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History

The League was established in 1905 to fight for Britain's cause, Free Trade, the free import into this country of goods and services.

This had been enjoyed since the 1850's. Parliament had abolished all import duties starting, above all, with the hated Corn Laws. These had maintained the price of food at very high levels. As a result, the increasing industrial population of Britain had suffered acute poverty.

robert peel who repealed the corn laws
Sir Robert Peel

Now former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd has produced a splendid biography of Sir Robert Peel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 20). Peel entered Parliament as a young man aged 21, became a minister at 24 and held office in 20 of the next 34 years. He founded the modern police force, sponsored the bill for Catholic Emancipation and, moved by hunger in England and the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, repealed the Corn Laws. To quote from the book: "He did not invent the doctrine of Free Trade. But Sir Robert was in undisputed charge of the crucial country at the crucial moment. He was a doer, happiest when putting ideas into action."

The result was dramatic. The fall in the price of food unleashed a tremendous rise in production from the factories, aided by the new rail network. It released new spending on farm products.

In the 1914-18 war protection for many classes of manufactures was re-introduced. The death of so many young people in that war brought a huge loss of confidence in the inter-war period. For the first time in the 1930's the Sugar Act and other measures set up subsidy for a limited range of foodstuffs.

After the war, the European Union (formerly the Common Market) established the fully fledged protectionist Common Agricultural Policy. This was a fundamental of the Union from the Treaty of Rome. It imposed a regime of 'import cesses', the equivalent of import duties, at the expense of the consumer and a system of subsidies for farmers at the expense of the tax payer.. The import duties impose a burden on consumers equivalent to say 30 each family of four. The import duties on manufactured goods were standardised..

Since then these tariffs on manufactured goods have mainly been reduced to 7.5 per cent. This has been under the international treaties establishing the World Trade Organisation.


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