Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946

By Anthony Howe | Go to book overview

I
Free Trade and the Early Victorians: The Corn Laws Repealed, 1846

A great and hazardous experiment is about to be made, novel in its character, and without the support of experience to guide or direct it, embracing and extending over unbounded interests, and pregnant with results that may prove fatal in their consequences.

Sir John Gladstone, Plain Facts intimately connected with the intended Repeal of the Corn Laws ( 1846), 30.

The question itself grew upon me from year to year; the principle involved in our struggle expanded into such world-wide importance that I became more and more enamoured of it. Cobden to Grey, 1 June 1846.1

THE repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was, in many ways, far more long-lasting in its political and economic implications than other supposedly pivotal events in nineteenth-century Britain, for example, the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867. For, in abandoning the tariffs which had for centuries protected her agriculture, Britain launched herself upon an unprecedented course, seeking to lead the world towards a peaceful order based on free commercial exchange between individuals and nations. Subsequently, and uniquely among the leading powers of Europe, Britain declined to return to protection during the Great Depression of 1873-96, and despite the strong protectionist leanings of her self-governing colonies, the ideal of a free trade empire persisted well into the twentieth century. From 1846 British foreign policy was also based firmly and consistently on the desirability of free trade within the international system. Electorally, free trade won persistent endorsement against successive protectionist, fair trade, and tariff reform challenges. Only in 1931, in conditions of national crisis, did the Chamberlainite alternative of tariff reform and imperial preference overturn this deeply rooted political consensus. But, for the best part of a century free trade has outstanding claims to be considered the single most distinctive characteristic of the British state, joining Protestantism and empire as an indispensable hallmark of England's world 'mission'.

The Corn Laws, so decisively rejected in 1846, were themselves part of a wider protectionist structure which had sought since the seventeenth century to embrace

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1
Papers of the 3rd Earl Grey, Department of Paleography and Diplomatic, University of Durham (hereafter Grey Papers).

-1-

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