Tariff Reform League

The Tariff Reform League (TRL) was a 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. [David A. Thackeray, 'The Crisis of the Tariff Reform League and the Division of 'Radical Conservatism', c.1913–1922' "History" 91 (301), p. 61.] It is associated with the national campaign of Joseph Chamberlain, the most outspoken supporter of Tariff Reform.

The TRL aimed at the British Empire being transformed into a single trading bloc to compete with Germany and the United States. It was in favour of hefty duties on imports and the channelling of the money raised from these duties into social reforms. High import duties, they claimed, would make increasing other taxes unnecessary. However opponents claimed that protection would mean dearer food, especially bread.

The Free Food League was formed by Lord Hugh Cecil in 1904 as a reaction to the TRL. Sir Cyril Arthur Pearson was its Chairman and along with Sir Harry Brittain was a founding member. Sir Henry Page Croft was Chairman of its Organisation Committee

Tariff Reform split the MPs of the Conservative Party and was the major factor in their landslide defeat in 1906 to the Liberals who advocated Free Trade. The Conservative Party under Bonar Law dropped Tariff Reform as official policy. However, it became official policy under Stanley Baldwin in the general election of 1923 but the party lost the election and Tariff Reform was subsequently dropped.

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 Chamberlain, and the Conservative MP Leo Amery. The British Commonwealth Union led by Patrick Hannon was another.


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