Cooking the Books 2
The Tories and Free Trade
Defending the proposed Free Trade deal (no tariffs, no quotas) with Australia in spite of the harm to British farmers, Boris Johnson told a meeting of Tory MPs ‘We are the party of Peel’ (Times, 21 May). Sir Robert Peel was prime minister in the government that brought about the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. These laws, by imposing tariffs on the import of wheat and other cereals, benefitted the landlord class since the high price of wheat encouraged the use of less fertile land, so increasing the rent on all wheat-producing land.
Peel was a Tory but his move split the Tory party and the Peelites eventually became part of the Liberal party. Most Tories followed Disraeli in opposing repeal on behalf of the landlord class. In the early 1900s the Tories were campaigning for Tariff Reform, i.e., the imposition of tariffs on imported manufactured goods.
Johnson’s historical ignorance is bad enough, but that of Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, is appalling. She invokes not just Peel but John Bright and Richard Cobden. On 3 June last year she tweeted ‘Today is the birthday of Richard Cobden, champion of free trade, manufacturing and founder of the Anti-Corn Law League’. Last October, she declared that she wanted the Board of Trade ‘to become the Cobden, Peel and Bright of the twenty-first century’. In an article in the Sunday Express (14 February) she quoted Cobden as hailing Free Trade as ‘the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history’.
Bright and Cobden were the political leaders of the industrial capitalists in their struggle against the landlord class for political and economic supremacy. They were implacable opponents of everything the Tories stood for (imperialism, military preparations, aristocratic privilege). The repeal of the Corn Laws was a key event in British economic history but hardly the greatest revolution in world history. In any event most Tories opposed it.
Marx lived through these events and naturally commented on them. In January 1848 he gave a speech in Brussels on free trade in which he said:
‘The repeal of the Corn Laws in England is the greatest triumph of Free Trade in the 19th century. (…) Cheap food, high wages, this is the sole aim for which English Free-Traders have spent millions, and their enthusiasm has already spread to their brethren on the Continent. Generally speaking, those who wish for Free Trade desire it in order to alleviate the condition of the working class. But, strange to say, the people for whom cheap food is to be procured at all costs are very ungrateful. (…) The English workers have very well understood the significance of the struggle between the landlords and the industrial capitalists. They know very well that the price of bread was to be reduced in order to reduce wages, and that industrial profit would rise by as much as rent fell.’
He ended by stating that he was in favour of free trade but only because it would bring about a more rapid development of capitalism and the antagonism between the working class and the capitalist class and so hasten the social revolution. ‘It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade’.
Johnson and Truss are not justifying the Australia trade deal on the grounds of ‘Cheap Food, High Wages’. The deal is essentially only symbolic and any reduction in food prices that it might bring would be very slight. But we can expect this argument to be used to justify other trade deals, especially that with the US. But it will be as invalid as it was in the 1840s. Cheaper food will mean cheaper wages, leaving workers no better off.