“Brexit was a rejection of globalisation”, glib pundits often tell us. It seems to have escaped their notice that quitting the EU customs union to trade freely with the world was a big plank of the Leave campaign. Britain is fast becoming one of the few countries in the world with broad public support for free trade – and we need to harness it.
Free trade and prosperity go hand in hand. The division of labour – enabling specialisation – is infinitely more efficient than self-sufficiency. As Smith and Ricardo realised over 200 years ago, doing what you’re best at and exchanging your product for everything else you need is the way to get maximum return on your labour.
What works for individuals applies to countries too. We are wealthier as a nation by virtue of our businesses specialising in fields in which they have a comparative advantage, and trading their goods and services internationally, than we would be if we tried to produce everything we wanted at home.
Yet, around the world, free trade is facing a backlash. The Doha trade round collapsed. The corporatist fixes the EU calls trade deals keep stalling. And, for the first time in half a century, both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the presidency are running on protectionist platforms.
In this context, it’s particularly welcome that Theresa May, along with the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, have made promoting free trade a priority.
But it’s also important to rebut the idea that 17.4 million voted against it. Taking back control from an unelected, foreign government was never about raising barriers to trade.
You don’t need to give up control over your laws or your borders to trade freely with people in other countries. Pundits may not be able to understand that, but the people do.