Liam Fox gave a speech at the WTO today where he showed himself to be stuck in the past. Harking back to Adam Smith and the late 18th Century, he worked his way through the Corn Laws of the mid 19th Century, hovered around the industrial revolution and briefly popped his head up in the Cold War. Free trade is the cure of all ills, he says, we can solve wars and poverty and world hunger if only we deregulate and let trade run wild.
He starts off with a quote from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations which, to paraphrase, says ‘we get our daily bread because the baker is selfish’. Now, there is a lot of truth in Smith’s reasoning but it’s an odd way for Fox to start off a big, globally important speech… it doesn’t really fit in the context of what he’s saying either, it’s almost like he just wanted to get in with some classic 80s greed-is-good ideology. 80s nostaligia is in at the moment.
The aim of Fox’s speech is to highlight the benefits of free trade – greater competition, lower prices, increased innovation, better lives for all. He stresses that consumerism is a ‘moral right’, echoing the moral judgements he passed on UK businesses recently when he claimed it was their public duty to export goods. And he has examples a-plenty of countries that fail this moral test: Soviet Russia, Communist China and North Korea.
North Korea, we are told, has not opened itself up to free trade. On the contrary, South Korea has and this has led to there being a 10 year gap in life expectancy between the two nations! You don’t need to be an expert in economics to notice that North Korea has a few more issues than simply its trade deals but also, Fox’s rose-tinted view completely ignores that Glasgow has a 10 year gap in life expectancy compared to the best parts of the UK. I don’t remember Glasgow being cut off from the UK’s trade policy.
Here lies the problem with Fox’s argument, he points to the fact that more people are living above the international poverty line – just look at India and China’s growth! But he ignores that global inequality has been rampantly increasing since the 1980s – a time defined by deregulation and opening up of markets. He points to the fact that most UK citizens can afford a smartphone but ignores the fact that they put up suicide nets around the factories that build those smartphones.
Of course, free trade has benefits. Fox says that before the EU/Korea trade deal, the UK sold 2000 cars per year to South Korea: since the EU mediated trade deal, we sell 13000. Free trade may indeed increase national GDP but that doesn’t mean that global free trade will make the UK a better place. There are many parts of the UK not feeling the benefits of that free trade. Many of them voted for Brexit. Fox says there are 200 people making flight simulators in Manchester and they turnover £20 million per year. That’s not jobs for the masses, it’s profit for the elites.
The other query about our car dealership with Korea is that the EU mediated that deal. If we benefited greatly from an EU built trade deal, where is the benefit from going it alone? Indeed, could we get such a good deal with Korea if we were bargaining as the UK alone rather than part of the richest, collective-bargaining union in the world. After all, the stall that Fox is setting out is that free trade is amazing and we’ll do it better outside the EU’s super-amazing free trade machine.
He’s not stopping at leaving the EU though – he wants to break free of the WTO as well! He says “its effectiveness can be hampered by having to satisfy 164 individual members,” and that “the UK must be ready to look to more bespoke plurilateral and bilateral arrangements…” It is at this stage that we have to question the real aim of this speech.
Fox doesn’t say much other than holding up ridiculously naive, pro-free trade views and ideologies that haven’t been pushed this hard for 200 years. He harks back to a time when the UK had an empire, when we robbed opium from India and got the Chinese hooked on it in order to improve our trade deficit. He throws in random statements about how you need a strong military to back up your free trade system – sounding just like a buccaneer pirate from the 17th Century. His bombastic one-sidedness is such a joke that surely no one would take it seriously. And that makes me think he’s not serious either.
Is Liam Fox simply pushing the Overton Window of Brexit politics? Is it his role to sound so much like a throwback to 1982, or 1882, so naively liberal and gung ho that it means when Theresa May eventually plumps for soft brexit it seems like the only decent thing to do? While the UK government is keeping it’s actual position a secret, we can only guess at their real aims.