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Liberals and protectionism: Britain's international trade policy between the wars (1902-1939)

Levkovych, Oksana (2022) Liberals and protectionism: Britain's international trade policy between the wars (1902-1939). PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004475


Thanks to hegemonic stability theorists, we know that structure created strong incentives for Britain’s shift towards protectionism by the early 1930s, but we know less about its imperial and trade-liberalising logic, and we do not yet know precisely how those structural imperatives were translated into meaningful policy change itself. This thesis fills the gap by engaging with local archival data to examine the role of three critical individuals - Joseph Chamberlain, Philip Snowden, and Walter Runciman – in explaining how trade policy change was not the mere outcome of structural dictates but also, and perhaps crucially, the result of personal efforts of these pivotal policymakers. The thesis demonstrates how the major elements of the intellectual rationales for the shift to protectionism were fully developed and explicitly deployed by Joseph Chamberlain (Colonial Secretary, 1895-1903) by 1906 and how this new analytic move became a part of the intellectual framework that was used to bring about protection under the Import Duties Act and the Ottawa Agreements in 1932. Based on novel empirical findings, the thesis advances two key arguments. First, free trade could have been abandoned earlier and the protectionist slide could have been steeper had it not been for liberal free traders Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1929-31) deferring the introduction of protectionist policy, and Walter Runciman (President of the Board of Trade, 1931-37) attenuating it when it was finally adopted. Second, by having misunderstood people like Chamberlain and Runciman, who were really not protectionists but pragmatic liberals looking for leverage to re-liberalise trade under specific conditions – namely, that protectionist rivals had been closing the international trade system on Britain for decades – we misinterpreted Britain’s interwar “exit” from the liberal international trade regime as a move towards more “closure”. The thesis, therefore, captures complexities which system-level analyses do not by placing analytical emphasis on individual agency and local level policy decisions to get this crucial IPE puzzle empirically right. In doing so, it contributes to understanding why and how pivotal actors were so important and highlights the contingency involved in economic policymaking. It improves our understanding of the limitations and trade-offs of structural accounts and elaborates historical lessons for a pragmatic liberal approach to trade policy in response to relative hegemonic decline.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2022 Oksana Levkovych
Library of Congress subject classification: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
H Social Sciences > HF Commerce
J Political Science > JZ International relations
Sets: Departments > International Relations
Supervisor: Morrison, James and Trubowitz, Peter

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