Monday 22 April 2013

Violet, Winston and the meaning of Free Trade

The controversy in recent weeks about whether Violet Asquith flung herself off the cliff for love of Winston Churchill has been preying on my mind - in a mild way, of course.  I suddenly remembered that, unread at the back of my bookshelf, I had a copy of a book called Winston Churchill As I Knew Him by the lady herself.

I got it down, blew the dust off and started to read.  There wasn't anything salacious in it about their relationship (it was published in 1965, and does actually mention the cliff - though not the fall).  But it is also by far the best work of political history I have ever read, atmospheric, pacy, and beautifully written.

I'm still only half way through - I obviously don't have enough baths to get through all 520 pages that fast - but it is a really extraordinary evocation of the background and drama of the great period of the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith reforming government, seen through her eyes  but also through Churchill's. The author's purpose is partly, it seems, to remind people after Churchill's death that some of his greatest achievements had been as a Liberal minister.

But what has really set me thinking is her description of how Joseph Chamberlain's intervention on imperial preference - keeping out foreign imports using taxes - split the Conservative Party so thoroughly after 1903 that it led to the Liberal landslide of 1906.

This is Churchill hitting back immediately from Hoxton:

"It will need his most weighty arguments ... all his courage and all his oratory to persuade the English people to abandon the system of Free Trade and cheap food upon which they have thrived for so long and under which they have advanced from the depths of poverty and distress to the first position among the nations of the world."

Now, bear with me on this, if you can face it.  I've been asking myself why Free Trade could so destroy the Conservatives and so unite the Liberals, when the same cry today might equally work the other way around - and I have wondered whether this might be a clue to why the Liberal Party is not quite the rampaging beast it once was (in the nicest possible way).

I believe the answer is this.  Liberals and Liberal Democrats have allowed the Conservatives to re-define Free Trade along their own aristocratic lines.

Let's imagine for a moment clawing back the idea for Liberalism, realising that - far from enjoying Free Trade - we are actually now battered by semi-monopolies and are paying more money for our basic foodstuffs because of it.  When Monsanto owns 96 per cent of the GM seeds planted in the USA, when Tesco dominates a third of all the grocery sales here, and where their dominance keeps out the kind of challenge from below that the great Liberal Karl Popper said was the basis of progress - that is not Free Trade in the old Liberal sense.

Free Trade has become the right of the powerful to dictate to the powerless.  It is not what its Liberal creators intended - an extension of the anti-slavery campaign to allow people to escape this kind of tyranny by buying where they want.  Free Trade has become a perversion of itself - a privilege to monopolists and speculators to do what they like.  It is the precise opposite of the idea which once united the Liberals and gave them the power to reform.

The Conservatives are just as split on imperial preference as they were back in 1905, when a leading backbencher described himself as "nailing his colours to the fence" - assuming that imperial preference has become the European single market (that is what Oswald Mosley said, certainly).  But the Liberals have abandoned the Free Trade battleground.

They have certainly abandoned the old Liberal idea that Free Trade was the basis for world peace.  You don't hear that any more (though Margaret Thatcher said something along those lines).  It certainly isn't peaceful if it becomes a licence for clashing corporate titans or laying waste developing countries with economic muscle.

We might have to call it something different these days - 'open trade' maybe.  But it needs redefining, just as Liberalism needs to commit itself again to small business, small-scale entrepreneurship and major anti-trust.  But it is now time for this, it seems to me, and belated thanks to Violet Bonham Carter (nee Asquith) for making me think about it.

1 comment:

Gordon said...

Quite right. Although many/most liberals don't seem to realise it 'Free Trade' has come to mean freedom for capital to operate without regulation, limit or morality. And when that means, as it inevitably does, that it goes against the interests of people - well the economic liberals still go with the free trade despite clear evidence of the carnage that ensues.