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Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain [Paperback]

Frank Trentmann
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

May 5, 2009 0199567328 978-0199567324
One of Britain's defining contributions to the modern world, Free Trade united civil society and commerce and gave birth to consumer power. In this book, Frank Trentmann shows how the doctrine of Free Trade contributed to the growth of a democratic culture in Britain--and how it fell apart.

Far from the cold economic doctrine of today, in an earlier battle over globalization Free Trade was a passionately held ideal, central to public life and national identity. Free Trade inspired popular entertainment and advertising, in seaside resorts, shows, and shopping streets. It mobilized an alliance of elites and the people, businessmen and working-class women, imperialists and internationalists. Free Trade Nation follows the creation of this culture in nineteenth-century Britain, and its subsequent unraveling in the First World War and the depression of the 1930s, when consumers and internationalists, labor and business now attacked it for sacrificing international stability and domestic welfare at the temple of cheapness. These successful attacks marked the end of a defining chapter in history. The popular culture of Free Trade was never to return.

For anyone interested in the current problem of globalization, this book offers a vivid and thought-provoking perspective on the success and failure of Free Trade. For champions of trade liberalization, it is a reminder that culture, ethics and popular communication matter just as much as sound economics. Believers in Fair Trade, by contrast, will be surprised to learn that in the past it was Free Trade, not Fair Trade, that was seen to stand for values such as democracy, justice, and peace.

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Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain + The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time
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Editorial Reviews


"Undoubtedly a book of enduring importance, which has, somewhat paradoxically, finally lain to rest the notion that the struggle for free trade was in any way soporific."--Paul Pickering, Journal of British Studies

"...a fascinating book, wide ranging, detailed, well organized, and written in an engaging style."--American Historical Review

"In Free Trade Nation Frank Trentmann brilliantly reconstructs the story of the Edwardian peak of popular enthusiasm for Free Trade in Britain...and the rapid dissolution of the secular religion of Free Trade in the post-1914 world.... the real innovative weight of this volume lies in providing the most thorough and lucid exploration we have of the erosion of the free trade consensus after 1914.... the novelty of this account lies in its pioneering attempt to turn the attention of political historians away from elections and parties towards an understanding of consumption and citizenship as central to the nature of political culture in twentieth-century Britain.... carefully constructed, engagingly written, finely illustrated, and suitably well-marketed."--Anthony Howe, H-Albion

"Free Trade Nation is an important contribution to the cultural and social history of economic debates."--Revue d'histoire du XIX Siécle

"Free Trade Nation is a book of seminal importance. It is also a cracking good read."--Free Trade League Newsletter

"Exhaustively explores Britains Free Trade culture from the nineteenth century to World War I."--Harvard Magazine

"...a brilliant and multi-faceted...full of unexpected insights.... Not only a product of wonderful scholarship but also great fun... It is essential reading for anyone interested in the development of modern Britain."--English Historical Review

"...this impressive study...shows how liberalism turned into social democracy and how the arguments for and against Free Trade both shaped national life and embodied current views regarding man, government and society. After this book, no study of Victorian liberalism can be conducted in quite the same way."--Contemporary Review

"Trentmann...demonstrates the extent to which we can misunderstand early twentieth-century British politics by concentrating on producer interests. His reconstruction of consumer politics is both persuasive and authoritative. His work also has significance for longer-run, revisionist histories of British working-class politics."--History: Reviews of New Books

"An inspired history.... Trentmann's book unfolds a dramatic story...gripping"--Neue Zuercher Zeitung

"Thoughtful and well-researched."--Christopher Harvie, The Independent

"A lucid history of free trade in Britain."--David Connett, Sunday Express

"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."--John Brewer, California Institute of Technology

"Here we have 'a human history of Free Trade' that is at once a delight to read and a cause of profound intellectual stimulation. It graphically brings alive--with splendid colour reproductions of propaganda posters too--the popular passions and prejudices of a world that suddenly ended during the First World War.... This is a book imbued with fine scholarship...that deserves a wide readership."--Peter Clarke, Times Literary Supplement

"...brilliant..."--Sunday Telegraph

"...fascinating..."--Il Riformista

"...absorbing..."--History Today

"...paints a vivid picture of the ideological controversy over Free Trade that remains relevant to this day."--Luxemburger Wort

"Offers a fresh look at a chapter in British and world history, while at the same time providing a historical perspective on today's debate about globalisation, challenging the ways we have come to think about trade, justice and democracy."--Society Now

"...a landmark in economic history and the history of ideas."--La Vie des Idées

"Frank Trentmann...has not only added a great deal to our knowledge through painstaking research but has written about it with verve and energy and produced a most readable volume."--Reviews in Economic and Business History

"Frank Trentmann's book will be the point of departure for any future scholarship on free trade.... It is a ground-breaking study."--European Review of History

"This is a superb book."--History

"In writing Free Trade Nation, Trentmann set out to tell the personal histories of free trade and also to write a new political history. He succeeds admirably on both accounts. Free Trade Nation should be read by anyone interested in the history of modern Britain."--British Scholar, "Book of the Month" (December 2008)

"...a major scholarly work [that] forces the reader to grapple with basic questions relating economics to politics, consumption to democracy, and offers the tools for doing so in a comparative, global frame.... deserves to be read as much by by scholars.... Trentmann offers an important contribution, both to the history of Great Britain and to political history more generally."--Journal of Consumer Policy

"Free Trade Nation is an immensely ambitious book, both in the density and complexity of its argument, and in the historical ideas and materials mobilised in support of its central theme.... an important and exciting book, whose arguments will need to be seriously addressed and assessed by students of both economic and political history."--Economic History

About the Author

Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence. He has publised widely on modern economic history, most recently Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism (2007, with Kevin Grant and Philippa Levine) and Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives (2006, with John Brewer).

Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (May 5, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199567328
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199567324
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 6 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,250,752 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and inspirational October 17, 2008
By HuddsOn
These days, if the term "free trade" evokes any kind of response among the British public, it is likely to be a sort of weary resignation. We're sad to see our traditional manufacturing industries being decimated by cheap imports from the Far East. But what can you do? You can't stop progress, says the man or woman in the street. In the public mind there is still some vague association between free trade and modernity, efficiency and even increased material comfort. But free trade is perceived as something to be grudgingly accepted rather than celebrated.

In Britain 100 years ago, as Trentmann vividly demonstrates, things could hardly have been more different. To its proponents, free trade was nothing less than a secular religion. It was praised for instilling positive moral values such as thrift, honesty and initiative among both entrepreneurs and the general public, and for promoting international harmony. It was also upheld as the best guarantor of probity and transparency in public life. Protectionism, on the other hand, nurtured greed, jealousy, and xenophobia, and opened the door to sleaze and favouritism in government.

For much of the second half of the 19th Century, Britain's economy had functioned on free trade principles. Tariffs were only to be used as a means of raising revenue, not as a means of protection or even as a bargaining lever. An import tariff had to be accompanied by an equal excise duty on the equivalent home-produced article or commodity. By the end of the century, however, this approach was being called into question. Britain faced growing industrial competition from openly protectionist states such as Germany and America.
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