Our history and culture is profoundly internationalist,” remarked Theresa May in January 2017. “Many in Britain have always felt the UK’s place in the European Union came at the expense of our global ties, and of a bolder embrace of free trade with the wider world”. Two years ago tomorrow, in her Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister outlined a bold and coherent vision of a “Clean Brexit” – with Britain outside the EU’s single market and customs union. Since then, her resolve has crumbled, her “profoundly internationalist” vision fallen away.
When future historians look back on the UK’s most serious political crisis since Suez, they will likely identify not just the loss of her majority, but also europhile civil servants and an overwhelmingly anti-Brexit media class among the reasons for May’s ghastly Brexit-in-name-only Withdrawal Agreement. They may also come to view the last few years as the time when a renewed and possibly seismic divide cut across the Tory party, a rift over international trade.
Should this split come to pass, it will have resulted from May’s failure to identify with the “profoundly internationalist” soul not just of her party, but much of the country. Our Prime Minister, it seems, didn’t understand what she said at Lancaster House. And her statement last night after the resounding defeat of her deal suggests she still doesn’t see why a third of her MPs decided to reject it.
“Free trade is based not on utility but on justice,” wrote Edmund Burke in 1795. The philosophical founder of modern Conservatism, Burke understood that when trade is as open as possible, and property rights enforced, wealth is created, people are lifted out of poverty and the poorest disproportionately benefit. Trade policy, then, should aim to lower barriers faced by exporters while ensuring consumers benefit by being able to buy goods and services from overseas as cheaply as possible.
A half century after Burke died, the Tories split over the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws. Following a prolonged struggle with large landowners, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel scrapped restrictions and tariffs on imported grain. By ushering in lower food prices, he shifted power away from the gilded elite. But the establishment was so incensed that the resulting schism prevented the Tories from winning an electoral majority for almost 30 years.
The parallels are ominous. The EU, too, is a highly protectionist body favouring lobbyists and big corporate interests over small firms and consumers. All UK firms bear the expense of complying with onerous EU regulations, even though less than one in 10 export to the EU.
The customs union, meanwhile, creates a high tariff wall around a slow-growing region accounting for just 15 per cent of the global economy. And poorer UK households would benefit most if we left, given high tariffs on food, clothing and footwear imported from beyond the EU.
May, though, engineered a half-in-half-out Brexit that would leave Britain indefinitely ensnared by EU diktat, with no say over future changes. She shows few signs of repudiating this wrong-headed vision in full. If anything, the risk is that she will do a deal with Labour that will tie the UK to the customs union permanently.
“The great prize for this country, the opportunity ahead” May declared two years ago, “is to use this moment to build a truly Global Britain”. That was a compelling and realistic statement. Bolstered by our vast international network, the UK really is in a position to “reach out to old friends and new allies alike” cutting trade agreements with the likes of the US, China and India – deals which have eluded the EU, given the complexity of negotiating as a bloc of countries. The Commonwealth alone accounts for almost a fifth of all global commerce. The combined economy of the UK and the 11 nations making up the Trans-Pacific Partnership already outstrips the EU.
Joining such new partnerships make sense for Britain, a service sector superpower that increasingly exports via distance-defying emails and video screens. So we need to upskill our people, end our fixation with the slowest-growing continent on earth and, as May once said, become once more “a great, global trading nation, one of the firmest advocates for free trade anywhere in the world”.
Let’s hope she sees sense. For May’s Brexit bungling may not only see us stay in the EU. It could also split her party.
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