Brexit, Free Trade, and the Perils of History

Lord Palmerston Addressing the House of Commons During the Debates on the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty in February 1860, as painted by John Phillip (1863).
Palmerston before the House of Commons amid the Debates on the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty in February 1860. Painting by John Phillip (1863).

Anthony Howe
University of East Anglia

Amid much discussion of alternatives to Britain’s current relationship with Europe, the Canadian, Norwegian, and Swiss models have featured widely. But surprisingly little attention has been paid to the closest historical model of what Brexiteers might hail as ‘a free trade Europe’.[1]

The first version of a ‘common market’ based on free trade treaties was created in Europe in the 1860s. Following the signing of the 1860 Anglo-French (Cobden-Chevalier) commercial treaty, a further 50-60 interlocking trade treaties were negotiated between European states, in effect creating a free trade area, the closest Europe got to a single market before the 1970s.

The economic benefits of this first common market are still contested by economic historians, but, as a model of a loose institutional framework it successfully lowered tariffs between participating states (only Russia of major European states remained outside it).

And at first glance this treaty network appears remarkably similar to the goals of those wishing to avoid a European super state in favour of simpler trade-based relationships. However, the fate of this model should be less than encouraging for the Leave campaign. Continue reading “Brexit, Free Trade, and the Perils of History”

Donald Trump and the History of American Protectionism: A New Documentary


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Featuring Marc-William Palen (Exeter), Helen Milner (Princeton), Bill Galston (Brookings Institution), Carla Hills (former US trade representative), David Auter (MIT), David Taylor (Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association), Bruce Springsteen, and Ferris Bueller, Edward Stourton examines America’s long history of resistance to free trade, and asks why it has again become such a potent political force in a new documentary for BBC Radio 4. Continue reading “Donald Trump and the History of American Protectionism: A New Documentary”

Debunking the Civil War Tariff Myth

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Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

The outbreak of the American Civil War is now more than 150 years past. All the while, the question of what caused the conflict continues to spark disagreement, this despite a longstanding consensus among specialists that slavery – a cultural, political, ideological, and economic institution that permeated (and divided) mid-19th-century American society – was the primary cause of the war. One of the most egregious of the so-called Lost Cause narratives instead suggests that it was not slavery, but a protective tariff that sparked the Civil War.

On 2 March 1861, the Morrill Tariff was signed into law by outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan to protect northern infant industries. A pernicious lie quickly formed around the tariff’s passage, a lie suggesting that somehow this tariff had caused the US Civil War. By ignoring slavery’s central role in precipitating secession and Civil War, this tariff myth has survived in the United States for more than a century and a half – and needs to be debunked once and for all. Continue reading “Debunking the Civil War Tariff Myth”

Tracing Churchill’s Rhetoric on Imperial Trade

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 8.52.43 AMRichard Toye

Churchill and the Culture of Imperial Political Economy

Winston Churchill is not famed for his views on economics. Yet they formed an important aspect of his outlook.  Continue reading “Tracing Churchill’s Rhetoric on Imperial Trade”

The Limits of Globalization

Marc-William Palen

Inimese_tegevusruumAfter last week’s post extolling the seemingly limitless avenues of historical inquiry offered through the study of globalization, it seems only fitting that I should now offer a somewhat contrary one on the limits of globalization.

Sycophantic proponents and adamant critics alike view globalization — the process of speeding up global integration via capital flows, markets, ideas, people, and technology — as an omnipresent and inexorable process. For devout acolytes from Richard Cobden to Thomas Friedman, it appears as a benign process that will one day make the world’s markets so interdependent that war itself will become anachronistic. For its harshest critics, and despite historical evidence and scholarship to the contrary, globalization remains an unstoppable force led by a secretive cabal of powerful multinational corporations hell-bent upon undermining national sovereignty in an endless search for profit. Continue reading “The Limits of Globalization”