Friday, 14 January 2011

Richard Cobden sought world peace and gave us French wine

Richard Cobden, the nineteenth century independent MP, believed that free trade would nurture international peace.  As an appreciative student of Cobden, that much I knew.

That in campaigning for free trade he enabled these shores to be flooded with an influx of French wine is a fact that I was unaware of.

Cobden's role in the 1860 Treaty of Commerce is mentioned by History & Policy's first policy paper of 2011, 'Wine, supermarkets and British alcohol policy', by Bath Spa historian James Nicholls.  History & Policy's raison d'être is to connect historians to policymakers and the media, in order to inform contemporary debate with historical insight.

According to Nicholls, Cobden called on Gladstone, the Prime Minister, in September 1859, to propose that freer trade between Great Britain and France might defuse the "worrying evidence of mutual sabre-rattling."

Whether or not a French invasion was averted was in all likelihood more a result of other diplomatic plays than the reduction of tariffs.  What cannot be doubted, however, is the effect that Cobden and the 1860 Treaty of Commerce had on British wine consumption.

The 'era of cheap Gladstone claret' witnessed imports of French wine climb from just 600,000 gallons in 1850 to a sobering [sic] seven million gallons in 1880.  The Liberal Prime minister claimed, and philosopher Roger Scruton would affirm, that Britain became more "civilised."

That might be credible under the influence of rarefied Bordelaise tipples in Victorian England; on the back of 3-for-2 discounts of cheap Aussie plonk in a box in modern supermarkets, it feels less so.  (Is this democratisation of wine 'progress'?)

That is the chief critique of Nicholl's essay, centring as it does on current debates about minimum unit alcohol pricing, public health and the tip in the balance between domestic and public boozing.

The ability of such history to tell today's politicians how to act on all of this is highly debatable.  The current scenario sees the SNP in Scotland having adopted minimum alcohol pricing as policy, whereas both Labour (under the previous Government at least, heaven knows what Ed Miliband thinks now) and the Conservatives have neither welcomed it nor poured cold water over it.

Where Nicholls does have a pertinent point, and what this history does teach us, is that to impose restrictions on alcohol in this country you must take the moderate middle classes with you and not be seen to be discriminating against poorer drinkers at the same time. This is the biggest concern of David Cameron, says Nicholls.  (The middle class point is ironic, given that we used to have an apparently over-consumptive middle class occupant of 10 Downing Street only a few years ago.)

Nicholls' essay might well give some useful anecdotes to the tune of 'calm down, we've been here before, dontcha know', but I do not believe it will change people's minds.  It is, however, (and raise a glass here) a bright and sparkling little read - like a sumptuous half bottle of biscuity English bubbly - and it taught me something new.

If that isn't a good enough justification for the sort of 'relevance-driven' history that History & Policy promotes, I don't know what is.

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