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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Is Michael Gove the new Joseph Chamberlain?

History tells us that the championing of tariffs on imports by Joseph Chamberlain in the early 1900s through the Tariff Reform League, was a major factor in enabling a Liberal landslide in the 1906 General Election.

Free-trade stalwarts in the Liberal and Labour parties prevailed with the argument that such an arrangement would penalise voters by undermining their cost of living. Many working-class people at the time saw tariffs as a threat to the price of food. The election was won with the slogan 'big loaf' under a Liberal government, 'little loaf' under a Conservative government.

Liberals also commissioned a variety of posters warning the electorate over rises in food prices under protectionist policies, including one which mentioned that "Balfour and Chamberlain are linked together against free trade ... Don't be deceived by Tory tricks".

In the circumstances, it is surprising that the current Environment Secretary is seeking to resurrect this debate, albeit that Michael Gove's remarks could be taken in the context of seeking to scare MPs into voting through Theresa May's deal, to avoid a no-deal exit from the EU.

As the Guardian reports, Gove told the NFU Conference that the government will apply tariffs to food imports to protect British farmers in a no-deal scenario. He also contradicted some of his more hard-line colleagues by warning that delays were likely in Calais because of mandatory EU checks on food imports on the French side of the channel:

He told the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference in Birmingham that reports that Britain would operate a zero tariff regime in order to secure frictionless trade in a no-deal scenario were “not accurate”.

“One thing I can reassure you it will not be the case that we will have zero rate tariffs on products, there will be protections for sensitive sections of agriculture and food production,” Gove said.

He later hinted that the tariffs would apply to beef and “particularly” lamb, citing livestock farmers as the most vulnerable in a no-deal scenario. He refused to reassure farmers who pressed him about protection for cereal farmers, suggesting zero tariffs were a possibility in some areas.

This championing of producers over consumers could well backfire on the Conservatives in the same way that it did for Joseph Chamberlain's Unionists, who were out of power for decades.

Gove however, has one advantage, a completely ineffectual opposition who are more concerned with facilitating Brexit than in championing the rights and interests of the British people.
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