Thursday, 20 May 2021

Gunboats and free trade


The reference in yesterday’s post to the uncertain position of the PM in relation to the proposed trade agreement with Australia may or may not have been slightly superseded by Johnson’s robust defence of free trade in the House of Commons later in the day. Whilst his words have been widely interpreted as leaning towards favouring a deal which would undermine the UK’s farming industry, with particularly deleterious effects in Wales and Scotland, the position he took yesterday in order to support an attempted put-down of Ian Blackford will not necessarily be the same as the position he takes when discussing the matter with others. He’ll probably need to write two articles, one for and the other against, before working out which one gives the most benefit to himself.

Part of what he said in defence of free trade, though, shows a very selective understanding of history. Whilst “This is a country that grew successful and prosperous on free trade on exporting around the world” is basically true, it isn’t the whole truth. It conveniently overlooks at least two very important facts: firstly that the UK was at the time at the forefront of the Industrial revolution and a world-leader in manufactured goods, and secondly that other countries were forced to accept ‘free’ trade with the UK at the point of a gun. The second, in particular, doesn’t quite fit the image of romantic imperialists who prefer to believe that the UK became rich because it was special and unique. But obliging others to accept British imports by despatching gunboats didn’t necessarily look quite so attractive to those who were being bullied into taking those goods. To take India as an example, the country’s economy went from being the world’s richest country with 27% of global GDP in 1700 to one of the poorest with 3% of global GDP by 1947, and the country was deindustrialized to suit the needs of an imperial power which wanted to import only raw materials and to sell its manufactured goods. ‘Free trade’, that romantic vision of the Brexiteers, did indeed make Britain rich, but it impoverished others in the process. It was as much about wealth transfer as wealth creation.

Things have changed since then, of course, but Johnson’s words suggest that, at the back of their minds, the Brexiteers are deluded enough to believe that negotiating between equal partners is somehow going to produce the same results as imposing free trade with gunboats did, whilst they also fail to recognise that the UK is no longer the manufacturing colossus which it was in the past. They seem to see things only from their own, hopelessly outdated, point of view, and not understand that the main attraction of a trade deal from an Australian point of view is not importing manufactured goods that the UK no longer produces and which can be more easily obtained from China anyway, but opening UK markets to food imports in a way likely to destroy large swathes of British farming. In their rush for a completely unattainable repeat of past historical glory, the government are blinding themselves to the downsides. Forty years of inexperience of negotiating trade deals doesn’t help either.

Still, when they come to sign on the dotted line, I’m sure that there will be a suitable number of large union flags in the background. That will put those pesky Welsh and Scottish independentistas in their place. They probably believe that it will.

1 comment:

dafis said...

That's the point isn't it - that the UK's decades of decline as a manufacturing base renders the concept of free trade irrelevant to most of us. Also the shift in global markets from both a demand and supply perspective suggests that UK is a bit part peripheral player. Some OZ commentators have indicated that China is now a key market for their agri produce and UK would be just a bit of "nice added business". So what does Boris and his buddies think they will sell to OZ ? Well you can put your best shirt on a bet that the interests of financial institutions will rank high along with those of defence contractors. Anything else will be a bonus although all sorts of sectors will figure at the bullshit stage of government communications.

Bit like that other twat Shapps bigging up his latest crackpot scheme - Great British Railways - will we ever be able to afford them and will they run to timetables ? Yet another jerk who couldn't muster a piss up in a brewery.