15 November 2016

Brexit, Trade and the Imperial Imaginary

On a trip to China a few years ago, something struck me which I’ve kept returning to in the wake of the Brexit vote. In the centre of Beijing’s Forbidden City, China’s most iconic public monument, amongst some large and ancient artefacts, sits a small plaque. In Mandarin and English the plaque explains that the relics came from the Summer Palace, looted and burned by the French and English in 1860 at the height of the Second Opium War. It pointedly states that few of the surviving treasures remain in China and many more were destroyed by rampaging British and French forces. It was an act of vandalism ordered by Lord Elgin (of Elgin marbles fame) in retaliation for the torture of a diplomatic delegation (and the fire caused by the looters lead to the deaths of some 300 eunuchs and concubines).

This was an event in a four-year war triggered by the British desire to open up China to its traders, but it was, in reality, designed to ensure their domination of the opium trade, both in international markets and for consumption at home. For the Chinese, the sacking of the Summer Palace has become a site in their cultural memory equivalent to that of 9/11 for US citizens. Having been largely ignored in the early years of communism, the managed resurgence of nationalism following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 has led to the recovery of the memory of the Summer Palace and a restatement of its significance in Chinese history.

The Summer Palace in Beijing (Image by Julien Lozelli, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Advocates of the great British tradition of free trade often point to the 1842 repeal of the Corn Laws as the zenith of nineteenth-century laissez-faire. This story is told as a triumph for liberalism that nobly broke the rights of the old aristocracy to a guaranteed income, and opened up the English market to cheaper grain imports that would mitigate the effects of high prices and poor harvests. Notably it came as a devastating famine was spreading from Ireland to the rest of Britain. But it is colonial adventures in the name of commerce that shape the histories of the rest of the world. 

The ‘triangular’ trade in slaves, raw materials and finished goods, running from Bristol and Liverpool to West Africa, the Caribbean and North America; the ruthless wealth extraction of the East India Company; the expeditions of Lord Elgin and his French allies against the Chinese: these are the high watermarks of British commerce. Trade on preferential terms backed by threat, and use, of force was the doctrine, not free and fair exchange between equal nations.

That plaque in Beijing comes to my mind when I hear Brexit ideologues talking of free trade. And it’s not the dodgy morality, the colonial era racism or their unreconstructed view of history that worries me: that’s a strand of British conservatism that we’ve long known about and been struggling against. No, it is the sheer, blind, pig-headed ignorance of how history is told in the rest of the world that’s of concern in the post-Brexit conjuncture. It is the key cheerleaders of this position in the Brexit debacle – Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and Daniel Hannan – who are shaping British international relations and who project our image abroad.

When Hannan says that post-Brexit we will ‘rediscover that global vocation which we once took for granted’, and that ‘a country like ours’ contains ‘merchant people, maritime people, a people linked in every way to more distant continents across the seas’. He does not seem to know or care what that means in Beijing, Delhi and Jamestown. When Fox talks up our colonial history saying: ‘British values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law have transformed much of our world and we should take pride in our history, rather than apologising for it’, he offends the cultural memories of those whose nations were shaped not by British goods but British guns. When Johnson claims he will ‘make Britain once again to be the great motor of free trade’, is he gearing up for the grand Royal Navy to sail out guns blazing to burn Chinese ports and sack their cities? Because that is the weight of the historical reference.

These neo-colonial fantasists (for that is how they must be perceived), are right about one thing however. Lacking raw materials or a sufficient industrial base to support the rest of the economy, Britain is dependent on trade for our very survival. Outside of the EU, except where there is expediency produced by political affinity (with Turnbull’s Australia perhaps), new trade deals will not be from a position of strength. Fox likes to reference Adam Smith’s belief in open markets as some sort of answer to any objection, as if he is saying: ‘see, we just need to open up commerce, smash barriers to trade and prosperity will spread like over-priced marmite on our post-European toast’. In Fox’s speeches a chain of equivalence is established between trade, laissez-faire government and the imperial imaginary justified through the invocation of much abused political economists.

And this imaginary is not just nostalgic, it’s ahistorical. A sub-Kipling image of bowler hatted Englishmen bringing cricket and Sheffield steel to the primitives. Our envoys will charm some crooked vizier in an exotic capital with tea, scones and a haughtily refined attitude into handing over the sultan’s treasury for a bag of magic beans and a manual for building steam engines. That’s not free trade, it’s simple chauvinism. It’s a fantasy of superiority that has no basis in reality; the great ships and maritime prowess of the British Empire may well have been genuine feats of ingenuity, there may well be something in that history that is worth resurrecting – skilled engineering, efficient manufacturing and the birth of organised labour perhaps – but the idea that we can look to that era as the pinnacle of open trade is a simple fallacy.

Yet in making these claims, Fox, Hannan and Johnson have successfully advocated for leaving the genuine free trade area of the EU in favour of a fantasy built on the extractivist practices of empire, where the acquisition of wealth through imposing trade arrangements by force and partial laws enabled the bloody glory of Britannia. Even Adam Smith writing before British global dominance fully manifested had no illusions about the real impact of ‘trade’ in India through a ‘mercantile [East India] company which oppresses and domineers’ helping to create a country ‘where subsistence, … should not be very difficult, and where, notwithstanding, three or four hundred thousand people die of hunger in one year’ (Wealth of Nations, Ch. 8).

Trade for Smith under the wrong circumstances, with the wrong form of organisation would not bring prosperity, but abject poverty. For him the EU would more likely have been a wondrous space of complex integration establishing efficiency through openness, and prosperity through the regulation of monopolies, than it would be the bureaucratic bugbear of Brexit nightmare. As socialists we may not agree with Smith or his view of market efficiency, but the point is that the Adam Smith of the Brexiteers is a chimera yoked to political ambition.

In the world we live in today, international frameworks thankfully leave little space for the Royal Navy to enforce the terms of trade. As Article 50 negotiations approach and we attempt to pivot from Europe to the rest of the world, we may find ourselves adrift at sea with few friends and trade champions who alienate the very people who we will most depend on. Yet Andrea Leadsom, Brexiteer and one time Prime Ministerial hopeful, offers us solace by suggesting, in all seriousness, that UK companies will sell quintessentially British products such as tea and biscuits to the Far East.[1] Yet that reveals our very weakness. This was brought home to me on my China trip, when I asked for a cup of tea in a Beijing hostel. ‘What sort of tea?’ the waitress asked in perfect English. ‘Erm… English Breaksfast?’ I said unthinkingly. And without a beat she replied: ‘There is no such thing. Tea is Chinese.’