Distant rooftops

I watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats last night, via YouTube and The Show Must Go On.  I loved it – for its music, its singing, dancing, choreography, characterisation. The whole things knocked me out.

I’m taking it as my stepping-off point on a very different subject. From musical theatre to hard-core political theatre.

There’s a revealing short article, part of a feature on trade, by Liz Truss (Minister for Distant Rooftops) in the current edition of Prospect.

She highlights the many long international supply chains ‘with little resilience to shocks’. The answer is, she believes, ‘not isolation and self-sufficiency – neither of which are credible in the interdependent world we live in. Instead we should broaden our range of trading relationships, so we are not limited to just one country, bloc or continent. We can then begin to achieve the kind of diverse supply chains that will safeguard us against future crises.’

This is what you’d expect from one of the authors of that cheerful libertarian document, Britannia Unchained, and trailblazer of the dream world of Global Britain.

(I’m reminded of Dick Whittington, a cat from another time and place, seeking his fortune – but this time in China.)

I’d like to pitch against that, as a down-home example, Preston’s policy of prioritising local suppliers. Two radically different paradigms. Preston’s is compatible with global trading relationships. But not with a libertarian free-market paradigm, whereby you source the cheapest goods and services, regardless of origin. Boris Johnson has indeed singled-out Preston for back-handed praise: recognising its success but making it clear it isn’t the way forward for the country.

(Boris, our absentee prime minister: ‘Whatever time the deed took place,/Macavity wasn’t there!’ Only, in Boris’s case, he too often hasn’t been there in the first place.)

It should be self-evident, but sadly isn’t to the current Cabinet, that local and international need to work in tandem.

Diversified supply chains, even if they are achievable in Truss’s romanticised world, will not safeguard us against future crises. The further we reach beyond Europe, and the more we’re exposed to issues of distance and transport, and all the problems that arise from political and military conflict, the higher the levels of risk.

The latest edition of The Economist is on the same page, though not quite the same tack, as I am: ‘The pandemic will politicise travel and migration and entrench a bias towards self-reliance. This inward-looking lurch will enfeeble the recovery, leave the economy vulnerable and spread geopolitical instability.’

No-one is arguing against global trade. The reverse. Pursue it as hard as we can. But it’s essential we secure our base, and that is our local and national economies – and indeed European economies. That need not be ‘an inward-looking lurch’.

I shouldn’t push parallels with Cats too far. But – secure your own rooftop, then your wider patch. Don’t rely on Mr Mistoffelees, aka Dom Cummings, to magic your way out of trouble.

An obsession with global trade is especially bizarre from a government which secured its election on the basis of an appeal to the country’s insular instincts. But that’s taking us back to old arguments.

‘… a new day will begin,’ as Elaine Page sings. It won’t come the way we’re going now.

 

 

The fantasies of free trade

Walking and swimming, conjuring turtles (see my last post) and building castles… since the Brexit vote politics have been more a burden, less a pleasure – how we (as country and individuals) might hold on to our sanity while others attempt to build castles in the air.

Brexit has many castles, most of them air-borne, from the immigrant threat to free trade. Closing down on one, on the free movement of labour, runs directly counter to a fully libertarian approach to free trade – if this was a board game, or a novel, I’d want to see how it all worked out. As political reality, I hope not to.

Focusing on free trade, last week we had ‘From Project fear to Project Prosperity’, a report from the free-trading supply-siders ‘Economists for Free Trade’, chaired by one-time Thatcher adviser, Patrick Minford. Matt Ridley in The Times (21st August) pours praise upon them. We hear the old shibboleth, ‘Fortress Europe’, curiously used to describe 28 countries which have taken down the barriers and practise the four freedoms – goods, capital, services, and labour. Ridley argues that ‘external barriers are pure self-harm’, and you’d have thought that he’d take the EU as a shining example. Instead he focuses on the tariffs the EU imposes on non-EU countries – apparently the tariff on unicycles is 15%. What he totally and wilfully fails to recognise is that free trade isn’t a level playing-field, but self-interested countries seeking common ground on which they can co-operate – not for another’s interest, but for their own. We hear from Brexiters about countries keen to reach trade agreements with the UK – but on whose terms? On ours, on the UK’s?

Garvan Walshe on the Conservative Home website is helpful on the subject. (There is an awful lot of sanity still left in the Tory party – but the sane too often these days are the quiet and the cautious.) In trade between countries, ‘the distance relationship is paramount’.

The effect of that decision [the referendum]  is to forego [the EU’s] economic benefits, and they can’t be replaced by shallower trade agreements with other countries, because they are too far away. And while there could, as Minford suggests, be economic gains from deregulation, they won’t happen while Britain´s politics is moving leftwards … Far from bringing benefits through other trade deals, leaving the EU erects an enormous trade barrier with the rest of our continent. Economists for Brexit should have renamed themselves Economists for Protectionism.

Back to Matt Ridley: ‘…after Brexit, Britain should try unilateral free trade, no matter what everybody else does’. This would Economists for Free Trade argue benefit the British economy by as much as £135 billion a year. (Compare the NIESR – leaving would cut our total world trade by a quarter.) The Minford report assumes that we’d reach an agreement with the EU broadly comparable to what we have now, and a level of de-regulation which simply won’t, and shouldn’t, happen in the current climate.

Ridley is also guilty of a selective use of history, an old bete noire of mine. He quotes Sir Robert Peel in the 1846 Corn Law debate – ‘we should cease haggling with foreign countries about reciprocal concessions’. He argues that ‘the closer countries get to free trade, the more they thrive’ – and quotes Britain in the period 1846-80, and Hong Kong and Singapore today. In all three cases the circumstances are radically different – Britain in a period after 1846 when we could dictate the terms of world trade, and two city-states (treating Hong Kong a city state) operating as low-tariff entrepots.

Ridley also attempts a distinction between the Roman civil law ‘prescriptive, rules-based system’, and a ‘better’ common law (and distinctively English to his mind) approach, ‘which is principles-based, outcome-focused, consumer-friendly’. He continues: ‘Because of our history and the nature of our economy Britain can be an effective champion of this challenge.’

The risk is all ours.

We are back, happily for my argument, to ‘castles in the air’. There is no hard evidence that ‘free trade works’, no hard evidence that supply-side economics will deliver any of the benefits (above all increased tax revenues on higher output, and collective benefits deriving therefrom) it claims.

And finally… Adam Smith. Ridley tries to corral him into the Leave camp: ‘As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.’

‘…describing the European Union in advance…’ – this is populist and emotive junk.

The founders of the Adam Smith Institute don’t do much better: ‘We both take the view that the UK now has the chance to trade freely with the rest of the world, since it will no longer be locked inside a protectionist bloc of diminishing economic and political significance.’

The EU isn’t doing too badly at the moment, and it carries political clout – the ‘diminishing economic and political influence’ will all be ours if Brexiters have their way.

‘The normal parameters’

“I am endorsing Hillary. And all her lies and all her empty promises. I am endorsing Hillary. The second worst thing that could happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place, you know? She’s wrong about absolutely everything – but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

We enjoyed PJ O’Rourke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Serious, yes, but with a sense of the absurd which gets to the heart of things. There’s no-one else like him. (He’s a great fan on Jon Stewart, on the other side of the political spectrum.)

Who else is out there beyond Trump, beyond the normal parameters? A serious party game – where protagonists just might come to blows.

Thinking of the UK.

Farage, or farrago, as my spellcheck would have it, of course: he like Trump claims to be within boundaries. He’s fooled a good few people. But closet racism, and recent support for Trump, place him firmly outside.

Corbyn, with his past support for elective dictatorships like the Chavez regime, and backing from trade unions who muddle the pursuit of workers’ rights with political agendas from another era – likewise.

Sections of the Tory party, the libertarian Davies and Fox wing, are on the parameter edge, and should never ever be near positions of powers, let alone dictating.

O’Rourke takes inspiration from Hayek, and avows a small government, minimal intervention agenda. That’s firmly within. We’ve been battling in the UK and USA between big and small government for decades – and that’s the way debate should be.

*

Read on for O’Rourke on Brexit.

He recounted interviews he did for an American public radio programme: he’d set out to understand why Brits voted for Brexit. He quoted a ‘financier’ who argued that the euro and probably the EU was going down the tube sooner rather than later, so best get out now. (To which the obvious reply is – we’ll be hit amidships anyway, and immeasurably better to be in there, influencing proceedings.)

And a more cogent argument – this is no longer the country we grew up in. The older generation’s lament. It isn’t the same country of course, and it’s the same for every generation. The sanity of representative democracy normally allows us trade-offs between young and old, and we move forward, an erratic progress maybe, but progress nonetheless. But not when you chuck a referendum into the mix.

Not a point that O’Rourke made, but a US presidential election has some of the characteristics of a referendum, in the sense of the media blitz and the half-truths, and this time the blatant untruths. But running in parallel are the Congressional elections. There’s balance in the US political system (which sure as hell isn’t perfect!), which brings politics back closer to the centre, where both sides have their say, and policy evolves out of a rough consensus – policies and programmes balancing out over time.

(At least, there was a balance, before Tea Party, and Cruz, and acolytes, and now Trump, came along.)

But referendums on their own – overriding representative, parliamentary democracy… that’s another story.

‘Normal parameters.’ Depart too far, allow prejudice and ideology to take centre stage, and the damage could be irreparable.

 

Three absurdities: 3) privatising the BBC?

And one more, absurdity that is, along similar lines to my last post:

Listening to two Tory MPs on Radio 4 debating the BBC (there’s a White Paper on the BBC about to be published):

one MP recognising that the BBC is much-loved and works well as it is –  we’ve all misgivings, but we can be proud …

and the other arguing that it would do much better in the private sector, as a subscription channel, and there it could do so much more. Precisely what I wondered, and how would it in the end differ from Sky?

An example of the kind of private-sector lunacy which affects and afflicts the Tory right.

They’ve a doctrinaire fear of the state, a ‘we’re all disciples of Hayek now’ mentality, a libertarian impulse which misreads history, scorns the role of the state and government, fails to recognise how state and enterprise can work together (and have done so remarkably over the last two hundred years) – and in the event disregards what the ordinary person wants.

It’s a perverse form of elitism. It’s a fetish, a dogma, which also infects the EU debate, a shadow agenda hiding behind the issues of immigration and sovereignty.