Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946

By Anthony Howe | Go to book overview

6
'The Free Trade Fetish': Gold, Sugar, and the Empire, 1886-1903?

I do not think that there is anyone more convinced than myself of the theoretical soundness of Free Trade views or of the practical advantages which we have derived from their application . . . while I hold that also Peace or Free Trade are most excellent things, it may sometimes be necessary to threaten war and to risk war in order to preserve peace, and so it may be necessary to threaten, or even resort to retaliation in order to secure the development of Free Trade.

Chamberlain to Strachey, 23 Jan. 1899.1

'FREE trade idolatry' remained, especially in the eyes of its critics, at the centre of both Liberal politics and British foreign policy in late Victorian Britain.2 Yet, paradoxically, it also seemed to many commentators that Cobdenism was dead. The most self-conscious of Cobdenites, Sir Louis Mallet, believed that the free trade battle had ended in defeat, the cause ironically killed off by Gladstone's own economic heresies.3 Observers and obituarists repeatedly, if prematurely, identified the 'last of the Cobdenites', for example in Sir Thomas Farrer of the Board of Trade, and in Cobden's biographer Morley.4 As Cobdenite certainty withered, those most closely identified with mid-Victorian optimism believed themselves to be beleaguered defenders of truth against error, with Gladstone considering himself one of a dying breed, 'fundamentally a Peel-Cobden man'.5 Another old faithful, Goldwin Smith, asserted the permanent validity of the principles of the Manchester School--free trade, retrenchment, religious equality, peace, and 'common sense' government--while conscious of their rapid fading, surviving as mere relics of a personal connection.6 This pessimism seemed all too justified by 1896, when celebration of the jubilee of the repeal of the Corn Laws turned all too easily

____________________
1
Strachey Papers, S/6/10, House of Lords Record Office.
2
For a representative view, see Lord Penzance [J. P. Wilde], "The Free Trade Idolatry", Nineteenth Century, 19 ( 1886), 380-95, 590-605.
3
Mallet to Farrer, 25 Jan., 1 Feb. 1886, Farrer Papers; Mallet to T. B. Potter, 8 Mar. 1889, in CCM, 9 Mar. 1889.
4
Morley wrote to J. A. Spender in 1898 to affirm his own claims against The Westminster Gazette's description of Lord Salibury as 'the only living example of a "resolute Cobdenite"': 'MP' [ Morley] to Spender, 11 Nov. 1898, Spender Papers, Add. MS 46391, BL. For Farrer, The Times, 13 Oct. 1899: 'the only surviving unimpaired specimen of the Manchester School.'
5
Quoted H. C. G. Matthew, The Liberal Imperialists ( Oxford Historical Monographs: Oxford, 1973), vii.
6
Goldwin Smith, "The Manchester School", Contemporary Review, 67 ( 1895), 377-89; "The End of the Manchester School", Spectator, 12 Nov. 1898, 681-2.

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