chapter  1
28 Pages

THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF DECLINE

The circumstances in which Austen Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour produced these statements could not have been more different. Chamberlain’s reflection came at the end of a long career, whereas Balfour’s was produced at the height of the Cabinet crisis sparked by the opening of the tariff debate. Yet both statements offer insights into the genesis of the tariff reform campaign. As Chamberlain argued, the train of the tariff debate was ignited long before 1903: the issues, as Balfour told Devonshire, had been part of the sub-culture of British politics and economics for some years. Indeed, one of the most important aspects about the nature and timing of the tariff controversy is that it was not a random development, but the culmination of a political and economic debate rooted in the 1880s and 1890s, which focused on the question of the continued prosperity and security of Britain and the Empire. Military concerns should not be underestimated as a contributory factor in creating the climate of opinion which shaped the tariff controversy. The Conservative party sought to contrast its concern for Britain’s military effectiveness with the neglect of such matters by ‘Little Englander’ Liberals.3 Consequently it was effected by the fin de siècle sense of impending doom which saw unpleasant comparisons with Rome become commonplace.4 The argument for imperial organization, which was such a vital part of the tariff campaign, must be viewed as emerging from a general sense of imperial insecurity which had a particular resonance for British Conservatives. It will not be the task of this study to explore in full the military or ‘external’ aspects of the question of decline.5 Instead this book will concentrate on the internal aspect of decline, and

in particular on how contemporary analysis of Britain’s economic situation in the late nineteenth century helped set the tariff controversy alight.