Acton Institute Powerblog

Boris Johnson: ‘Free trade needs a global champion’

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In the immediate aftermath of the historic vote for Brexit, many cheered Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, hailing it as a win for freedom, democracy, and subsidiarity. Yet others were quick to claim the move was driven only by populist fear and an inward-looking protectionism.

In the years since, however, it has became readily apparent that possibilities for freer trade do, indeed, abound, with many of the country’s pro-Brexit leaders continuing to champion free and open global exchange.

As Richard Turnbull recently wrote here at Acton, reflecting on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s path forward, “Leaving the EU will allow the U.K. to set its own trade policies, to renew commerce with the rest of the non-European world, to lower prices and open markets, and lead to new sources of prosperity.”

This week, in a speech in Greenwich, London, Johnson further confirmed that path, proclaiming the promise of Britain’s post-Brexit role as a “catalyst for free trade across the world.” Far from promoting narrow insularity, Johnson made clear Britain’s intentions for their newly regained autonomy.

“We have the opportunity. We have the newly recaptured powers,” he says. “We know where we want to go, and that is out into the world.”

Watch the full speech:

While the speech’s blatant bucking of various EU demands has sent skeptics fretting about Britain’s future, Johnson has plenty of faith in his country’s ability to move forward, regardless of any EU resistance.

“We are ready for the great multi-dimensional game of chess in which we engage in more than one negotiation at once, and we are limbering up to use nerves and muscles and instincts that this country has not had to use for half a century,” Johnson says. “…The question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s or more like Australia’s, and I have no doubt that in either case the U.K. will prosper.”

The speech has plenty of detail about the particular political pressures at hand, including specific counterarguments to prevalent concerns. But it also provides a strong case for free trade more generally, while also promoting a fascinating fusion of  national sovereignty and global cooperation—one that we’d all do well to consider.

I have highlighted key excerpts from the speech below.

On forgetting the power of free trade—“this fundamental liberty”:

We are re-emerging after decades of hibernation as a campaigner for global free trade. And frankly it is not a moment too soon because the argument for this fundamental liberty is now not being made.

We in the global community are in danger of forgetting the key insight of those great Scottish thinkers, the invisible hand of Adam Smith, and of course David Ricardo’s more subtle but indispensable principle of comparative advantage, which teaches that if countries learn to specialize and exchange, then overall wealth will increase and productivity will increase, leading Cobden to conclude that free trade is God’s diplomacy—the only certain way of uniting people in the bonds of peace since the more freely goods cross borders the less likely it is that troops will ever cross borders.

And since these notions were born here in this country, it has been free trade that has done more than any other single economic idea to raise billions out of poverty and incredibly fast.

On the destructive meddling of politicians and bureaucrats:

My friends, I am here to warn you today that this beneficial magic is fading. Free trade is being choked and that is no fault of the people. That’s no fault of individual consumers. I am afraid it is the politicians who are failing to lead. The mercantilists are everywhere, the protectionists are gaining ground.

From Brussels to China to Washington tariffs are being waved around like cudgels even in debates on foreign policy where frankly they have no place – and there is an ever growing proliferation of non-tariff barriers and the resulting tensions are letting the air out of the tyres of the world economy.

On how Brexit will allow the U.K. to expand its global relationships:

We are ready for the great multi-dimensional game of chess in which we engage in more than one negotiation at once and we are limbering up to use nerves and muscles and instincts that this country has not had to use for half a century. We will reach out to the rest of the Commonwealth, which now has some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

It was fantastic at the recent Africa summit to see how many wanted to turn that great family of nations into a free trade zone, even if we have to begin with clumps and groups, and we will take these ideas forward at Kigali in June. We will engage with Japan and the other Trans-Pacific agreement countries, with old friends and partners—Australia, New Zealand, Canada—on whom we deliberately turned our backs in the early 1970s.

We will get going with our friends in America, and I share the optimism of Donald Trump. And I say to all the naïve and juvenile anti-Americans in this country if there are any…grow up and get a grip. The U.S. already buys one fifth of everything we export.

On wanting Britain to be a “catalyst for free trade across the world”:

I say to our European friends—many of whom I’m delighted to see in this room—we are here as ever, as we have been for decades, for centuries, to support and to help as we always have done for the last hundred years or more. And the reason I stress this need for full legal autonomy, the reason we do not seek membership or part membership of the customs union or alignment of any kind, is at least partly that I want this country to be an independent actor and catalyst for free trade across the world.

I was there when they negotiated the Uruguay round. I saw it completed in Geneva when they gavelled it out—and it was one of those events that people hardly reported, but it was a fantastically important event in the life of the world. And it was a critical moment in my view that helped to lead to almost two decades of global growth and confidence.

On how more global trade will help, not hinder, the U.K.’s national cause:

It will help our national program to unite and level up and bring together our whole United Kingdom. And by expanding our trading relationships to improve the productivity of the entire nation by expanding infrastructure, education and technology, you know that our program is to bring this country together, combine that with greater free trade.

And of course I hope you will see us exporting more fantastic ships built on the Clyde, more wonderful bone china pottery from Northern Ireland, beef from Wales. The opportunities, as I say, are extraordinary.

On Britain’s “seafaring” heritage and a proper “global perspective”:

This is the moment for us to think of our past and go up a gear again, to recapture the spirit of those seafaring ancestors immortalized above us, whose exploits brought not just riches but something even more important than that—and that was a global perspective.

That is our ambition. There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail…the wind sits in the mast.

We are embarked now on a great voyage, a project that no one thought in the international community that this country would have the guts to undertake, but if we are brave and if we truly commit to the logic of our mission—open, outward-looking, generous, welcoming, engaged with the world, championing global free trade now when global free trade needs a global champion—I believe we can make a huge success of this venture, for Britain, for our European friends, and for the world.

For more on this topic, read the following articles at the Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty Transatlantic website:

Image: Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.