It has been said that Britain has benefited more profoundly from centuries of free trade than any other country. With two exceptions, the late modern period has been an age of free trade for Britain. However, the two periods during which the UK adopted protectionism are an instructive study when it comes to understanding how political and global crises sometimes awaken a latent protectionist spirit in Britain.
In 1815, peace returned to Europe with the defeat of Napoleon and as a result the international price of grain rapidly declined. This was seen as a crisis among the pro-land owning Tory party and as a result, Corn Laws were passed which included tariffs on imported grain. The Corn Laws were met with fierce opposition by the working and middle classes. As a result, in 1846 the Corn Laws were repealed, thus ushering in Britain’s golden era of free trade and high quality development.
It was only at the dawn of the 20th century when fringe voices once again spoke in favour of what at the time was called imperial preference. Joseph Chamberlain who was one of Britain’s foreign policy heavyweights at the time sought to exclude foreign imports into the British empire, preferring instead to transform the empire into a self-contained trading federation. As the United States and Germany began to threaten Britain’s industrial hegemony, imperial preference became attractive to some but ultimately it remained a fringe movement until the 1920s.
It was only after the First World War (known as the Great War in the UK) that the idea of imperial preference once again became attractive to major political figures. At the Ottawa conference in 1932, imperial preference was finally implemented but it did not last long as at the end of the Second World War Britain again became a nation that largely embraced free trade as it did throughout the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.
There are many reasons for optimism regarding Britain’s position on free trade today. Although Brexit has provoked an internal political crisis, the newly emerged Brexit Party is strongly in favour of free trade. It is the current position of the Brexit Party to not only sign a free trading agreement (FTA) with the European Union but to do so with multiple dynamic Asian economies.
On the other side of the debate, those in favour of continued EU membership also describe themselves as being pro-free trade. This demonstrates that at a time of supreme division, free trade remains a rare policy matter that is able to create unity among the political class.
That being said, because Britain is in the midst of a prolonged political crisis, one must be aware of the possibility of neo-protectionists attempting to exploit the situation. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May is likely to resign in June. This will automatically trigger a major leadership election within her party. Former Foreign Secretary and Brexit supporter Boris Johnson is already the favourite to be her successor.
As Johnson is a member of the ruling Conservative party, there is hope in respect of a Johnson government remaining committed to free trade. In spite of the United States taking an ultra-nationalist/ultra-protectionist approach to trade, Britain recently diverged with its close ally and reportedly agreed to purchase Huawei products and services as part of the drive to build the country’s new 5G wireless network. This means that on an issue over which the US took a decidedly different view, Britain remains a country willing to judge products and services on the basis of their quality and price competitiveness rather than on the basis of their national origin.
British politics used to be stable to the point of being predictable, but today the opposite is the case. It is consequently an accurate statement to say that anything could happen in respect of the phased leadership transition away from Theresa May. Although this is an age of rampant disagreements within British politics, it would be helpful for those on all sides to remember that Britain’s prosperity was built upon free trade.