repeal of the corn laws, for the first time placing feeding people ahead of the financial interests of landowners, pretty near destroyed the party and it was rescued only by replacing the nationalism of protectionism with the jingoism of Empire plus a commitment to put the interests of working people first and foremost.
The party repeated this clash over Imperial Preference again settling for, pretty much, the case of trade over the interests of traders. And for a long while (you'd not believe it to listen to many Brexiteers) the Conservative Party supported our involvement in the evolving European Union because it extended free trade and free exchange to a wider market. It only became a problem when this emerging union began to be more controlling, more protectionist and more interventionist.
Gently and quietly the Conservative Party is tiptoeing away from free trade. For all the fine pro-trade words of Liz Truss, there's a growing body of opinion that believes the way to deliver of the promise to people in those "Red Wall" seats is to embrace as rehashed version of Empire Preference where protectionism applies to all but those privileged by trade deals and where certain sectors, 'strategic' industries, are wholly protected in a vain endeavour to save jobs in struggling firms.
The first salvos in this new war were fired during the consideration of an Agriculture Bill where Labour and some backwoodsman Conservatives sought to amend the bill so "no food could be imported to the UK that is produced to lower standards than food made in Britain". It all sounds good doesn't it, but, as Wiltshire MP Danny Kruger points out, this "...would criminalise a lot of current imports from Europe and Africa, and impose an impossible expectation on our trading partners".
The problem is that Kruger, one of the brightest of the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs, then does some protectionist triangulation on the basis that we can't have "beef and liberty":
In free market theory the interests of producers are subordinate to those of consumers. In agriculture things are not so simple. The objective of food policy should not be ever-cheaper food: we already have the third-cheapest food in the world, after the US and Singapore...Let's start with the core of this argument - the objective shouldn't be "ever-cheaper food". Can someone explain to me why not? Kruger invokes a sort of bucolic mysticism in explaining this - "...the almost spiritual identification of the nation with the land, its look and feel...", as if stopping us buying cheap Argentinian beef is the only way to maintain this visceral link to the land.
Kruger's argument seems to be that, since we can all afford to pay more for food, there's no sense in making people better off by using trade to secure cheaper food (so we can spend the money we'd otherwise have spent on pricey beef on trips to country pubs or hiring canal boats on the Kennet and Avon). In the end the core of the argument here isn't about the consumer but about a tiny part of Britain's economy - beef farmers.
The next imperative is to stop our farmers being too badly undercut by inferior cheap imports.The operative word here isn't "inferior" but "cheap". I'm sure that the Brazilian, Argentinian or Texan beef farmer is just as inordinately proud of his product as the Wiltshire farmers Danny Kruger represents. And it's for us, the consumer, to make the judgement about whether the beef the gauchos and cowboys in the New World produce is inferior to the beef farmed on those lush fields outside Devizes.
If British beef is so good then it should not need protection. I spent a few seconds making sure I got the right brand of tinned tomatoes the other day because, although they're 50% more expensive, they're much better quality. The argument that, by making nasty foreign beef more expensive through tariffs and regulations, we make it a level playing field is, quite simply, to stick two fingers up at consumers. As Kruger paraphrases Labour agriculture spokesman, Daniel Zeichman:
"...lovely sustainably-farmed British food for the rich, and cheap foreign muck for the masses."The masses - ordinary families - are expected to pay more for their food so as to indulge grand folk wanting sustainably-farmed, grass-fed, high-welfare, lovingly-carved, well-hung, stroked, mollycoddled and much-loved beef from cheery farmers in new Range Rovers.
The imperative of cheaper imports is that our beef farmers have either to produce their beef more cheaply or else use the magic of marketing to tell the public that that Dorset, grass-fed beef really is worth paying more for. Instead, through the offices of a union, these farmers choose to lobby politicians so as to fix the market, to, in effect, impose a tax on consumers to the benefit of relatively wealthy beef farmers in Wiltshire.
Kruger says "Tories have to choose between beef and liberty". I say this is not so, we can and should have both. We fought this battle nearly 200 years ago, we fought is again 100 years ago, we need to fight it again and, on behalf of the ordinary family, come out strongly and proudly in favour of free trade. We can and will have beef AND liberty.