Free trade hasn’t always been a British tradition. When the first issue of The Spectator hit the newsstands in July 1828, the country was firmly under the thumb of the Corn Laws. Introduced in 1815 to protect the vested interests of the land-owning classes, these measures propped up the price of British grain, artificially high since the disturbance of the Napoleonic Wars. Protectionism was proving profitable: in June that year, the palatial London Corn Exchange was opened; in July, Parliament readily approved the Duke of Wellington’s Corn Bill, which introduced a sliding scale of duties that continued to prohibit free access to foreign grain.
As an organ of Radical politics – the desire to prise the state from the grip of self-interested elites and govern it for the common good – The Spectator was feverishly involved in the battle for the Reform Bill. Its founder and first editor (1828-58), Robert Stephen Rintoul, realised that electoral reform was the gateway to a new era: the Bill’s passing, in 1832, ushered in the so-called ‘age of improvement’, a decade of transformative legislation – the Abolition of Slavery (1833), the New Poor Law (1834), the Municipal Corporations Act (1835), and the beginnings of governmental provision for health and education.
Enthused by this period of progressive governance, mass popular movements started to emerge, most notably the Chartists – seeking a bill of rights for the working man – and the strident Anti-Corn Law League, whose cause was driven forward by the Liberal politicians John Bright and Charles Villiers, and championed by that splendidly single-minded free-trader, Richard Cobden, who bitterly attacked ‘the unprincipled, unfeeling, rapacious and plundering bread-taxing oligarchy’.
Throughout this period The Spectator, was keen to demonstrate its commitment to principles over parties. In 1837, it told its readers that when ‘Reform, discarded by Melbourne’s Whigs, became independent... we added to our old motto of Reform, that of Independence of Party... We are independent and plain-spoken – that is the foundation of our present consequence, not to say influence.’ Assured of the advantages secured by the international division of labour – as first set out by Adam Smith and David Ricardo – and convinced by the need for free trade alongside ‘systematic colonisation’ – as repeatedly outlined in The Spectator by Edward Gibbon Wakefield – Rintoul campaigned stridently to repeal the Corn Laws, vociferous against Tories and Liberals alike. The opening leader of 1835 sought to overthrow Sir Robert Peel’s first term as Prime Minister (and repeated the cry ‘Down with the Tories!’ nineteen times); his successor, the Liberal Lord Melbourne (1835-41) who infamously described a proposal for Corn Law Repeal as ‘the wildest and maddest scheme that had ever entered into the imagination of man’, was relentlessly savaged.
By 1840, the wheel was starting to turn. Joseph Hume, the ardent Radical politician and founding sponsor of The Spectator, assembled and chaired a committee of the Board of Trade on import duties, which clearly concluded that free trade should be implemented across the board to abolish invasive and unjust protectionist tariffs. Since the committee’s 300-page report was unlikely to find an attentive readership, a digestible 32-page summary was whittled from it and served up for mass circulation. It appeared as a supplement to the first Spectator of 1841, which announced:
The subjects of the Supplement published with this number of the Spectator, are not held to be so popularly attractive as personal lists or tales of scandal; but they are of far more importance. Their object is to increase the material wealth of the country – to give everybody more, and to take less from each.
The supplement sold tens of thousands of copies (dwarfing the paper’s own circulation of 3,500), was distributed to all mayors and councils throughout the country, and sent to hundreds of officials abroad, including every American senator. Its contentions shaped the Liberals’ pro-free-trade budget of 1841, a budget that nevertheless proved to be too challenging for the nation’s squirearchy, who could still pull rank at the ballot box.
By July of 1841, The Spectator was becoming impatient:
‘Free Trade and Financial Reform are mere words in the mouths of the leaders of both parties. Any House of Commons we can have at present—with the present constituency, in the present temper of that constituency—will be found utterly worthless for great legislative purposes.’
By 1842, the frustration was palpable:
‘The only two political parties in the country are equally what is called “conservative” – equally bent upon keeping matters in the main as they are.’
Although the Tory government was staunchly against repeal, prime minister Peel was gradually becoming converted to the cause. In 1845, against the backdrop of the incipient Irish Famine, he shocked his party and the country by declaring himself against the Corn Laws. Before that bill came before Parliament, The Spectator announced its watershed importance:
‘Let the measure pass, and free trade, with only such imperfections as time will easily remove, is the law of the land; protection a tradition of the past, traced only in ruins doomed to rapid decay.’
The paper followed the debate in intimate detail – and fired a rocket at Disraeli when he misrepresented John Stuart Mill (an occasional Spectator writer) as a supporter of protectionist tariffs.
Peel passed the bill, a move that swiftly terminated his political career: despite its earlier attacks, The Spectator expressed sympathy:
‘The Corn Bill is safe – but its author is sacrificed. The Corn Laws are abolished – but so is Peel... There must be something rotten in the thing called Party which can force from office the very man whom the country would choose, at the very height of his popularity and power.’
By the early 1850s, the last vestiges of protectionism had been ousted. For the rest of the century free trade was the accepted principle for an empire reaping its benefits. The commensurate surge in British imports was immense: in the 1830s, 2 per cent of grain was imported, by the 1880s that figure was 45 per cent. Occasionally, pressed by poor harvests or dips in trade, British belief in free trade wavered; to some it looked increasingly out of step with countries such as Germany and America that were advancing rapidly behind their protectionist barriers. Sporadic calls arose for ‘fair trade’ – the imposition of reciprocal duties on goods from countries that levied their own tariffs. Nevertheless, in 1875, The Spectator’s co-editor (1861-97) Richard Holt Hutton set out coolly and clearly the long-term benefits of a free trade policy, warning that ‘the first and most plausible way, to the ignorant observer, of “encouraging” commerce is Protection. It requires a good deal of study and of intellectual tenacity to keep clear of the plausibilities of the Protective fallacies.’ Five years later, he repeated that warning:
There can be no question that the great mass of the people of England do not understand Free-trade. They were induced to adopt it “through their stomachs,” and not through any intellectual process whatever, and a very slight taste of commercial depression was quite enough to set people talking about “one-sided Free-trade,” and the folly of allowing England to be made a receptacle for the cheap exports of foreign nations... Anyone who remembers the winter of 1869-70 will call to mind the complaints that were then made about foreign competition, and the agitation against “Free-trade without reciprocity” which was set on foot by the carpenters, who were at that time rather closely pressed by the importation of window-frames from Sweden, ready-made.
The warning was prescient: by the turn of the century the Conservatives had come round to supporting protectionist measures. The flashpoint came in 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain told a crowd in Birmingham that his proposed ‘tariff reform’ would abolish unemployment and improve living standards. The Spectator instantly became an ardent campaigner against Chamberlain and his Tariff Reform League. Flying the flag for the Free Trade Unionists, the editor John St Loe Strachey (1897-1925) told readers:
‘It is the duty of all who care for Free trade, who believe in the principle of tariff for revenue, and who do not imagine that a tax can be converted into a money-making machine, or that a country can be rendered richer by increasing the cost of living to its inhabitants, to oppose Mr. Balfour's Administration, and to force it to resign office and appeal to the country without delay.’
Along with John Buchan, then assistant editor, Strachey was an energetic member of the Political Economy Club, whose very raison d’etre was free trade. Almost every issue of the 1900s contained a reasoned defence of this doctrine, for instance:
The Protectionist finds it easy to forget that trade is an exchange, that foreign trade is a form of mutual co-operation by which each side may profit, that the sale of imports in our free markets is conditioned by the purchase of our exports, and, above all, that market—“the place or system of exchange”—is best when it is allowed to grow and develop according to its own free laws of individual demand and supply... the true policy of international trade must be “to fight foreign tariffs by free imports”... no system but the free exchange system can enable every nation to produce those things which it can produce most profitably. Thus is the labourer benefited, as his labour is made more productive.
When recalling these events in his autobiography, Strachey confessed, ‘I felt as strongly about Tariff Reform as I did about the dissolution of the United Kingdom.’ Fortunately, his fight was successful: not only did Chamberlain’s policy split the Liberal Unionists apart but it caused Balfour’s Unionist-Conservative coalition to lose the election of 1906 to a Liberal landslide. On hearing the news, Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States, wrote to Strachey:
‘As for protection and free trade, I am confident that protection would be most damaging to Great Britain. As regards the United States, I think I once told you that I am on this point rather an economic agnostic.’
Throughout successive Liberal governments (1905-22), Strachey matched Rintoul in championing the cause over party politics. In 1911 he argued:
The Revenue Returns for last year are not, in fact, a triumph for “Lloyd-Georgism”; they are a triumph for Free-trade. They show first the enormous prosperity of the United Kingdom under the continued maintenance of our Free-trade system, and secondly the comparative ease with which money can be raised for the national Exchequer as long as Free-trade methods of finance are followed... There is nothing sounder than the old Free-trade maxim that as far as possible money should be left to fructify in the pocket of the taxpayer.
Two years later he was more explicit:
the Liberal Party, though it may still usurp the name of “Free Trade,” has entirely abandoned the substance. No true Free Trader need feel that he owes any allegiance to the Liberal Party.
Although the introduction of protectionist measures during the Great War was accepted as a necessity by The Spectator, their maintenance in peacetime under Lloyd George was met with frequent attacks.
Strachey’s globalist outlook was extended farther by his two successors: Evelyn Wrench (editor 1926-32, and chair of proprietors until 1966) had founded the Royal Over-Seas League and the English-Speaking Union (‘to promote by every means in our power a good understanding between the peoples of the USA and the British Commonwealth’), and Wilson Harris (editor 1932-53) had worked throughout the 1920s for the League of Nations Union. As Strachey had anticipated, both were firmly committed to the principles of free trade.
In 1932, the crisis of the Great Depression at last moved the National Government to implement protectionist measures. Neville Chamberlain, following in his father’s footsteps, introduced the Import Duties Act that year, placing a 10 per cent tariff on manufactured imports from outside the British Empire, a figure that soon rose to 33 per cent for certain goods. Meanwhile, a policy of ‘Imperial Preference’, often masquerading under the misnomer of ‘Empire Free Trade’, was rolled out bilaterally: this allowed Britain to trade with its colonies without tariffs, but all foreign imports were to be met with tariffs. The Spectator refused to accept this abandonment of truly free trade:
The first great objection is that the transformation of the Empire into a self-contained Free Trade unit with tariffs against the rest of the world would be a tremendous and perilous break with tradition. An essential principle in the conduct of the Empire has been that in the Colonies (as distinct from the self-governing Dominions, which can do as they please) no foreigner shall be required to pay duties not paid-by the British trader. It is impossible, to measure the benefits of good will, or at least of tolerance, which this principle has brought to the Empire... Empire Free Trade would be a smashing blow to Colonial development. It would be a case of waiting for the Colonial industries to achieve the predicted prosperity as the result of Protection. That, however, would take many years, if the prosperity were achieved at all. There would certainly be a long time-lag. Empire Free Trade is therefore in various degrees a postponement of development, a gambler's throw, and a provocation.
By the arrival of World War Two, ‘Empire Free Trade’ had proved to be ineffective, and the policy was lost in the chaos of conflict. Later attempts to resurrect ‘Commonwealth Preference’ were abortive, and shelved once Europe became the dominating issue of twentieth-century trade. When in the 1950s the European project started to gain momentum, Enoch Powell wrote a level-headed reminder about the importance of free trade:
In the abstract no economic truths are more clear or certain than those upon which the principle of free trade is founded. The advantages of the international division of labour, or, to use its vulgar translation, ‘buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest,’ would not in isolation and abstraction be seriously denied by any reasonable person to whom they have been explained.
In 1957, the financial correspondent Nicholas Davenport called the new Common Market the ‘European free trade mirage’:
The six countries (West Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and Italy) which have set up a common market were never really interested in a wider free trade area with the rest of Europe. France, moving from economic crisis to crisis, has always shuddered at the very thought of free trade.
The magazine maintained its scepticism of the protectionist project, which culminated in the crucial years of the early 1970s, under the editorship of George Gale (1970-3) and the proprietor Harry Creighton (1973-5). A leader of February 1971 declared that ‘the Spectator is not in two minds. Its position is unequivocal. It has been for some time, and remains, opposed to any attempt to join the European Economic Community.’ In May of that year, a front cover starkly illustrated John Bull swinging from the gallows of Europe. More remarkably, before the election of October 1974, the paper’s front-page leader advised readers to vote Labour, such was the feeling against Heath and the EEC: ‘anti-Marketeers must vote Labour’ which is ‘now certain to offer the electorate an open choice on whether or not Britain should remain within the European Economic Community.’ After his eventual dismissal, Heath was trashed as the Conservatives’ ‘most unsuccessful and unlikeable leader this century’ – a ‘morbidly pathetic creature’.
When, as The Spectator had demanded, the question of British membership of the European Economic Community was finally put to the people in the 1975 referendum, the magazine was alone (save for the Morning Star) in supporting a proto-Brexit, a decision that had reduced its readership to its lowest figure in the last 140 years. Even The Economist, founded in 1843 specifically to repeal the Corn Laws, could not make the case for global free trade over solely European free trade. The Spectator’s front cover at the time of the referendum depicted the Manneken Pis liberally soaking the Union Jack. Among that issue’s primary arguments for leaving was the importance of preserving genuinely international free trade over and above the artificial microcosm of the European community.
When the issue of Brexit at last resurfaced in 2016, The Spectator should have caused no surprise in resolutely standing its ground once more. Independently of most of the press – and indeed of party policy – it made the clear pronouncement for Leave. Referring to its reasoning in 1975, the leader stated:
The whole project seemed to be a protectionist scam, an attempt to try to build a wall around the continent rather than embrace world trade. Such European parochialism, we argued, did not suit a globally minded country such as Britain.
Among the several issues that compelled the magazine to repeat its judgment was the more appealing prospect of global free trade. For both referendums, The Spectator’s message was one that looked to the bigger picture: ‘out – and into the world’. On free trade – as well as several issues of enduring importance – The Spectator has stuck admirably and avowedly to its principles.