Never mind Brexit. Free trade versus domestic protection is the original party-rending issue for the Conservatives, dividing it twice over: both in the early part of the last century (see tariff reform) and towards the middle of the previous one. That time round, Peel fell, Disraeli rose – and the party split.
Echoes of history haunt modern Tory policy. The Government’s own “agriculture narrative”, thrashed out between George Eustace, Downing Street and Liz Truss, is an unquiet compromise between the two views.
On the one hand, it says that future trade deals “will bring new opportunities to the farming sector” and that “trade…improves farming resilience”. And on the other, that “we will always ensure that UK free trade agreements are fair and reciprocal…British farmers will not face unbalanced competition.”
What both those takes have in common is a stress on the producer rather than the consumer – whose interests are scarcely referred to in the document at all.
England’s electoral map helps to explain why. The countryside is a mass of blue today, just as it was during the 1840s (metaphorically, at least). The agricultural interest isn’t always a noisy force within the modern Conservative Party, but it is a powerful one.
All of which is fuel in the disagreement between Truss and Eustace, representing the bias of their respective departments. A proposed trade deal with Australia is the lighted match.
It sees the Environment Secretary backed by Michael Gove, who previously had her job, and the Trade Secretary backed by David Frost, the Cabinet Office Minister and former chief Brexit negotiator. Boris Johnson will make the final decision, and is reportedly minded to back Truss, but you never know.
There are no absolutes in this decision – or shouldn’t be, since at its heart is not so much a trade deal as a trade-off. Neither the producer nor consumer interest can crush the other under its heel, at least in the real world which politicians must try to negotiate.
Were the first to do so, safety standards would be compromised, care for the quality of produce or the welfare of animals abandoned, the use of treatments harmful to the environment tolerated, and consideration for food security abandoned. Were to second to win out instead, farmers would lose twice out: as exporters, because more barriers would stay up abroad, and here, as some were driven out of business.
History provides guidance as well as warning. Ultimately, protection lost out: prosperity and change made it untenable during the nineteenth century; change and war made it unsustainable after the last one, in the new world of the post-1945 settlement.
And changes in England’s political map have made the immediate electoral calculation more complicated. The Red Wall has now been added to the Blue Shires – bringing to the Commons a mass of new Conservative MPs whose political centre of gravity is more urban and suburban.
So can’t blame the Prime Minister for minding historical experience and political calculation as he reportedly tilts towards prioritising the consumer interest.
True, there are complications in Scotland, where the SNP will seize on any potential problem for farmers as they beat their independence bongo. And in the wake of Covid, food security has an immediacy that it previously lacked: how can supplies be guaranteed in the event of a sudden internal crisis – like a pandemic?
But there seems to be no question of food safety or animal welfare being compromised. If that is so, then the market should be opened up to Australia as soon as possible. (The haggle is over how long barriers should be maintained, and whether quotas should be introduced.)
Eustace and company worry that Australia may be one thing, but America would be another – since the scale of imports would be much bigger and so the threat to our farmers’ future bigger. But that depends which way the telescope is pointed, since trade deals give our farmers exporting opportunities as well as import problems. And a deal with America under Joe Biden looks a distant prospect.
We understand the green argument against more meat consumption, but tariff policy isn’t the right instrument with which to address it. If politicians want to discourage people eating beef, lamb and pork (say), they should reach for nudge theory rather than punitive measures.
This piece began by dismissing Brexit as it looked to the past, but it returns as we look to the future. Leaving the EU was primarily about gaining national independence. But giving the British people more consumer choice was part of the offer. Theresa May’s deal failed with the Conservative Party and Johnson’s succeeded because the former was entangled with the Customs Union and the latter wasn’t.
Trade deals aren’t the beginning and end of trade policy. What counts is most whether our good and services are sufficiently attractive to consumers in other countries.
If they aren’t, then the best trade deal in the world will make little difference. But these deals offer our exporters the chance to show what they can do, and open the door to wider opportunities, such as joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. It would be self-defeating to dangle trade gains from Brexit – and then drop them.