A silly sub-heading in the business supplement of my Daily Telegraph today says: “The controversial NAFTA [North Atlantic Free Trade Association] treaty is polarising voters and has far-reaching implications for business”. The latter part is true, the first is nonsense. The ordinary voter has little idea what free trade means, still less what NAFTA is — or that it is now the subject of protracted and bitter negotiations going on between EU bureaucrats and Americans officials.
There is a myth that the industrial revolution was founded on free trade and largely accounted for its success. This is just not so. The revolution got started on the basis of millions of African slaves working in American cotton-growing plantations. Our navy also prevented other countries from buying it.
We believed in free trade in the 50 middle years of the 19th century because, by then, we were the almost monopolistic supplier of cotton cloth — and much else — all round the world. We didn’t believe in free trade in the last quarter of the 19th century when we were no longer monopolistic suppliers. So then we developed the British Empire as a trade preference area.
Free trade is a wonderful idea and by far the most efficient method of trading for every entity concerned. But it then depends on trust between different cultures to see it through, even during difficult periods. Maybe free trade will occur everywhere in the world one day when man is experienced enough but don’t hold your breath.