An English Issue

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 9, 1910

Recent dispatches from England announcing the abandonment of tariff reform as an issue in the present campaign are apt to puzzle the American reader, for England is notoriously a free-trade country and it may seem absurd to talk to reforming a tariff which has scarcely any existence. The explanation lies in the fact that tariff reform in England does not mean a movement away from protection, as it does in this country, but a movement toward protection.

Advocates Of Protection

The English tariff reformers, in brief, are ardent protectionists, and it is their dream to surround the United Kingdom, in course of time, with a tariff wall as high as those which now surround Germany and the United States, though they propose to start modestly with duties on but a few commodities. The movement was begun six or eight years ago by Joseph Chamberlain, then at the height of his celebrity and influence. When failing health forced him to retire from active politics his program was adopted by A. J. Balfour and other Unionist leaders, and a demand for a protective tariff is now one of the planks in the unwritten Unionist platform.

The tariff reformers seek to convince the English people that free trade is ruining England. The rapid commercial advancement of Germany, a high-tariff country and England’s most dreaded enemy, provides them with many of their arguments. England is flooded, they say, with German goods, but English manufacturers find it increasingly difficult to market their products in Germany. The balance of trade, which was greatly in favor of England a few years ago, is now in favor of the Germans. Again, there is the matter of trade with the larger, federated colonies—Canada, Australia and South Africa. The first and second have protective tariffs with reciprocity clauses and are willing to make preferential agreements with the mother country, but the mother country, with free trade, has nothing to offer them in return for favors, and so the great commercial advantages which she might enjoy in the colonies are denied to her.

The Danger Of Secession

The danger that these great colonial states, unable to make bargains with England, may do so with other nations, particularly Germany and the United States, to the lasting damage of English commerce and the destruction of the Empire, is the bugaboo that the tariff reformers hold before the English people. As is well known, the bonds binding the colonies to the mother country do not grow stronger as the years go by. In time of war the colonials seem willing enough to send a few regiments to the front, but in time of peace their patriotism oozes out. Canada has already served formal warning upon England that she is not to be considered, in future, as a mere dependent. On the contrary, she proposes to make her own way as a nation, with independence as her final goal, and to that end she is now acquiring a navy of her own and negotiating favorable commercial agreements with the United States and other countries. Australia moves toward the same program, and the United States of South Africa, no doubt, will ultimately follow suit.

These things alarm the imperialistic English Unionists. Representing, as they do, the more opulent half of the nation—the landowners, manufacturers, mine-operators, traders, bankers, shop-keepers and other capitalists, large and small—they are eager to preserve the great foreign commerce of the United Kingdom, and in particular, the very profitable commerce with the colonies. If England has to go into those colonies upon terms of equality with competing nations, she will assuredly lose ground. If, going further, she has to compete with nations which enjoy actual advantages, by reason of preferential tariff agreements, she will lose ground even more certainly. And once the colonies get away from her commercially, it is extremely likely that they will separate from her politically, and so the blood that she has poured out for two centuries, in conquering and civilizing the waste places, will go for nothing.

The Case Of Germany

Such are the arguments of the Unionist tariff reformers. The Liberals, however, seem to be but little impressed. They dispose of the German scarecrow by showing that England, whatever the movements of the balance of trade, is still very far from ruin; that the German tariff, like the American tariff, vastly increases the cost of living and so robs the German people of whatever extra profits it seems, at first glance, to be making for them; that, in the long run, free trade, or at least a low tariff, has always worked better than Chinese-wall protection. As for the threatened loss of the great self-governing colonies, they profess to view it with equanimity. It must be regarded, they argue, as inevitable; soon or late, Canada, Australia and perhaps South Africa will yearn for freedom. When separation comes the mother country will be the gainer by the amount she is now compelled to spend each year to protect these far-flung lands, and that gain will more than offset any commercial loss. A free Canada, it must be plain, would be no more hostile to English goods than Germany and the United States are today, and in Germany and the United States, despite high tariff walls, English merchants still do a profitable business. Besides, the only colonies which show any signs of seceding in the near future are Canada and Australia. South Africa will probably remain in the Empire for many years, and no doubt India and the lesser colonies, all of which are fertile fields for the English merchant, will hang on for at least a century.

The Issue Is Shelved

These answers have apparently impressed the English people, for the tariff reform propaganda makes but slow progress. Furthermore, it loses by the fact that its principal figures are frank advocates of the classes as opposed to the masses—millionaires, great land-owners, men who stand for the very same things, in brief, that our own toreadors of high protection stand for. It is no wonder, then, that the Unionist leaders, in a campaign which has aroused bitter class feeling, have put the tariff issue into the background, as one not likely to win them votes, at least for the present.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection) 

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.