The gap between the rhetoric and the policy of “Global Britain” was widened this week as The Department for International Trade announced Britain’s new Tariff regime. The change sees the abolition of so-called “nuisance tariffs” (those of 2% or less) and the reduction to zero of tariffs on goods from dishwashers to Christmas trees. This is a step in the right direction, dampened only by the government’s ecstatic preservation of tariffs on agricultural products, and the 10% rate for cars. With talks between the European Union and the British Government seeming to have reached an impasse. The prospect of higher-cost food from the 31st December is an alarming one.
The document released by the DIT states that the new tariff regime backs businesses and consumers. Yet artificially inflating the price of something as vital as beef and poultry seems only to suit the former group. One of the key advantages of leaving the European Union was the potential to rid ourselves of the protectionist Common Agricultural Policy and liberalise the trade in food with other nations. Now it seems that we are merely going to look after our own rather than looking outwards to the world.
Perhaps the electoral significance of the farming sector to the Tory party means that any change is unlikely. But tariffs affect the poorest in society the most, making extra charges on the cost of imported food look immoral as well as anticompetitive. Global Britain here seems to amount to little more than “Global Britain except for the vested interests”.
Perhaps it would be easier to look past this if Global Britain didn’t look so asymmetric. Tariffs are not the only post-Brexit development of the past week as MPs voted for the first time on the new Immigration bill. A set of laws which the Tory party claims simultaneously will “End Free Movement” and “Open Britain up to the world”. The new points-based system prizes meeting a salary threshold of £25,600, effectively excluding those wanting to work in sectors such as social care in which there is already a dire shortage. This false distinction between low-wage and low-skilled must be urgently reassessed as evidenced by the workers we are relying on most during the coronavirus pandemic. Before COVID-19 the UK government told us both that we were experiencing full employment and perpetuated the argument that migrants were taking jobs British people could do. These two arguments are mutually exclusive.
Our departure from the protectionism of the European Union has given us a tremendous opportunity to forge a new kind of trade relations. One that doesn’t use tariffs to inflate the price of food as the EU does and one that doesn’t care whether immigrants are American or German or Indian only that they come in peace and want to contribute to our economy and our society. Global Britain is often ridiculed as a meaningless phrase, but in terms of rhetoric it represents a powerful vision for a free nation, in policy terms, it seems increasingly lacking. Global Britain is possible but our government doesn’t seem brave enough.