The Victoria Era – a testament to free trade

Queen Victoria's reign ended at her death on January 22nd 1901, 117 years ago today. During her reign of nearly 64 years, The UK's population nearly doubled, but there was no Malthusian trap of extra numbers lowering living standards. On the contrary, her reign saw unparallelled increases in prosperity as free trade became the norm. The 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, shortly after her accession, was the capstone of the policy of cutting duties and tariffs begun earlier by William Pitt.

Britain's Industrial Revolution was in full swing, with the railways opening up the country to trade and commerce. The goods poured out of the factories onto the trains for shipment across the country and to the ports for export. Britain's naval supremacy, added to its industrial might, underpinned international free trade and the Pax Britannica.

Imports were allowed in unconditionally, save in a small handful of cases, and the UK relied on market advantage for its exports. British goods were shipped across the globe. Disraeli coined the expression "Workshop of the world" in 1838, the year of Victoria's coronation, referring to British manufacturing and industrial capacity. It remained true throughout her reign.

The policy of free trade brought the wealth that paid for public buildings, medicine and modern city sanitation. Increases in productivity were boosted not only by the railways, but also by a string of inventions that included the telegraph and gas lighting, and by increased education. Britain could afford to abolish child labour and to pass Factory Acts to improve workplace conditions and safety.

Free trade worked then, as it does now, by allowing countries access to cheap goods that leaves them with resources to spare for other things, including investment. Support for it in the modern era is mixed, with the EU imposing a Common External Tariff to boost domestic production at higher prices. It makes EU citizens poorer than they would be without it. Similarly the US tariffs on steel and other goods make their citizens pay more for them. They further make US production that uses those raw materials more expensive and less competitive.

As the UK prepares to reach trade deals with countries across the world, it would do well to take on board the lesson of the Victorian era, that free trade brings prosperity and opportunity.