by Peter Franklin
Friday, 1
May 2020
Response
07:00

Can we have a grown-up conversation about free trade?

Never one not to bang the drum for free trade, Daniel Hannan does so with great vigour in his column for ConservativeHome this week

Never one not to bang the drum for free trade, Daniel Hannan does so with great vigour in his column for ConservativeHome this week:

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.
- Daniel Hannan, ConservativeHome

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.

Comment


  • May 3, 2020
    The ultimate answer to everything will be to have a more sensible balance. Over the past few decades many things have become far too unbalanced. The pandemic offers an opportunity to find a better balance in lots of areas. Whilst I would not claim to know what the right balance is, I am convinced... Read more

  • May 3, 2020
    Peter, I have read your article several times, and as far as I can see you are mainly agreeing with Dan! After all during the 1st & 2nd world wars Britain had to import food - even with rationing. So food imports are vital to us, and to pay for them we have to export. Obviously we wish the trade... Read more

  • May 3, 2020
    The Corn Laws forbade imports in order to keep prices high; this protected the interest of landowners, but was detrimental to the interests of consumers. The alternative is surely subsidies to keep prices low, which would be in the interests of both producers and consumers; it would of course have a... Read more

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