Sunday, 24 June 2018

A cautionary tale for our times

Imagine the United Kingdom sheltering behind a customs tariff wall. Inside, there is great suffering as food prices rise. Worst of all, in some areas the suffering has reached the point of starvation. There, thousands are dying and thousands more are emigrating by whatever means they can, as unemployment and poverty rise inexorably. The worst hit areas are depopulating.

Not everyone, however, responds to this catastrophic situation in the same way. Some of the very wealthiest strongly support the tariffs, because they protect their businesses by eliminating foreign competition to them. 

More strangely, as well as this right-wing resistance to any attempt to take down tariff walls, there is also vociferous and powerful opposition from the left. These activists believe that tariff reform will expose elements of the working class to competition too. To protect them from it, they are prepared to stand by the tariffs, even though they know that the price is terrible suffering and even death among a far broader section of the poor. Odd, most commentators would feel, since the left should above all speak for the poor – all of the poor and not just a relatively small section of them.

Does this sound like a Brexit dystopia? A UK after leaving the EU, with tariff walls in place partly to protect itself, partly to retaliate to the wall put up by others. A UK receiving a painful lesson in the non-existence of the Brexit dividend.

Funnily enough, that isn’t what I’m describing here. This isn’t a picture of the future. It’s a picture of the past, of the time in the early 1840s when British agriculture was being protected by the corn laws, even though they caused major hardship for much of the working class and the poor dealing with high food prices.

The region where the hardship became actual starvation, and which began to depopulate, through death and emigration, was Ireland, then a part of the UK.

Irish poor reduced to starvation
all in the name of protectionism and resistance to free trade
The landed interest on the right of the political establishment favoured the preservation of the laws. Much of the rest of the right wanted them abolished, partly because it would favour the development of business, partly because if food prices fell, there would be less pressure to increase wages for workers.

The elements on the left who oddly sided with the hard right were the Chartists. This was a movement for political reform and for working class rights in the middle of the century, but it apparently couldn’t grasp the basic principle that the corn laws kept food prices high and inflicted huge damage to the very people the Chartists set out to defend.

The past, not the future, then. But something similar is happening again in the present. That, of course, simply confirms the principle that people are unwilling to learn lessons from history.

The left-wingers in the role of the Chartists are the Brexiters of the left in the Labour Party. Their concern is that the EU is an organisation wedded to market economics and preventing any kind of development towards socialism. That seems to imply that Britain on its own, freed of the liberal economic shackles of the EU, would suddenly embrace socialist principles, as though there was a colossal and currently muzzled desire for pure socialism in the British people.

This is not a view of Britain that it is easy to reconcile with reality.

What is oddest about the people who take this stance is that it makes them some strange bedfellows. They find themselves working with some of the least savoury elements of the hard right, such as UKIP. It’s hard to explain why, given that they see themselves as socialists and internationalists, they don’t question how they can be in partnership with xenophobes and extreme nationalists.

Just as the Chartists found themselves working shoulder-to-shoulder with the toughest of Conservatives but never apparently wondered why.

What’s certain is that the damage the corn laws did before their repeal in 1846 – too late for Ireland – is likely to be caused by Brexit too. Businesses are beginning to threaten ending their investments there – Airbus and BMW just in the last few days – and prices will inevitably rise as the country leaves the free trade area that has guaranteed it cheap produce for forty years.

Which proves another principle: if you refuse to learn the lessons of your mistakes, you condemn yourself to making them all over again.

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