To What Extent Was Whig/Liberal Dominance 1846-68 a Result of Their Free Trade Agenda

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To what extent was Whig/Liberal dominance in the period 1846-68 a result of their free trade agenda?

Between the years 1846 and 1868, the Conservative party was only in power for a total of just under four years – 1852, 1858-97 and 1866-68. Throughout these short-lived periods, they were never able to achieve a majority and this illustrates and defines the extent of Whig/Liberal dominance in this period. Their dominance was without doubt partially as a result of their free-trade agenda, but other factors, such as other policies the grouping made in this period, the gravitation of the Peelites towards the Whigs, the growth of popular Liberalism, the work of specific individuals and the weakness of the Conservatives also caused their dominance in this period.

Whig/Liberal dominance in the period 1846-68 was, without doubt, caused to some extent as a result of their free trade agenda. In 1849 the Navigation Acts, which restricted the nationality of ships carrying British trade, were abolished, thereby causing a huge increase in the number of ships carrying British trade and thus, an increase in British exports. The Companies Acts of 1858 and 1862 played vital roles in bringing more investment into Britain as they limited the liability of the ordinary shareholder and laid out precise rules for companies about their registration and accounts.

In the period 1859-65, whilst Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer, income tax was reduced from 9d in the pound to 6d in the pound, and only payable by those earning over £200 per annum. This meant that ordinary people had more money in their pocket to spend and put back into the British economy. Gladstone also managed to abolish paper duties in 1861, meaning that the cost of newspapers and magazines fell and ordinary people were able to buy them. He also worked consistently to remove almost all duties on imported goods into Britain.

Finally, the Cobden-Chevalier treaty, signed in 1860, was an integral part of the Whig/Liberals’ free trade agenda in this period. Anglo-French relations had been strained in the years leading up to 1860 with French expansion into Italy, and Gladstone agreed with free trader Richard Cobden that signing a free-trade treaty with France would ease the political tension. He was right, and the treaty helped to double British exports to France in the next 10 years as it reduced the duties British manufacturers and coal owners had to pay when importing to France.

As Philip Magnus writes in his biography of Gladstone, ‘the repeal of so many duties helped to reduce the cost of living.’ People had more money in their pocket as a result of the Whig/Liberals’ policy, so naturally supported them. The free-trade agenda helped the emerging Whig/Liberal party to win the support of what had become the largest single grouping within the electorate, the middle classes. This was as a result of the period of prosperity Britain went through, illustrated by the fact that ‘exports rose by 350% between 1842 and 1873. ’ The Whig/Liberal grouping was in power for a large amount of this period of prosperity, and so got the credit for it with the electorate. The free-trade agenda was also an important factor in causing Whig/Liberal dominance because it united the grouping. Within the grouping, there were Whigs, Liberals, Peelites and Radicals, representing all shades of the political spectrum from centre-right (Whigs) to left (Radicals) .They were seen as a ‘curious amalgam’ as a result of their different political standpoints, and the unity which the issue of free trade gave the group was vital in keeping it strong and together.

The dominance of the Whig/Liberal grouping from 1846-68 was also caused by the other policies the grouping made in this period. They pursued a sensible social policy which affected many areas of life. They made vaccination compulsory to try and eradicate smallpox, and introduced a Factory Act in 1853 which limited working hours for...
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