Since the final days of Robert Peel’s time in Downing Street, Britain has been the greatest voice for open trade that the world has ever known.
As every schoolchild knows, or at least used to, the vote in 1846 to bring an end to the Corn Laws and thus open Britain’s markets to foreign corn signalled the end of this country’s period as a protectionist nation. It was of course not Peel but Gladstone who was to carry out this liberalising revolution; by 1860 the tariffs only remained for luxury items such as wine. Income tax rose in significance in order to offset the loss of revenue from tariffs.
Gladstone also set to work to spread the gospel of Free Trade, his influence was felt across Europe and his legacy was cemented by the work of the dozens of chancellors who have succeeded him.
It is only right that the nation of Adam Smith has been the most consistent in its fidelity to the cause of free trade. Now in the 21st Century the nation of Gladstone and Peel must make its voice heard again.
In the United States open trade and the globalised vision espoused by so many Presidents is taking a beating, neither candidate for the most powerful office in the world could be described as an economic liberal. Donald Trump maintains the opinions of an old fashioned protectionist, determined to put “America First”. Hilary Clinton has back tracked on the Trans Pacific Partnership in an attempt to win over disenchanted voters of both Senator Sanders and Donald Trump. Liberalising reforms are no longer the order of the day in Russia and China as they turn their backs on the de-regulation of the 90s.
Britain is not free from the sentiment of anti-globalisation as we have seen in the recent vote to leave the European Union, although here it is immigration that has caused the backlash, whereas in the United States a more varied set of grievances forms the poisonous cocktail that powers Trump.
The exit from the EU presents Britain with an opportunity to once again be the beacon for open trade, as other nations shirk from the cause. Free from some of the protectionist elements of the European Union we can now “acknowledge the equal rights of all nations” (Gladstone, 1879) so far as trade is concerned.
Failure to acknowledge Europe as our foremost trading partner would undoubtedly be folly but a new relationship with Europe must not come at the expense of our opportunity to make real the global vision of the Brexiteers.
Britain’s trade must once again flow around the world and our country must be open to all, not merely our cousins across the channel. If the United States is to remain gripped by a fervour of anti-globalisation then Britain must take up the mantle as it has so often done in the past.
Time will tell if our exit from the concert of European nations was foolish but if we place an openness of trade at the forefront of our vision for the future then our departure from Brussels may well prove to have been sensible.
Convincing the people of past industrial powerhouses that globalisation is of national and global benefit will prove to be a great challenge of the 21st century. Our might is not what it once was, but our voice must be lent and heard loudly against the tide that may sweep away much of the foundations that Peel and Gladstone laid all those years ago. A British commitment to global not European trade will prove that Brexit was not due to nativism, and if our new Government recognises the opportunity laid before them then perhaps once again we shall move heaven and earth.