2 January 2018

William Huskisson: the architect of free trade

by Christopher Rowe

William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery; Sir Robert Peel and the police force (they were Peelers before they were Bobbies); Earl Grey and the Great Reform Act. Rightly or wrongly, certain figures have become indelibly associated with landmark legislative developments in nineteenth-century Great Britain, an era when it is said that government achieved more than it ever had before.

Rather anomalously, the transition to freer trade in the nineteenth century does not immediately spark the memory of a certain personage or coterie of figures. Perhaps this is not surprising: first, it was a transition, with no one, defining legislative moment to mark its arrival. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, whilst undoubtedly significant, came only after various pioneering legislative steps and its major figure, Richard Cobden, did not enter parliament until 1841. Second, freer trade is often conceived of abstractedly, and the towering figures of Adam Smith and David Ricardo obscure the important role played by the legislators who bought into their philosophy and effected the tariff reform which enabled Britain to prosper. Third, perhaps there was no dominant figure who brought about free trade?

William Huskisson would be the first to take issue with this last reason, and to complain that the historical record has not done justice to his contribution to the salient economic reforms which were implemented throughout the nineteenth century. It was his poor luck to be the first fatality of the railways in 1830, and even worse luck to be remembered for that reason and no other. It was also his misfortune, at least so he thought, that his skills were not recognised by his peers who denied him the prominent political positions which he so greatly coveted.

Huskisson’s petulant nature has, however, received attention from historians. Boyd Hilton, amongst others, recounted how his dispute with Herries over the nomination of Lord Althorp as Chairman of the House of Commons Finance Committee led to the downfall of Goderich’s ministry in 1828. Earlier that decade, Huskisson’s relations with Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister of the day, turned sour as he was denied a position in Cabinet for quite some time. His parvenu status, even in an age where a son of an actress made it all the way to the top, probably held him back.

Despite all this, it is right to point out that Huskisson did more than any other figure to convert abstract ideas of political economy into practice, particularly during his time as President of the Board of Trade.

Reams of published parliamentary speeches on trading relations and the topical issue of the currency attest to Huskisson’s undying commitment to core principles of political economy. One such speech, a few months before his early death in 1830, encapsulated Huskisson’s realisation that Britain and the empire would thrive only if she embraced, rather than eschewed, the wider world.

He decried those who maintained their support for tariffs as men who were indifferent to foreign commerce:

“According to them, England can be great, happy, and flourishing, within herself. Of what England they are speaking, I know not; certainly not of this country, as it now exists”.

He went on to list the dependence of key British industries on materials drawn from “foreign soils”, and the deleterious consequences of high tariffs for employment, wages and prices.

Yet, Huskisson achieved so much because he was a pragmatist, adhering to Ronald Reagan’s maxim - take 70 percent and come back for the other 30 percent later. He was aware that free trade could not be successfully implemented overnight; rather, a piecemeal process of reform was necessary, and further steps would be vindicated only by the beneficial effects of free trade legislation already passed (Huskisson’s death meant that it was left to others to achieve the remaining 30 percent).

The architect of the Reciprocity of Duties Act 1823 and other measures which lowered tariffs, Huskisson’s influence extended beyond these reforms. His name was invoked throughout the nineteenth century, long after his passing, in debates concerning free trade and currency. He was quoted at length by Philips MP, representative for Manchester, who took up the cause for the exportation of machinery in parliament in 1841 (hitherto banned on the premise that such exports would lead to the demise of Britain’s competitive edge).

Joseph Hume, one of the more radical members of parliament, touched upon Huskisson’s realpolitik in the same debate:

“Everything that had since occurred on the subject had proved the correctness of the views of Mr. Huskisson, who was deterred from advising repeal, not from any unwillingness, but from a knowledge of the extent of the prejudice of the manufacturers, with which he had to deal.”

Huskisson’s name and legacy also permeated the key debates leading to the fall of the ministry in 1841 over its proposals to lower duties. Richard Sheil MP, one of his successors at the Board of Trade, and Villiers MP, a free trade ideologue who annually presented motions in the late 1830s for the repeal of the Corn Laws, took issue with those of a protectionist ilk who claimed to be disciples of Huskisson.

Others fought strenuously to show their commitment to Huskisson’s earlier reforms, including most notably future Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (he had already led a ministry for roughly 100 days in 1835 but would have a longer stint in office from 1841-46), who opined that “there was no man in this House from whom Mr. Huskisson derived a more cordial and invariable support than he derived from me”.

Few would gain greater satisfaction from being able to witness developments from the grave as William Huskisson, who achieved the recognition which he so greatly sought whilst alive only in the decades after his death. Still referenced in free trade debates in parliament over 50 years after his passing, the historical record has nevertheless consigned him once again to the relative obscurity which caused him such great displeasure. Hopefully he would look approvingly on this article as an attempt to recognise his contribution to the most important of all nineteenth-century developments, Britain’s embrace of free trade.

Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe is a historian of free trade, with particular expertise in nineteenth-century British and European history.