Artillery Row

No go Global

COVID-19 shows the need for state and economic protectionism

Does the pandemic tell us anything useful about the dead orthodoxies that govern our lives, or is it simply a meaningless natural phenomenon? Well of course on one level, unless it was created in a hostile state’s biowarfare lab, COVID-19 is inevitably the latter: just one of those of those things. But there’s a strong argument that it also reveals a lot of other things. And one of the things we should notice most is the carcass of the deadest policy of all we’ve clung to post-Brexit: economic “globalism”.

Let’s look at what we’re seeing in no particular order now that pressure has been applied to our current, almost universally approved of, economic system: supply chains fragilely, not robustly, extended across the globe, free movement of people, a lack of self-sufficiency in food at home, manufactured goods made halfway across the globe, inconsistently vulnerable to the mercantilist habits of the states we’ve abandoned the factories to.  For the globalist the world he knew was already under threat. No one will soon forget the hysterical response democratic opposition to the Globalist consensus, in the form of the UK’s vote to Leave the EU, received from Global Man. Expect nothing less in defence of the economic consensus, whatever this crisis exposes.

Such a crisis highlights in truth the need for balance. But that’s exactly what we’ve already lacked. Anyone pointing to the utility of national borders enforced as and when they should be remains a reprehensible nativist. Nothing anywhere such as Singapore or Taiwan, which shut their borders fastest, and effectively so, has visibly achieved by doing just that will or can open minds sealed shut by globalist bigotry. 

The lesson of our current crisis for Brexit’s delivery as a national policy must surely be one of balance, but balance in a most unfashionable way. Albeit in a way that is far more reflective of those who voted for Brexit than the assumptions of politicians on both sides of the referendum debate.  Because as soon as people most affected by freedom of movement and the relocation of industry abroad turned out to vote emphatically for Brexit in the North of England, they were immediately told (by the people they had striven to reject) that what they voted for was a “global” Britain even more subject to the buffets and uncertainties of the global economy than remaining within a trading bloc.  Simply put: was Brexit achieved off the back of voters – desperately in some cases – seeking security, to make up for what they patently lacked in their day to day lives? Or was Brexit the result of a yearning for buccaneering ‘freedom’ of the stale sort that excites SW1 think tankers and almost no one else in the country? I wouldn’t recommend professional Globalists putting that to a vote again, here or in the United States.

We can argue about Donald Trump’s temperament, abilities and achievements, but what is surely clear is that he promised the sort of “patriotic capitalism” that did not attack national identity and did not lead, as Labour or Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric would have it, to a rush to the bottom. There is no credible evidence that voters want their national economies to be totally open to the pressures of competition from low wage economies.

In a reverse of the cliché, when we sneezed our Brexit result America caught a Trumpy cold. On either side of the Pond, while there are differences, there are still similar shifts in political mood.  Brexit and Trump are distinctly, historically recognisable, ‘Atlantic’ responses compared to darker continental phenomena such as Marine le Pen or the AFD.  The two electoral results do represent a shift back towards American isolationism and Little Englanderism: it’s foolish to deny this. Before any economic liberals, schooled in accepting the theories of Ricardo as something like religious dogma, or perhaps more like mathematical truth, scroll on, my point about what COVID-19 rubs in our exposed faces is not some supposed need for a complete rejection of free trade.  It is not a call for an extreme economic response, but a call, once again, for rebalancing. The unquestioning Globalist demand for more internationalism, and ever more unfettered free trade demonstrably has had its downsides. Not least in some of the political responses voters have been obliged to come up with in reaction to this default elite prejudice. At some point someone is going to have to learn a lesson, be it the voters or the politicians.

We do not need to reject Ricardo and all his works to recognise he was only talking about economics.  In economic terms he was entirely right about comparative advantage and specialization. Nonetheless, life is about more than economic growth.  It is also about identity, culture, democracy and the prevention of global pandemics. That’s, in part, why we have nation states: left to its own devices pure market theory would do very little to fight a pandemic beyond filing for bankruptcy. The virus is the case for the state writ large.

When Brexit voters in less economically productive areas of the country cast their votes in the Referendum, this was often sneered at as being the politics of resentment.  Actually, it was probably a vote of hope. If we could protect ourselves more from globalism, then people might just be able to regain a stake in the capitalist economy. We’re a century on from the political failure of Joe Chamberlain’s vision of a strong economy that protected the voters rather than simply exploited. There’s life in the old protectionist dog yet. Who knows, one day there might even be a Westminster think tank which had such thoughts? Then we would know the simplest souls had got the very basic point voters have been telling their elected representatives: ‘the economy isn’t working for us, fix it, or we’ll fix you’. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover