Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946

By Anthony Howe | Go to book overview

4
Free Trade and Liberal Politics, 1866-1886

The name and character of Mr Cobden, and the main ideas and views which he laboured so anxiously and so powerfully to spread, are elevated much above the level of mere party combinations, however just and honorable, and attach themselves directly to the common interests of mankind. They are entitled to universal acceptance, and if unhappily they are in fact embraced with few exceptions by the members of one party only, that circumstance is to be regarded with satisfaction in the interests of that party, but with the hope that others may gradually be brought within their influence.

Gladstone to T. B. Potter, 18 July 18661

Take the last half-century. There have been various policies, commanding general assent; free trade--? Here Sir Orlando gave a kindly wave of his hand, showing that on behalf of his companion he was willing to place at the heart of the list a policy which had not always commanded his assent.

A. Trollope, The Prime Minister ( 1876), ch. 20.

COBDENITE foreign policy, Gladstonian fiscal politics, and Palmerstonian 'free trade imperialism' had all merged in the 'Age of Equipoise' as essential, if sometimes discordant, elements in a domestic political consensus. In this context, free trade had become almost 'an unspoken assumption', as protectionism retreated to the margins of politics after 1860. 'Not for one generation, but for the best part of two', Morley was to recall, 'his [ Cobden's] political thought supplied both parties, more or less sincerely, with working principles and fighting watchwords, and was accepted as the system by which the strength of the nation could be secured.'2 Thus, as Searle and others have shown, while some of the Radical entrepreneurial ambitions of the 1840s class politics had receded, the central goals of the free traders in fiscal and foreign policy had become the orthodoxy of the mid-Victorian state, ensuring the abandonment of privilege, extravagance, and corruption at home, and the promotion of commerce and free trade abroad.3

Yet if the world seemed safe for free trade in 1865, it soon faced vital challenges. Gladstonian fiscal politics were slowly to be undermined by rising public expendi-

____________________
1
Cobden Papers, British Library (hereafter CP), Add. MS 43678, fo. 52.
2
J. Morley, Recollections (2 vols, 1917), vol. 1, 143.
3
G. R. Searle, Entrepreneurial Politics in Mid-Victorian Britain ( Oxford, 1993), passim; A. Howe, The Cotton Masters 1830-1860 ( Oxford Historical Monographs: Oxford, 1984), 229-47.

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