Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
There will be one overriding issue in politics when we eventually haul ourselves out of the pupa of lockdown: economic growth. We should be ready to grab at anything that will help get people back to work, cut living costs or make it easier for firms to expand.
I’m not sure we have yet woken up to the urgency of our predicament. The past month has had, for some people, a dreamlike quality: skies empty of aircraft and full of birdsong, families gathered together for meals, the finest April weather anyone can remember. It is tempting to slide into the delusion that this is just a glitch, a holiday from reality, a temporary interruption before things get back to normal.
But things won’t get back to normal. Even if (either because a cure is found, or because more of us turn out to be immune than is currently thought) social distancing measures can be swiftly relaxed, the financial debt will hang over us for a generation.
We are borrowing £300 billion this year, according to the Centre for Policy Studies – twice the annual cost of the NHS. The carcases of previously solvent businesses litter the landscape. Millions of us are out of work – meaning that the Government’s tax revenue has dried up just as spending goes through the roof. All our efforts should be devoted to getting through the slump.
That might involve measures that, in normal times, would be unthinkable, such as suspending the minimum wage. But let’s leave the more difficult issues to one side for now and start with something that ought to be uncontentious: striking trade deals.
Several countries around the world want trade agreements with Britain as soon as possible, including the United States, Australia and Japan. Negotiating these deals would, you might think, be an obvious priority. They might help a little, or they might help a lot. But they will plainly help – reducing prices and increasing opportunities for our businesses.
Yet, talking to Conservative MPs, I find a bizarre lack of enthusiasm. Some argue that doing anything that is not directly related to combating the virus is a distraction.
Others admit that, although trade talks might not actually be a distraction – it’s hardly as if our trade officials would otherwise be working on a vaccine – they would still look like a distraction, and thus play badly with the voters.
Still others fret that we shouldn’t do anything that might look too friendly to Donald Trump. A few say the current crisis shows that we need to be more self-sufficient, so we shouldn’t be liberalising trade at all.
It is worth dealing with these objections in order. Boosting economic growth is not a distraction; it is the most urgent task we face. We should pull every lever.
The argument that we should refuse to trade with unpopular regimes – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, China – was always a bad one. Economic disengagement hurts the wrong people (ordinary folk in other country and in your own) while shoring up autocrats.
When the world is struggling through the coronavirus slough, inhibiting trade, even with genuinely nasty regimes, is a luxury we can’t afford. But the idea that we should not seek the closest commercial relationship with the United States, our biggest investor, chief market and strongest ally, is unconscionable.
What of the notion that we need to be more self-sufficient? This idea is always popular, because free trade is counter-intuitive. Our Stone Age genomes tell us to hoard food. Even in normal times, the idea that we import 40 per cent of our food is somehow disquieting; the heightened stress of an epidemic exacerbates that disquiet.
Think about it, though. Food security is guaranteed, not by domestic production, but by diversity of supply. A country that seeks to grow all its own food is vulnerable to local shocks – bad harvests, pests or other disruptions. One that buys from the entire world, without needing to raise barriers to placate domestic lobbies, can always source food from somewhere.
North Korea is in the former category: it has elevated self-sufficiency (“juche”) as its ruling principle and, in consequence, still experiences man-made famines. Singapore is in the latter category: it does not produce one edible ounce, and has the lowest food prices on the planet.
Far from making the argument for greater self-sufficiency, Covid-19 proves the need for diversification. The epidemic hit during Britain’s “hungry gap” – the lean April weeks when we have run out of winter vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, cabbages and turnips, but have not yet reached the early harvests. Fortunately, we were able to carry on importing what we needed, otherwise, we’d have had to subsist on asparagus, rhubarb and nettles.
The truth is that we need secure supplies – not just of food, but of everything. The people who complain that we are overly dependent on Chinese suppliers may or may not have a point. But if they do, it makes no sense to become equally dependent on British suppliers. Security means having alternatives to fall back on.
Britain should emerge from the crisis with as much optimism and confidence as it can muster. Engaging with the entire world is an important way to signal those things. And, yes, “the whole world” includes the EU.
Reaching comprehensive trade deals with the United States and the CPTPP (the Pacific trading bloc) can only strengthen our position vis-à-vis Brussels and make a mutually beneficial treaty likelier. Deferring our discussions with the US risks the possibility that the EU will sign a deal before we do, putting us in the weakest possible position.
Yes, we should concentrate on ensuring that our healthcare system works. Yes, we should keep small businesses going. Yes, should look for inoculations. But, while all these things are happening, what is the clever and energetic Liz Truss supposed to be doing? Should she just be cooing in admiration at her Cabinet colleagues, or should she be overseeing trade discussions – by video at first – so that, when the restrictions are finally loosened, we can maximise our prosperity? You only have to put the question.