Michael Tomlinson is Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), and is MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole.
I grant you that it is an unusual anniversary, and I have as yet failed to invent a suitable soubriquet. But 171 years ago precisely (well, almost), a speech was delivered which bore fruit in the shape of globalisation and free trade. At about half past eleven o’clock in the evening of February 16, 1846, Robert Peel stood up and moved the Second Reading of his bill to repeal the Corn Laws.
His speech was given on the fifth day of a 12 day debate (they clearly knew how to do things properly back then), during which a battle between the ideals of free trade and against protectionism was waged. As we seek to persuade the EU and rest of the world of the benefits of free trade, this same fight is as relevant for us today as it was for Peel.
The repeal of the Corn Laws and Britain’s role as a champion of free trade led to a dramatic rise in British prosperity and power in the nineteenth century. However, the current global trading system is of more recent origin. The aftermath of the Second World War saw the victorious allies championing free trade in order to put the protectionism of the early 20th century behind them. Britain again had an important role as a founder member of the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade agreement that became the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and we were an important partner in the post-war effort to get trade flowing again.
By contrast, the sclerotic EU has taken eight years and counting, and is yet to consummate a free trade deal with a willing partner, namely Canada. Furthermore, its Singapore deal is tied up in litigation, and that is not to mention the glacial pace of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
The most immediate benefit to Britain of free trade would be reduced cost to British consumers. In the agricultural sector, whether done unilaterally or within reciprocal preferential trade deals with key partners, the UK could source its imported food more cheaply, while still supporting UK farmers domestically.
For instance, high quality Canadian & Australian agricultural exports would be significantly cheaper than our current imports from the EU. Free to make our own choices we could, for instance, reduce import taxes on Australian and New Zealand wine – surely a good thing! Restrictive quotas and high tariffs on imported sugar, designed to protect uncompetitive EU sugar beet production, increase the cost of UK food and have hit UK jobs at Tate & Lyle, the makers of Golden Syrup that rely on cane sugar.
But what of our own deal with EU? Of course we want a free trade deal. But as I pointed out in the wonderfully- named European Committee B debate last week, in any negotiation you have to be ready to walk away with no deal. This was a formative lesson I learned when negotiating as a lawyer. A party who does not want to go to court, but would like to settle for a deal, needs to show that if the other side is unwilling to be sensible then he is ready, willing and able to go to court.
So, too, must we be ready, willing and able to walk away. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly and correctly said, the best way to secure the worst deal is by showing that you want a deal at any cost. We don’t want to revert to WTO most favoured nation trading status – but, if we are forced, then so be it. During the debate on Article 50 last week, Conservatives repeatedly asserted that we are leaving the EU, but that we are not abandoning the principles of free trade. Thus the commitment our Party made to it 171 years ago is reaffirmed.
What of the Article 50 Bill now that it is on the way to the other place? Back in 1846, it took one month and ten days precisely for the motion to repeal the Corn Laws to acquire the approval of the Lords. It is still something of a mystery as to how a chamber consisting of largely protectionist landowners came to accept this proposal – not least because the upper house was being led by the Duke of Wellington, who was rumoured neither to have fully understood the Bill nor to have agreed with its fundamental principle. The protectionist lobby hoped that the Lords would block repeal, just as today some are hoping that the upper house will block Article 50.
Perhaps, back then, it was simply politicians’ self-interest that saw the Corn Laws Bill safely through the Lords. It will be the same political self-interest that will see Article 50 eventually pass through today’s upper house. Doubtless the Reform Act and the threat of further changes to the Lords was still very fresh in the minds of the peers of 1846 – and so it should be today, but with Article 50 we do not have the luxury to afford the upper house a full month and ten days to deliberate.
As we remember tomorrow the anniversary of the founding document of free trade, I adapt the words of Peel, and invite their Lordships to “advance”, which is a much fitter motto for this great country of ours than to “recede”. As Peel almost said, choosing to go forward in this way will animate and encourage the friends of liberal and commercial policy to follow our lead. And I would urge the EU and rest of the world to do likewise.