Given the rise of populism in recent years (e.g. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump), which was fuelled by a popular backlash against certain aspects of globalisation and economic openness, there is now an urgent need to reconsider the way globalisation and free trade are promoted to the public. Apart from reciting the textbook economic benefits of freer trade – which include lower inflation, the invigorating impact of international competition, economic growth, and the promise of shared global prosperity – politicians since the end of the Second World War have tended to emphasise the foreign policy benefits of embracing lower trade barriers. In the post-war United States, the drive for lower trade barriers was intertwined with the pursuit of Cold War defence priorities; it was later tied to democracy promotion, though the absence of a mechanistic link between free trade and political liberalisation appears to have now been openly recognised in Washington itself.[1]

These arguments may no longer suffice as the populist challenge grows. The proponents of free trade should consider a different strategy: beating the populist-protectionists at their own game by incorporating some elements of their language; not the vile bits, of course, but simply the elements that may help to shape a popular movement in favour of globalisation. This could lead to a new public narrative of ‘free trade populism’, with globalisation as a tool for restraining the worst instincts of selfish ‘elites’, giving a voice to the politically disenfranchised, and safeguarding the interests of the poor.

The idea of free trade populism may seem counter-intuitive to some, given the clear present-day association between populism and hostility to globalisation. But it has been done before. As the historian Frank Trentmann has shown, in the late-nineteenth century and the Edwardian period (from around 1901 to 1910), free trade in Britain ‘grew into a genuine national and democratic culture, reaching all classes and regions, mobilizing men, women, and children, and cutting across party political divides.’[2] Free trade was not merely a textbook economic proposition or an elite watchword; it was something closer to a secular faith. According to Frank Trentmann, free trade ‘was the closest modern Britain ever came to a national ideology, as important as parliamentary liberty.’[3]

Britain’s conversion to free trade came in 1846 with the repeal of the Corn Laws. Richard Cobden, who, as leader of the Anti-Corn Law League, had played a decisive role in the free trade triumph of 1846, believed fervently that free trade would pave the way for international peace, an argument that still holds wide currency today among pro-globalisation voices.[4] The free trade crusaders also scored victories in continental Europe. The conclusion of the Cobden-Chevalier treaty in 1860, an Anglo-French commercial treaty that contained the most-favoured-nation clause, ushered in a wave of trade agreements across Europe. In the late-nineteenth century, however, the long depression of 1873 to 1896 triggered a protectionist resurgence across continental Europe and in other parts of the world. Britain, however, stayed true to unilateral free trade, maintaining an open market for foreign goods even as its economic rivals raised their trade barriers.[5] This was an extraordinary course of action, not least because Britain was experiencing relative economic decline by the late-nineteenth century. It is almost unthinkable that a present-day great power confronted with growing foreign economic competition would have the temerity to adopt a similar posture. But unilateral free trade was not uncontested. In 1903, Joseph Chamberlain, the main spokesman for the cause of protection, threw the gauntlet down to the free traders and announced his campaign for ‘Tariff Reform’. Ironically, this challenge revivified the free trade movement.[6] ‘Chamberlain’, Trentmann notes, ‘was the best thing that could have happened to Free Trade.’[7] Free trade triumphed over Tariff Reform at the general elections of the Edwardian period. It was not until 1931 that Britain finally abandoned free trade.

How did free trade grow into a popular movement in Edwardian Britain? The Edwardian free traders, as Frank Trentmann shows, were masters of public storytelling. In their hands, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was presented to the public as an emotionally-charged tale of liberation from hunger, want, and barbarism.[8] The free traders mobilised elderly witnesses from working class communities who could recall the starvation, along with its de-humanizing effects, that had resulted from the high price of food before the repeal of the Corn Laws. Jane Cobden Unwin, Richard Cobden’s daughter, edited many of these stories into a collection called The Hungry Forties, which subsequently became a bestseller over the course of the Edwardian period.[9] The recollections that were assembled by the Edwardian free traders were highly graphic: starvation had driven men to crime; a miasma of fear and death had descended on the country.[10] The narrative of the ‘hungry forties’ was not an entirely accurate representation of trends in the standard of living before the age of free trade, but it was a masterful piece of popular storytelling. It was also unabashedly populist: the ‘people’ were victims of ‘oppression and enslavement’ in the ‘hungry forties’, but free trade broke their shackles.[11]

This facility for public storytelling was reinforced with an equally keen display of political communications. The link between free trade and cheap food found expression in the humble and uncomplicated image of the ‘cheap loaf’, which served as the flagship symbol of the free trade cause.[12] The ‘cheap loaf’ energised the Edwardian free trade brigade in the same way that Trump’s ‘wall’ energised – and continues to energise – the Republican base. The free trader’s cheap loaf, like Trump’s wall, was more than a mere pictorial representation of a particular policy desideratum: both images, in fact, communicate ‘broad ideas about culture, society, and national identity.’[13] The Edwardian free traders fashioned the cheap white loaf into a nationalist symbol that conveyed the superiority of the British way of life; its antithesis was, unsurprisingly, the black bread of the German adversary, which, so the story went, was part of a savage diet that included horse meat and dog meat.[14] The Edwardian free traders also launched ‘the first multi-media campaign in modern politics’.[15] They spread their gospel with the aid of lantern slides, richly-coloured posters, and other audio-visual media.[16] They pounded the pavement relentlessly, even descending on seaside resorts to preach free trade to tourists.[17] In their missionary zeal, they ‘self-consciously turned entertainment and spectacle into an integral part of political communication.’[18]

The Edwardian free traders were astute enough to avoid the mistake of relying solely on the dull explication of the economics of free trade. Successful popular mobilization in favour of a particular cause requires energetic and vibrant popular storytelling. According to Trentmann, the ‘Remain’ campaign in the EU referendum of 2016 made the mistake of founding its case solely on the economic benefits of remaining in the EU. ‘It had no story’, Trentmann explained, ‘let alone a popular one about the wider benefits of openness. It entirely forgot that economic arguments, however strong and valid, do not win by themselves.’[19]

In the view of the Edwardian free traders, the ‘wider benefits of openness’ extended to the non-economic sphere. Free trade, they thundered, was the cornerstone of civil society, an argument that resonated deeply with the cooperative movement. The radical George Holyoake argued that the repeal of the Corn Laws had liberated the workers from capitalist oppression by carving out a ‘space for self-organisation’.[20] Free trade created a cordon sanitaire between the state and grasping private interests; it inoculated the state against the corrupting embrace of aristocrats and monopolists and secured ‘the autonomy of social institutions’.[21] Autonomous organisations devoted to the interests of the workers could thrive within this purified framework. Holyoake praised the cooperative movement as a vehicle for promoting the principles of self-help among the working class.[22] The Edwardians also noted that autonomous organisations flourishing under the umbrella of free trade would lead to salutary effects for democracy. Women still lacked the vote in the Edwardian period, along with men who did not meet the necessary property qualifications. Participation in the cooperative movement was seen as a vital means of acquainting women – more specifically, the ‘housewife’ – with the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.[23] For women, therefore, free trade became a vector that afforded them a form of stealth citizenship. It allowed them to parlay their identity as housewives into a measure of public agency. As managers of their household budgets, they felt the full force of the inflationary impact of tariffs on food prices; as members of the ranks of those who lacked the vote, they embodied the inequity of taxation without representation.[24]

The Edwardian free traders were, of course, presenting a deeply ideological account of the past; voluntary associations, in fact, had not had much trouble flourishing in the so-called dark age of protection.[25] Nevertheless, this was yet another example of the role of effective public storytelling in mobilizing popular support. The public appeal of the Edwardian free traders’ stories and arguments also stemmed from their deeply moralistic character. Tariffs would corrupt politics by opening the door to special pleading from shadowy, privileged interests. As a noble posture of ‘unselfishness and impartiality’, free trade would cultivate public and private virtue.[26] Free trade, according to the Edwardian free traders, would mitigate the evils of materialism and selfishness. It would encourage financial prudence, self-help, and public-spiritedness. The competitive conditions secured by free trade would lead to moral improvement. Tariffs, in contrast, would pave the way for moral collapse: indolence, self-indulgence, dependency, and selfishness would follow in its wake.[27] The populist undertones of Edwardian free trade rhetoric were unmistakable: free trade was democratic in character and morally superior; protectionism was linked with moneyed and monopoly interests seeking to commandeer politics and corrupt public life.[28] The United States, which protected its home market with high tariffs, was held up as living proof of the bleak moral and social consequences of protectionism. In the United States, according to the Edwardian free traders, materialism ran rampant and over-mighty capitalist combines had corrupted political life. The Tariff Reformers, the free traders warned, were seeking to pursue inordinate wealth in the fashion of the American robber baron.[29]

The Edwardian free traders believed that free trade would lead to world peace, but their moral vision also embraced domestic concerns and popular feeling. Free trade infused society with moral energy, guaranteed clean government, promoted public-spiritedness, contained selfishness and materialism, ensured equity in socio-economic affairs, and empowered the politically disenfranchised. The civic protagonist at the centre of the Edwardian free traders’ moral narratives was the ‘citizen-consumer’; there was an identity, they argued, between the consumer and the public interest.[30] Tariff Reform favoured the producer and imposed taxes on the consumer; it was thus sectional and selfish.[31] Free trade, on the other hand, favoured the consumer and therefore ‘the legitimate public interest as a whole.’[32] The focus on the citizen-consumer imparted a democratic character to free trade by incorporating those who lacked the right to participate in politics – ‘the poor, women, and children’ – into the body politic.[33] This holds an important lesson for contemporary free traders and ‘globalisers’. It is fine and well to defend free trade in terms of a global moral vision, but the dream of world peace and international democracy may not resonate with everyone back home and may not be entirely relevant to the task of countering populist slogans. Instead, the reconstitution of the relationship between free trade and popular sentiment and concerns à la the Edwardian free traders may prove to be more effective in outbidding and outshouting populist narratives that aim, in their own way, to pit the ‘people’ against ‘elites’.

It goes without saying that the modern-day free trade populist should not mindlessly trot out the same arguments as the Edwardian free traders. After all, those who lacked the vote then now have it; the cry of cheap food may also seem idle, given the modern state’s broad arsenal of interventionist tools for promoting socio-economic welfare. It is worth noting that the Edwardian free trade coalition eventually fell apart because its constituents, confronted with the trauma and disruptions of the First World War, shifted their priorities and thus demoted the relevance of free trade as a solution to their problems.[34] The talismanic appeal of cheap food, for example, gave way to concerns centred on price stability and steady supplies. State intervention, rather than free trade, was touted as the more appropriate solution to these concerns.[35] An updated version of free trade populism would thus have to engage with the hopes and fears of a modern-day popular audience. Nevertheless, as the lost age of free trade populism shows, developing a popular base for globalisation that is removed from its problematic image as the exclusive project of the Davos crowd would not necessarily be a fool’s errand.


[1] In his speech before the Hudson Institute on 4 October 2018, Vice President Mike Pence noted that the United States had opened its markets to China and supported its entry into the WTO ‘in the hope that freedom in China would expand in all forms’. ‘[B]ut’, he added, ‘that hope has gone unfulfilled.’ Instead, China was doubling down on authoritarianism and mercantilism. See ‘Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China’. Available online at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-administrations-policy-toward-china/ (Last accessed on 28 May 2019).

[2] Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford, 2008), p. 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jack Ma, for example, seems to believe in the Cobdenite faith. See Robert Delaney, ‘China’s Jack Ma plans to sway Trump on trade, globalisation’, The South China Morning Post, 20 July 2018. Available online at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2099601/chinas-jack-ma-plans-sway-trump-trade-globalisation (Last Accessed on 28 May 2019).

[5] Trentmann, Free Trade Nation, p. 6.

[6] Martin Daunton, Wealth and Welfare: An Economic and Social History of Britain 1851-1951 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 205-206.

[7] Trentmann, Free Trade Nation, p. 185.

[8] Ibid., pp. 34-39.

[9] Ibid., pp. 37-41.

[10] Ibid., pp. 38-39.

[11] Ibid., pp. 40-41.

[12] Ibid., pp. 88-89.

[13] Ibid., p. 88.

[14] Ibid., p. 95.

[15] Ibid., p. 122.

[16] Ibid., pp. 122-130.

[17] Ibid., pp. 109-114.

[18] Ibid., p. 112.

[19] Frank Trentmann, ‘The Wealth of a Nation’, HuffPost, 13 July 2017. Available online at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-wealth-of-a-nation_b_10928378 (Last accessed on 28 May 2019).

[20] Trentmann, Free Trade Nation, p. 48.

[21] Ibid., p. 49.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[24] Ibid., pp. 51-52.

[25] Ibid., p. 48.

[26] Ibid., p. 58.

[27] Ibid., p. 64.

[28] Ibid., pp. 63-64.

[29] Ibid., p. 65.

[30] Ibid., pp. 69-70.

[31] Ibid., pp. 69, 71, and 74-75

[32] Ibid., p. 70.

[33] Ibid., pp. 70-71.

[34] Ibid., p. 18.

[35] Ibid.


To cite this article:
Benjamin Choo, "The Lost Age of Free Trade Populism," in Paradigm, May 29, 2019, https://paradigm.suss.edu.sg/the-lost-age-of-free-trade-populism/.

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