Liberty Matters

Cobden, Commerce, and Empire

As all the participants in this conversation have noted, the influence of the Anti-Corn Law League on the political consciousness of the British nation was of long duration. As Anthony Howe argues, the idea that taxes on food imports deleteriously impacted on the welfare of the nation was increasingly accepted. Although the League failed to attract mass working-class support, it did succeed in effecting a fundamental shift in the political psychology of workers and in identifying free trade as a vital national interest for an expanding industrial and commercial economy. Over time, working-class opposition to protective duties (and perhaps less enthusiastically, support for free trade) became more pronounced. However, alongside the political opinion of the respectable and politically aware working class, we must set the opinion of those in late-Victorian and early Edwardian Britain who thought little of politics. In August 1903 a walking tour of Britain intended to gauge opinion on the tariff reform issue concluded: 
Above all, the wearisome lack of interest or monotonous opposition to the food taxes as they are known universally throughout the land by the working classes is evident.[112]
It would have taken and indeed ultimately did take a great crisis to effect a paradigm shift of sufficient magnitude to sever the association between protective duties and high food prices.
The power of the League’s propaganda in forging that association in the public mind was evident, not least and perhaps especially, among its opponents. In the 1880s, the fair-trade campaign, in attempting to counter the “big loaf” arguments of free traders, tried to turn the tables by portraying “The Free Trade Loaf” as one-third home-grown, two-thirds foreign-grown, with factories running short time and men out of work. By contrast “The Fair Trade Loaf” was all grown within the Empire, with secure return markets for manufactures, and factories running full-time with plenty of work.[113] Interestingly enough, a placard featured in a drawing was inscribed, “independent of the world,” thus indicating a concern with self-sufficiency, a vintage autarkic pro-Corn Law argument.[114] By contesting anti-corn law discourse and motifs, fair traders, although subverting the original message, perhaps did little more than propagate that message and bolster the association in the public mind between protective duties and high food prices.
Certainly, among the political classes, in a more democratic age, adopting food taxes was considered socially and politically dangerous. Even sympathizers like Lord Randolph Churchill held the view that:
Low prices in the necessaries of life and political stability in a democratic Constitution are practically inseparable, and that high prices in the necessaries of life and political instability in a democratic Constitution are also practically inseparable.[115]
Fair trade struggled to create an identity clearly distinguishable from older forms of protectionism. As Platt has argued, while the movement sought to construct a “national” commercial policy based on protection for domestic industries and imperial preference, “its misfortune was that it became popularly identified with a return to the discredited Protectionism which had ended effectively with the Repeal of the Corn Laws.”[116]
The imperial link was increasingly important in 19th-century politics and political discourse. Clearly Anthony Howe is correct to point to anti-imperialism as something not only submerged within this conversation but also perhaps an understated element in Cobdenite historiography. As well as opposing the protectionist regulatory framework of preferential tariffs, Cobden’s anti-imperialism was closely linked to support for retrenchment in government expenditure, opposition to the growth of militarism, and the rapid and alarming acceleration in Britain’s acquisition of colonial territories.
Anti-imperialism was a pervasive though often subordinate element of his political thought. Early in his career, in a letter of 29 April 1837, he informed William Tait of his thoughts on Britain’s Mediterranean colonies:
Upon Gibraltar I shall give my opinion that it would be best for the English nation to destroy the fortifications; & give up this barren rock to the Spaniards in consideration of a commercial treaty—Upon the subject of Malta I would also advocate the demolition of the fortifications, & the policy of making the island a free port governed by its own people—The Ionian Islands ought not, & must not be suffered, to cost the English a penny—what use are they to us”?[117]
By referencing national self-determination, representative democracy, financial retrenchment, and commercial cooperation, this critique neatly incorporated many important strands in Cobden’s radical anti-imperialism. After Cobden’s death in 1865, the empire assumed greater prominence in British politics. Disraeli was not alone in considering colonial territories as “millstones,” but later in the 19th century Disraeli’s brand of Toryism was increasingly superseded by a more aggressive and modern Conservatism which promoted tighter imperial institutional, political, and commercial links.
While fair trade promoted the linkages between tariffs, military power, and empire, these elements were more coherently bound together and displayed more overtly and vigorously in Joseph Chamberlain’s tariff-reform movement. The struggle between “formal” empire, imperial expansion, territorial annexations, and Cobden’s belief in commerce as a great civilizing force had of course a long lineage. The 1850s had been a particularly tumultuous decade, when Cobden’s vision of a new, peaceful form of international relations based on commercial activity rather than diplomatic and military alliances and rivalries foundered and was continually undermined by colonial wars and territorial expansion in India and China, and war in the Crimea. For Cobden’s consideration of retribution for “imperial crimes,” see this passage from his 1853 pamphlet How Wars are got up in India:
But it is not consistent with the supremacy of that moral law which mysteriously sways the fate of empires, as well as of individuals, that deeds of violence, fraud, and injustice, should be committed with permanent profit and advantage. If wrongs are perpetrated in the name, and by the authority, of this great country, by its proconsuls or naval commanders in distant quarters of the globe, it is not by throwing the flimsy veil of a “double government” over such transactions that we shall ultimately escape the penalty attaching to deeds for which we are really responsible. How, or when, the retribution will re-act upon us, I presume not to say. The rapine in Mexico and Peru was retaliated upon Spain in the ruin of her finances. In France, the razzias of Algeria were repaid by her own troops, in the massacres of the Boulevards, and the savage combats in the streets of Paris. Let us hope that the national conscience, which has before averted from England, by timely atonement and reparation, the punishment due for imperial crimes, will be roused ere it be too late from its lethargy, and put an end to the deeds of violence and injustice which have marked every step of our progress in India. [118]
Imperial and military rivalry meant maintaining a high level of military preparedness. How far Cobden was opposing “official” opinion on peace, international relations, and foreign policy can be seen by reference to the historical trajectory of the mindset of those responsible for British foreign policy. On 14 April 1749, Lord Barrington stated: “Sir, it is a maxim with all wise and well-governed nations, in time of peace, to provide for war.”[119] Over one hundred years later, on 11 March 1861, Viscount Palmerston speaking amidst the threat of war with France stated:
I am really sorry to be discussing the possibility of feelings of hostility between two countries that, I hope, will long remain friends; but it is with the object of impressing on the House and on the country that there is no possibility of peace and friendship between two wealthy and powerful nations unless each is on such a footing as to its defences that neither may invite attack by the other.[120]
This type of language was depressingly familiar to Cobden and reflected the war-like, defensive, and suspicious propensities of the political elite, fueled by aristocratic political control of the State. Despite his period of political isolation, Cobden’s return to activity and in negotiating the 1860 Anglo-French treaty validated his belief in commerce as a force for international peace. While this process was diplomatic and political rather being based on purer notions of free exchange between peoples, it did offer a way forward. Cobden saw it mainly as a means of avoiding war, but in personal terms, perhaps his involvement represented a new realism based on the practicalities of working within the diplomatic parameters of the international state system.
We have seen how Cobden’s political ideas remain influential, albeit operating in a very different political context from that of mid-Victorian Britain. Moreover, Cobden’s influence is likely to endure for some time yet. The complexities of global trade, and the struggle for open markets against regulatory restrictions like quotas and subsidies, as well as the continually contested area of ethical foreign policies mean there is much scope for further exploration of Cobdenite ideas. Elements of Cobden’s thought are likely to remain within the policy space and may well inform or at least be a point of reference for policymakers in the future.
[112.] Daily Mail, 29 August 1903.
[113.] Fair Trade: A Weekly Journal Devoted to Industry and Commerce, 30 October 1885; 6 November 1885.
[114.] Fair Trade: A Weekly Journal Devoted to Industry and Commerce, 6 November 1885.
[115.] Brown, B.H. 1943. The Tariff Reform Movement in Great Britain 1881-1895. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 68.
[116.] Platt, D.C.M. 1968. Finance, Trade, and Politics in British Foreign Policy 1815-1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 84.
[117.] Howe, Anthony. ed. 2007. The Letters of Richard Cobden, vol. 1, 1815-1847. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 103.
[118.] Richard Cobden, The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, with a Preface by Lord Welby, Introductions by Sir Louis Mallet, C.B., and William Cullen Bryant, Notes by F.W. Chesson and a Bibliography, vol. 2, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903). "How Wars are got up in India" </titles/231#Cobden_0424-02_365>.
[119.] Hansard. 1747-53. “Debate on a Plan for Speedily Manning the Navy.” Parliamentary History. XIV, 538.
[120.] Hansard. 1861. “Supply—Navy Estimates.” HC Debates. CLXI, 1789. <>