Tariff Reform League

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Tariff Reform League poster

The Tariff Reform League (TRL) was a British pressure group formed in 1903 to protest against 'unfair' foreign imports and to advocate Imperial Preference to protect British industry from foreign competition. It was well funded and included politicians, intellectuals and businessmen, and was popular with the grassroots of the Conservative Party. By 1914 it had approximately 250,000 members.[1] It is associated with the national campaign of Joseph Chamberlain, the most outspoken and charismatic supporter of Tariff Reform. The historian Bruce Murray has claimed that the TRL "possessed fewer prejudices against large-scale government expenditure than any other political group in Edwardian Britain".[2]

The League wanted to see the British Empire transformed into a single trading bloc, to compete with Germany and the United States. It favoured imposing duties on imports—as did Germany and the US—and the channelling of the money raised from these duties into social reforms. High import duties, the League claimed, would make increasing other taxes unnecessary. However opponents claimed that protection would mean dearer food, especially bread.

Sir Cyril Arthur Pearson was its Chairman and, with Sir Harry Brittain, a founding member. Sir Henry Page Croft was Chairman of its Organisation Committee. Pearson was later succeeded as Chairman of the League by Viscount Ridley.[3]

Tariff Reform split the MPs of the Conservative Party and was the major factor in its landslide defeat in 1906 to the Liberals who advocated Free Trade. The Conservative Party under Bonar Law dropped Tariff Reform as official policy.

Shortly after the First World War the TRL was disbanded, although other organisations promoting the same cause were still active in the 1920s. One such organisation was the Fair Trade Union created by Joseph Chamberlain's son, Neville, and the Conservative MP Leo Amery. The British Commonwealth Union, led by Patrick Hannon, was another. Tariff Reform became official Conservative policy under Stanley Baldwin and was the major issue in the 1923 general election. The party lost its majority in the election and Tariff Reform was again dropped until the 1930s.

The Unionist Free Food League, formed under the chairmanship of Sir Michael Hicks Beach in July 1903, was a reaction to the Tariff Reform League.

Sources[edit]

  1. ^ David A. Thackeray, "The Crisis of the Tariff Reform League and the Division of 'Radical Conservatism', c.1913–1922", History 91 (301), p. 61.
  2. ^ Bruce K. Murray, The People's Budget 1909/10: Lloyd George and Liberal Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 27.
  3. ^ The Complete Peerage, Volume XI. St Catherine's Press. 1949. p. 2.