Thursday, January 15, 2009

Free Trade : Then and Now

Postcard 0107 : Watchman, What Of The Night?
When I keep making reference to sorting out Great Uncle Fowlers' postcard collection, I am guilty of a misnomer : whilst the bulk of the collection came from Great Uncle F, I have added to it at various times over the last thirty years or so. About 25 years ago I discovered a source of antique postcards in Rotherham, and the shop - which is long, long gone -had a particularly good selection of "political postcards".
The postcard featured above was published by the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations - the official name of the early twentieth century Conservative Party. It was postally used in January 1910, being sent from Glasgow to Mrs J J Livingston, Market Street, Hollybay, County Monaghan, Ireland from "EL". The cartoon shows a number of stylized "foreigners" (there is an obvious American and a probable Frenchman and a possible German) carrying out "British Capital" from an enclosure marked "British Industries" whilst the watchman, John Bull, sleeps. What looks like a small fire - entitled free trade - seems to have given rise to the fumes which have sent John Bull to sleep.
The debate over free trade - the abolition of protective tariffs so as to provide greater opportunities for competition from imported goods - dominated the British political landscape in the first decade of the twentieth century. The 1906 General Election was known as the "Free Trade Election" as it pitted the Conservative Party (against free trade) against the Liberal Party (in favour of free trade). The postcard featured may have originally been printed for that election, but is more likely to have been printed for the 1910 election campaign where free trade was still an issue (although slightly overshadowed by constitutional reform and the eternal "Irish Question").  The first 1910 election - there was a second election in December - took place between the 15th January and the 10th February. The postcard was posted on the 11th January, just a few days before voting started (back in those days, voting was a lengthy process). Despite a very high turnout, the election resulted in a hung Parliament with just two seats separating the Conservative and Liberal parties. This, in turn, resulted in a second general election later in the year.
Free trade remained an issue throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, but was largely forgotten in the post-WW2 world of global trading and common markets. With the global economic crisis of 2008/9 some commentators are turning back to the debate looking for similarities with the current situation. But times - and economics - have changed. These particular old arguments are best left to the old postcards.

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