Free Trade Nation, by Frank Trentmann

Origin of a trading species
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The Independent Culture

The Lang Toun of Kirkcaldy, which I represent at Holyrood, has as its Westminster MP Gordon Brown. Climb Raith Hill and you can see the Firth of Forth. Below lie the relics of industrial Britain: the linoleum works, the towers and spires of kirks and the empty Roman shells of the once-mighty Co-ops. This is the topos of Frank Trentmann's Free Trade Nation: commerce, consumption and society in Modern Britain, and not just because Adam Smith was born here.

Ostensibly democratic, Liberalism was in fact elitist. In the 1890s, four MPs climbed Raith. "Is it not an intriguing thought," said Augustine Birrell to Munro Ferguson, RBS Haldane and HH Asquith, "that in this vast and varied landscape, there is not an acre that is not represented at Westminster by a London barrister?" Free Trade was a ritual commitment which prevented locals from seeing this.

Trentmann is professor of history at London's Birkbeck College, a successor to the great Eric Hobsbawm. His thoughtful and well-researched book has the weight of Hobsbawm's monographs. But has it the compressed force of his grand surveys? Is this another Age of Imperialism?

The title is something of a misnomer. This is really a study of an ideology past its meridian: Free Trade from 1910 to 1931 is pretty much "decline and fall". OUP bills it as a contribution to the current Fairtrade campaign. Inaccurate in one sense: our Fairtrade has nothing to do with Edwardian tariff reform. But its cast of practical ideologists – JA Hobson, Alfred Zimmern, John Maynard Keynes – is recognisable: the fathers of the policy wonks.

Free Trade Nation is a policy-oriented parallel to Peter Clarke's Liberals and Social Democrats (1987), and none the worse for that. It also reflects a curious deflection in contemporary social pedagogy: away from statistics, back to the stories.

This is a challenge, on territory claimed by Hobsbawm and before by George Dangerfield. Hobsbawm, one suspects, would have gone for a short book on a big theme. Trentmann starts with the elections of 1910, though seen from a standpoint distant from Dangerfield. He contends that Free Trade was a programmatic eintopf (stew), containing the basics of liberal ideology and its demotic motor, rather than a logically worked-out ideology.

This is problematic, as readers only get informed about the late stages. They won't learn much about the Anti-Corn Law League, John Bright, Gladstone or even John Morley. They won't learn about Ricardo on comparative advantage in international trade. This "theorised" economics, as surely as natural selection, underpinned Darwinism in its social forms. The Cobden-Chevalier treaty, Free Trade's high-water mark, came only a year after The Origin of Species, in 1860. Lacking this background, the 1910 election that dominates Trentmann's first half seems chaotic.

Trentmann usually starts his chapters well, with an arresting image. Then we tend to get banged up in editorial offices, particularly that of the Manchester Guardian. There are reasons for this: 1910 was when, according to Virginia Woolf, human nature changed, and new things like cheap newspapers, dramas, films, stunts and cars were pulled into electoral service. It was also not long after Graham Wallas wrote Human Nature in Politics (1908), usually reckoned as the founding volume of the psychologically based "behaviourist" study of British politics – which was still playing at Oxford until the 1990s.

Trentmann is useful here, but oddly myopic in other directions. Shipping, on which the whole shebang ran, was anything but free. It ran through "Conferences" – cartels – the most powerful of which were centred on his native Hamburg. Yet "Ballin, Alfred", their great animator, figures nowhere.

Where Trentmann is constructive is in seeing Free Trade as a catalytic element, which aided politics to ingest the experience of total war and incorporate new issues – the enfranchisement of women, the recognition of the working class. This was the rainbow bridge over which Old Liberalism crossed to Old Labour.

The latter's deference to Gladstonianism was profound, even among explicit socialists. The miners' leader Bob Smillie wrote in 1924 that his hero was still the solid, benign Glasgow radical, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, trumped only by Gladstone.

Free Trade Nation has been published in conjunction with the Fairtrade campaign, but its lessons are subtle, remote from celebrity endorsements and serial emails. Trentmann's story illuminates one side of the pre-1914 crisis, but leaves the Lords, the Dreadnoughts and Ireland in shadow. Such occlusion is perhaps the doppelgänger of metropolitan politics, and metropolitan scholarship. While it lasts.

Christopher Harvie is an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament; his books include 'Scotland & Nationalism' (Routledge)