The Labour leader’s latest stance on Brexit ignores historic links between left-wing principles and free trade
If reports are accurate, there is at least one thing in Jeremy Corbyn‘s speech today with which I will agree: “The EU is not the root of all our problems and leaving it will not solve all our problems. Likewise the EU is not the source of all enlightenment and leaving it does not inevitably spell doom for our country. Brexit is what we make of it together.” Yet this makes his overall conclusion, that we should stay in “a” customs union with the European Union, all the more baffling. That would be the worst of all worlds. It would be, in an inversion of the Labour Party’s phrase, “for the few, not the many”.
As Steven Pinker sets out in his new book Enlightenment Now, human beings are cursed by a pervasive negativity bias, “driven by a morbid interest in what can go wrong”. Yet again and again, we defy the pessimists and improve the world. Brexit is fertile ground for this proclivity for pessimism because it has not yet happened. Our imaginations, and those of people with political axes to grind, run riot.
This is being exploited by the paid servants of big business and big government to try to keep us in a customs union system that benefits both. Ordinary people, in my experience, mostly see through this, as they did on referendum day. As a report from the organisations Labour Leave, Economists for Free Trade and Leave Means Leave calculated, the poor would benefit most from Brexit. If the Labour Party is really on the side of the poor rather than the elite, the EU customs union is a curious thing to defend. As David Paton, the professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School, pointed out in a recent paper, The Left-wing Case for Free Trade, free trade always used to be a left-wing cause.
Free trade says to the poorest: we will enable you to get access to the cheapest and best products and services from wherever in the world they come. We will not, in the economist Joan Robinson’s arresting image, put rocks in our own harbours to obstruct arriving cargo ships just because other people put rocks in theirs. The customs union, however, says: if Italy wants rocks in its harbours to protect its rice growers against Asian competition, then Britain must have them too, even though it grows no rice.
Take trainers. Britain makes very few such shoes. It imports lots. The average external EU customs union tariff on them is 17 per cent. Four fifths of this money goes straight to the European Commission. Poor people do not necessarily buy more trainers than rich people but trainers are a higher percentage of their spending. Their inflated trainer prices mean they spend less on other things, which hurts other producers, many of them British, affecting jobs and pay. The tariffs are there for pure protectionism: to aid the shoe industry elsewhere in Europe.
To read Matt Ridley’s piece for The Times in full, click here.