this served to undermine the great cultural movement that had transformed the Edwardian political scene and by the time the world economy began to collapse in the early 1930s, free trade was viewed not as the cement binding the nation together but as the belief of a relatively few staunch individualists who were out of touch with the times.

There is far more in this fine book than can be represented here and Trentmann makes a powerful case for his interpretation of the evidence. It may be, however, that he underestimates the fragility of the commitment to free trade before 1914, thus making its decline in the 1920s seem more precipitous than it was. Trentmann recognizes that Chamberlain was a godsend to free traders but he does not say enough about how easy he made it for them. Firstly, he split the Conservative party thus making it impossible for them at the 1906 election; secondly, in highlighting imperial preference he failed to garner the level of support that a more wholehearted commitment to domestic protection would have given. It may be true, as Trentmann contends, that effective organization by free traders was crucial to victory in the 1910 elections: but it is still the case that the Liberals only won the two elections of that year by a whisker, despite the fact that protectionism was still hobbled by disunity. Protectionists were also unlucky in their timing: Chamberlain launched his campaign just at the beginning of the long Edwardian boom. Support for protection increased sharply in the brief downturn of 1908-09, and if economic times had been harder free trade might have disappeared sooner. If this is so, it may put in question the depth of the moral commitment to free trade that Trentmann lays such stress upon. It may also suggest the need for a counterbalancing reinvestigation of the importance of interest in maintaining free trade before 1914 and in undermining it after that date.

Peter J. Cain is Professor of History at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. E-mail: He is the author of Hobson and Imperialism: Radicalism, New Liberalism and Finance, 1887-1938 (Oxford, 2002).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII