1 June 2018
The following was originally published as the Foreword to IFT’s publication: The Left-wing Case for Free Trade.
Labour’s 30-year-long support for the EU and Britain’s membership of it has contributed to the expunging from the left’s collective memory of the radical role supporting free trade has played in its history.
This was exquisitely symbolized for me the day after the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena. Radio 5 had asked to meet me and another Labour MP next to the statue of John Bright in Albert Square just before the city’s vigil for victims. My Labour colleague said “I guess you will know which one that statue is?” I did, and I also know the role John Bright, a
Rochdale man and a Member of Parliament for Manchester, played in the anti-Corn Law league and the campaign for free trade.
This was one of the most effective and radical campaigns in the UK’s history; it is amazing that his role and campaign are virtually unknown in the Labour Party, even in Manchester.
The arguments of Bright together with Cobden - that import tariffs on corn kept the price of bread high and the landed gentry rich - won the support of the embryonic Labour movement as well as the vast majority of people who were finding it difficult to make ends meet.
The campaign achieved its objective when Prime Minister Robert Peel started the abolition of the Corn Laws in the 1845 budget. The arguments and philosophy supporting this successful campaign led to the so-called Manchester School of Economics, which also espoused freedom of the press, anti-slavery, pacifism and separation of church and state. Manchester is the only town or city in the country to have its major meeting hall named after an idea: free trade.
It is extraordinary, given this history, that the Labour movement threw its weight behind the EU’s protectionist project. As with the Corn Laws, the EU customs regime imposes tariffs on food imports, ensuring we pay 20 percent more than the price on the open world market. To add insult to injury we then pay huge subsidies to the wealthiest land owners like the barley barons of East Anglia. The very high tariffs imposed, for example, on citrus fruits and processed coffee mean we are essentially exporting poverty to Africa and some of the poorest parts of the globe. If understood more widely this would be a huge embarrassment to the left.
Professor Paton’s paper is a timely reminder of this history and should make progressives think twice about supporting protectionist policies and entities.
Graham Stringer is Member of Parliament for the Manchester constituency of Blackley and Broughton. He has been a Labour MP since 1997.
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