Reclaiming free trade for Liberalism
Speech to Liberal Democrat conference, Bournemouth, September 2004
The trading system we have created for the world is a bit like Tony Blair. Its deference to the rich and powerful knows absolutely no bounds at all.
Just think about Blair for a moment. Can you think of even one occasion – just one will do – when he or his government stood up to the vested interests of the richest and most powerful?
Amazing that we have allowed him to change the meaning of tough to cover up the fact that he is quite incapable of challenging them.
In fact, he can’t see the powerful without getting down on his knees. And he takes us with him.
Well, it’s the same with the world trade system. It has become like our prime minister Blair and his bottomless appeasement of the rich.
Like Blair, global trade now favours short term speculation over long term production.
It favours the rich over the poor, financial services over factories – and absolutely everybody over farmers.
It favours instability over stability, and blind bullying over ethical business. It favours monoculture over diversity.
It panders to monopolies and it will not rest until the rights to every blade of grass is owned by the supermen of Wall Street.
In short, like Blair, the global trading system has lost its soul.
The whole shining idea of free trade, which this party above anyone else brought forth to the world – the right of free and people and communities to do equal business with each other – has become a caricature of itself.
I know some people say this is debate is an attempt to abandon the historic idea of free trade, and I respect that position. But it’s absolute nonsense.
I don’t want to abandon it. It want to reclaim it. To claw back free trade for liberalism.
So it can be an idea we can be proud of again.
So that the freedom to trade and benefit from it gets extended to everyone on the planet. And the freedom not to trade too. That’s just as important.
That’s what this motion and this policy begins to do.
This argument isn’t about free trade versus fair trade. It’s about two versions of free trade.
One that extends freedom and equality. One that panders to the powerful and allows them, not just to ride roughshod over the powerless, but to enmesh them in rules of indentured semi-servitude, scraping at their soil to pay off unrepayable dollar debts.
Liberal free trade as set out by the motion sets down some rules. Their version of free trade rejects all rules but naked power.
Liberal free trade is what it always was, an extension of the campaign against slavery. Their version of free trade is the kind trotted out by Washington think-tanks or editorials in American newspapers with financial backing from the Moonies.
Their version of free trade ends, as it has done in parts of Bolivia – where collecting rainwater has been made illegal because it eats into the profits of the privatised utility run by a subsidiary of the giant American Bechtel corporation.
Ours reclaims fair trade so that it would be recognised by Cobden, Bright, and even Adam Smith – with his warnings about monopolies and conspiracies against the public.
Their version of free trade is blind faith in the power of money. It’s a kind of fundamentalism. An adolescent failure to grasp the responsibilities of every human being in the global crisis.
It has nothing to do with Liberalism. We have the chance now to say that to the world.