Never one not to bang the drum for free trade, Daniel Hannan does so with great vigour in his column for ConservativeHome this week:
Always? Does the experience of this pandemic not raise the slightest doubt in the author’s mind? The Covid crisis is surely proof that major economic disruption can be global not just local — and that international supply chains can’t be guaranteed. Just ask the NHS managers trying to purchase sufficient PPE for their frontline staff.
Governments around the world have put their economies on something approaching (and, in some respects, exceeding) a wartime footing. Whatever their political complexion, they’ve found it necessary to make extraordinary interventions in one domestic industry after another. In every case, they’re doing so with their own national interests as the only consideration.
In these circumstances, would we want to subsist entirely on the crumbs fall from other nations’ tables?
Hannan holds up the example of Singapore — which he says, “does not produce one edible ounce”. But the city-state, being a tiny, almost completely urban, island has no choice but to rely on imports. Ours, however, is a green and pleasant land, well-watered and fertile. Why wouldn’t we produce a substantial proportion of our food? Why wouldn’t we want to be in a position to exercise stewardship over our beautiful landscapes, achieve the highest standards of food quality, sustain rural community life and act upon our national concern for animal welfare?
Hannan contrasts the example of Singapore with that of closed-off, supposedly self-sufficient North Korea. But those aren’t the only options, are they?
The fact is that our food security is best-served by a thriving, sustainable agricultural sector at home and by mutually-beneficial trading relationships with other nations. Like the proverbial belt and braces, both have a role to play.
It’s not that Hannan wants us to do away with British farming altogether. Indeed, elsewhere he’s praised our “innovative agri-food sector” and “efficient wheat.” And that’s wonderful — who hasn’t wandered through a field of waving corn, marvelling at its efficiency?
But in a world of unrestricted trade, our farmers would be up against truly ruthless competition: exploiters who think nothing of stealing land from its rightful owners, of erasing entire ecosystems, of treating workers like slaves and animals like objects.
Like Dan Hannan, I’m exasperated by those who think we can be totally self-sufficient. But I’m equally frustrated by arguments for free trade that don’t account for the complications.