The British Way in Trade Policy in Global Perspective: From the Corn Laws to ‘Global Britain’ – WORKSHOP

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Date / time: 6 February, 5:00 pm - 7:30 pm

Room G7, Senate House

The British Way in Trade Policy in Global Perspective: From the Corn Laws to 'Global Britain' - WORKSHOP


This workshop has been organised by History & Policy in association with the AHRC-funded Letters of Richard Cobden Online. It is designed to bring together historians, policymakers, politicians, members of think-tanks, interested academics and members of the public to analysis and discuss British commercial policy between the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and joining Europe in 1973 with a view to informing current thinking on trade policy and the tradition to which, after the ‘European interlude’, it is the successor. A booking link and further information can be found here:

British free trade in the mid-nineteenth century remains a benchmark frequently cited in current trade discussions (e.g. Liz Truss, Times Red Box ed. 9 June 2020; Rishi Sunak, 31 Mar. 2023 ‘we are at heart an open and free-trading nation’). The recent Australian Free Agreement was widely hailed as a return to British free trade policy, the such treaty since Britain joined Europe in 1973, and hence ‘the first trade deal to be signed by the UK as an independent free-trading nation in nearly half a century’ (Lord Younger, HL 11 July 2022). However, latest debate on the subsequent Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for a Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (House of Lords 21 Nov. 2023) has also focused on the lack of a published government trade strategy. The potential Labour approach to trade policy also remains to be defined.

The discussion will be informed by historical perspectives, in particular drawing on the newly published Letters of Richard Cobden Online ( Not only was Cobden (1804-65) central to establishing unilateral free trade in Britain through the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, but in 1859-60 undertook the laborious negotiation of Britain’s first free trade agreement: the Anglo-French commercial treaty of 1860. His letters deal prominently with the expansion of British trade in India, Japan, and China, while having visited the United States twice, he was also an important contributor to, and commentator on, Anglo-American relations. He was also central to the liberal internationalist tradition linking trade, interdependence, and peace.

Confirmed speakers include:

Professor Anthony Howe, University of East Anglia, author inter alia of Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 (1998); currently researching Free Trade: an international history from Adam Smith to the WTO.

Professor Douglas Irwin, Dartmouth College, author of Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (2017)

Prof David Thackeray, University of Exeter, author of Forging a British World of Trade: Culture, Ethnicity, and Market in the Empire-Commonwealth (2019)

Dr Marc Palen, University of Exeter (Global Economics and History Forum), author of The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Globalisation, 1846-1896 (2016) and Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free Trade World (forthcoming, 2024)


Image: Wiki Commons – The Royal Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851