The true character of our main political parties is being revealed by Brexitby Jay Elwes / April 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
One of the more startling sights of the Brexit debate on trade has been the transformation of Conservative politicians into convinced, enthusiastic market interventionists. The party of big government is back, only this time, it sports a blue rosette.
It’s a remarkable volte face by the party that for so long has developed economic policy in the long shadows of Hayek and Friedman, and has excoriated the left’s urge to meddle in markets. But now the British right has seeded Brexit, perhaps the most far-reaching example of government intervention in modern British peace-time history.
And when the Conservative Trade Envoy, Mark Prisk, talks about how the government must concentrate on “getting more companies to become exporters,” as Britain leaves the EU, we can see that transformation writ large. It is a statement of pure interventionist intent.
Prisk also warns that, after Brexit, “some UK sectors will fare better than others,” in striking deals with the EU and that “we won’t get everything we seek.” How remarkable that a Conservative should need to point out the government’s limited ability to influence the structures of international markets.
And it is the staunchest right-wing members of the Conservative government, including Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Trade, who have become the most seized by the possibility of creating an all new business environment. Fox showed this when he envisioned a new, “post-geographical” era of trade—a time when Britain would no longer need to prioritise trade deals with countries just because they happen to be nearest to us.
Helen Goodman points out, that Fox’s eye-catching claim violates a good many basic economic laws—and that a sudden attempt to re-direct all of Britain’s EU exports to the far-flung markets of Asia and South America would be catastrophic. It’s a widely-shared criticism.
And yet the political transformations brought about by the Brexit debate on trade are not confined to the right. For a Labour shadow minster, Goodman is surprisingly worried about regulation. She warns about the danger to British business of getting tangled up in the “internal consensus” of international trade blocs in South East Asia and South America: in other words, Britain might be heading for a dense thicket of new trade rules.
It’s surprising to hear. The left has always tended to favour business regulations. It also tends to welcome the internationalist character of cross-border agreements—so long as they don’t impinge on workers’ rights.
And hanging over all this is the question of what Labour’s position on post-Brexit trade relations with the Continent actually is. Goodman says that leaving the Customs Union would be “shattering” and yet it is not entirely clear whether the leadership of her own party agrees—both Keir Starmer and John McDonnell have put forward conflicting messages on what Labour wants out of Brexit when it comes to trade with the continent.
It seems, then, that both the right and left have been pulled out of shape by the Brexit debate on the future of trade.
We may have had no results in the trade negotiations so far. But we are beginning to see what assumptions the political parties are prepared to abandon when they come under pressure. In this way, the true character of our main political parties is being revealed by Brexit.
Most startling of all is the Tory turn towards a vigorously-held faith in big government. In that sense, at least, Brexit is already beginning to reshape Britain. Bigger changes are, however, surely on the way.