Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946

By Anthony Howe | Go to book overview

5
Britain and Free Trade in the Age of Gladstone, Bismarck, and Disraeli: The Hegemon's Dilemma, 1865-1886

I have never thought Cobden an oracle either on foreign or home affairs. He believed three things with all his heart. That the repeal of the Corn Laws would break the power of the landed aristocracy. That the example of England would bring about free-trade all over the world. That great wars would never be made again, being incompatible with the ideas of an industrial age. On all three points he has been wrong. The landowners are stronger than before. Europe is showing more protectionist tendencies than twenty years ago and America itself following suit--and all the world is armed to the teeth.

Lord Derby to Sir Stafford Northcote, 26 Feb. 1877.1

THE Liberal vision of European progress, based on free trade, peace, and democracy, so strongly propagated between 1846 and 1865, was to be steeply in decline in the next generation. In the wake of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the growing costs of armaments imposed heavy demands upon exchequers, for whom tariffs grew in attractiveness as sources of revenue.2 The threat posed to free trade by escalating military budgets was, of course, one familiar to economists and politicians schooled by Smith, Mill, and Cobden, but it now evoked a candid reappraisal in the writings of Cliffe Leslie, Passy, and de Lavaleye.3 This fiscal-military challenge was exacerbated by the onset of European-wide depression after 1873, as falling prices, declining profits, and rising unemployment drastically revised the axiom that free trade was synonymous with prosperity.4 This revivified a protectionist tradition that had never entirely disappeared in England, and had remained vocal abroad.5 A third challenge, but

____________________
1
Iddesleigh Papers, BL, Add. MS 50022, fos. 131-2; Derby Papers, 17/2/6 (copy).
2
For an overview of military expenditure and fiscal policy, see J. M. Hobson, "The Military Extraction Gap and the Wary Titan: The Fiscal-Sociology of British Defence Policy 1870-1913", Journal of European Economic History, 22 ( 1993), 461-506; id., ' The Tax-Seeking State: Protectionism, Taxation and State Structures in Germany, Russia, Britain and America, 1870-1914', unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London ( 1991).
3
E. Silberner, The Problem of War in Nineteenth-Century Economic Thought ( Princeton, 1946) brilliantly elucidates this.
4
P. A. Gourevitch, Politics in Hard Times: Comparative Responses to International Economic Crises ( 1986); S. B. Saul, The Myth of the Great Depression 1873-1896 ( 1969).
5
C. N. Newdegate and Lord Bateman exemplified protectionist continuity from the 1840s.

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