The modern Conservative Party pays lip service to free trade, and usually real service, too. It is signed up to the global system of which the World Trade Organisation is part, other features of which are familiar: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations. There is no substantial equivalent on Britain’s centre-right of Donald Trump’s protectionist campaigning in the United States. Indeed, there hasn’t been a forceful lobby for tariffs since the early 1980s, when these were viewed sympathetically by Wynne Godley and his colleagues at Cambridge, some of whose arguments were taken up by Labour’s left when it formed the Alternative Economic Strategy.
So at first glance, our columnist Daniel Hannan, who writes on this site today, is on to a sure-fire winner with his Institute for Free Trade, whose launch this week was hosted by Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office, and which Liam Fox also attended. After all, none of his colleagues are likely to set up an Institute for Protection (at least, not yet).
But it wasn’t always so. The Conservatives have had two major dalliances with protection during their long and eventful history. Neither ended happily – electorally, anyway. Disrael’s opposition to free trade turned Peel out of office, split the party, and kept its rump out of office for 25 years, by which time it had recanted. Jo Chamberlain’s support for protection cost the Tories dear in 1906, and it took a world war and Labour’s rise to cement their place, once again, as the dominant force in British politics. Our columnist is unlikely to cross intellectual swords with centre-right politicians of the same calibre, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that he will have everything his own way. This morning’s news is a reminder of why.
For whatever your view of the row between Britain and America over Bombardier, it anticipates one of the objections that Hannan is certain to encounter. “We’re all for free trade, Dan,” some Tory MPs will tell him, “but not when those pesky yanks are penalising our companies.” “We’re all for free trade, too,” Ministers may add, “but we’ve got confidence-and-supply deal with the DUP to think of.” “We’re all for free trade as well, Dan,” some Party members will say, “but, you know, we’ve got to look after British farming, for goodness sake: no Trump-style chlorinated chicken for us, please” “We’re for free trade in principle,” Conservative candidates in poorer parts of Britain will insist, “but the jobs of our Leave-voting, manufactures-working constituents could lose out from trade deals.”
So the new Institute is likely to have its work cut out on the centre-right, and elsewhere too. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters eye that IMF-World Bank-WTO nexus with hostility. They are joined in that take by the Trump-and-Putin enthusiasts bobbing around in the Sargasso sea that makes up what is left of UKIP.
The debate about farming will be particularly pressing on the centre-right. Agriculture may not have the same predominance among the Conservative-voting coalition of interests as it did during the 1840s, but it is still a force within the Parliamentary Party. Richard Ali has posed some of the essential questions on this site: “Are we happy to see larger farms or are we willing to support smaller enterprises? Do we want to support farming in the uplands and on marginal lands? Do we want farmers to earn more of their income beyond the farm gate? Does that necessitate more farmer-owned businesses, and does that mean more co-operatives as seen in many of our trading partners?” The nearer Brexit itself comes, the sooner we must make decisions.