Last night I had cause to revisit parts of historian Frank Trentmann’s superb 2008 book on the politics of trade in Britain during roughly the first third of the 20th century, Free Trade Nation. I stumbled upon an anecdote that didn’t strike me when I first read the book but that amused me when I encountered it yesterday.
Trentmann offers a long and detailed explanation of how both Tariff Reformers (those who sought to move Britain away from free trade) and Free Traders used the latest technologies in their retail politicking to try to persuade the public of the merits of their respective positions. On page 122 Trentmann notes about one such piece of technology that was new in the early 20th century, the graphophone, that it is
an early dictaphone developed by the American inventor Charles Tainter in the late 1880s. The graphophone was used to sing songs as well as to show off the marvels of this new technology capable of recording and replaying the human voice on the spot. Tariff Reformers and Free Traders sometimes fixed a graphophone to the top of their vans.
Those opposed to free trade in Britain – then as now, and there as everywhere – fell mainly for the myth that economic policies that permit domestic citizens to acquire goods and services not produced by current workers in the home country are policies that unjustly cause unnecessary unemployment in the home country, and cause wages of too many ordinary workers there to stagnate or fall. Yet not only did these misguided champions of existing domestic jobs eagerly use labor-saving technologies to perform their politicking tasks, they also used ideas (and perhaps even physical products themselves) imported from abroad – in this case, the USA – to make their case that the British should shield themselves from economic influences from abroad.