When free trade was fair trade

February 25, 2008

As thousands flock to 'Fairtrade Fortnight' events all over Britain later this month, Free Trade Nation, a new book by Professor Frank Trentmann, Director of the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Cultures of Consumption programme, shows that ethical consumerism was already flourishing over a century ago. Then, it was Free Trade that brought millions of Britons onto the streets, promoting peace, justice and democracy.

'Today, Free Trade is often viewed as the new slavery,' says Professor Trentmann. 'Look at the anti-globalisation demonstrations at the WTO and G8 summits. People see Fairtrade as the way to peace and justice. Fairtrade is cool, even sexy, and attracts widespread support from eco-warriors to rock stars. But what people don't know is that Free Trade was once an equally popular movement, and similarly seen as the path to democracy.'

In Britain one hundred years ago, Free Trade brought together radicals and internationalists, businessmen and working-class women in a popular campaign against protectionism. It was not considered the cold economic doctrine it is today but a liberating movement that became a crucial part of political culture and national identity. It embraced the new world of mass communication and exploited commercial entertainment and advertising in seaside resorts and high streets across the land.

Free Trade Nation, published by Oxford University Press on 28th February, is highly relevant for today's globalisation debates. It sheds new light on the relationship between citizenship and consumption, arguing that consumerism does not necessarily make people politically apathetic. Indeed, Free Trade turned an appeal to Edwardian consumers into a source of political mobilisation. In the 1910 elections, an unprecedented 87 per cent of the population turned out to vote.

But today's political commentators are wrong to presume that, given the choice, people naturally flock to Free Trade. According to Professor Trentmann, Britain was a special case. Other democracies, like the United States, were deeply protectionist for a long time. Free Trade triumphed because it went out to win the hearts and minds of the people. And it won them through entertainment and ethics as much as through sound economics.

Free Trade was one of Britain's defining contributions to the modern world. It united civil society and commerce and gave birth to consumer power. Free Trade Nation shows how Free Trade contributed to the growth of democratic culture in Britain - and how it fell apart.

In the early 20th century, Free Trade stood for consumer power, democratic justice, and peace. Women defended it as a ticket for full citizenship. Progressives saw it as an instrument of social equity and international understanding. Free Trade promised cheap food for the people, but it was also championed for instilling civic awareness and an ethical sensibility for producers and their working conditions. In the course of the First World War, the Free Trade culture begun to unravel. Shortages, inflation and price cycles made people realise that Free Trade could leave them defenceless. By the 1930s, it had ceased to be a popular movement and had become the preserve of economists and libertarians.

Professor Trentmann's arguments have already attracted widespread attention from academics and policy-makers at home and abroad. He has a long list of lectures lined up and will be talking to HM Treasury and Whitehall later in the year.

This is terrific history that will inspire economists to remember their subject really can arouse passion.
Evan Davis, BBC Economics Editor

Free Trade Nation is history at its best: far-reaching and authoritative, its story of the rise and fall of free trade as a widely-held belief marked by justice, fairness and peace provocatively refashions the history of early-twentieth-century Britain, reminds us of an age when popular politics exerted real power, and forces us to rethink our contemporary views of consumers, markets and morality.
Professor John Brewer, California Institute of Technology
ESRC Press Office:
Kelly Barnett on Tel: 01793 413032, e-mail: Kelly.Barnett@esrc.ac.uk
Danielle Moore on Tel: 01793 413312; e-mail: danielle.moore@esrc.ac.uk


1. Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption and Civil Society in Modern Britain is published by Oxford University Press on 28 February 2008 (£25 hardback). It is based on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London and Director of the £5 million Cultures of Consumption research programme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). He is currently a Directorial Fellow of the ESRC.

Upcoming lectures include:

Clore Management Centre, Birkbeck (University of London) 11 March 2008

Yale University (United States) 15 May 2008

Berlin (Germany), British Studies Centre, 9 June 2008

Florence (Italy), June 2008

Edinburgh International Book Festival 9 - 25 August 2008

2. Fairtrade Fortnight runs from 28th February to 9th March 2008 in venues across the country. It is being launched with the Fairtrade Fairground on London's South Bank on Sunday 24th February. For further details see: http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/fortnight_fairground.htm

3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2007-2008 is £181 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

Economic & Social Research Council

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