How wonderful that Ian “Beef Quota” Botham is the UK’s Trade Envoy to the Commonwealth of Australia. He is well known there – if not loved – and he even has some experience in the Antipodes trade himself, lending his legendary name to a range of wines from South East Australia. Botham’s wine marketing material describes Lord Botham, as we now have to learn to call him, as “arguably” one of the greatest cricketers England has ever produced. Who can dispute this?
But is he one of the greatest trade negotiators England has ever produced? It may be, but it is likely that the day-to-day chores of grinding down detailed tariff schedules and annual quotas will be delegated to people who would probably never earn Ashes but know a thing or two about the laws of Canada. comparative advantage. Australians understand such things and are legendary, tough and skilled trade negotiators. The British, not so much, as we all know by now. This is the problem.
The point is, Australians want to export their excellent products at a price that will improve the situation for UK buyers. At the same time, it must therefore worsen the situation of British farmers. The laws of economics suggest that these farmers should move out and retrain as bankers or something like that. But it is of course offensive and impractical. They would be unemployed or at best make a living in bed and breakfasts or farm shops and flogging shop produce, with government grants for the rewilding and upkeep of red squirrels and the like.
There may be a long transition period, but the demise of the family farm will be predestined by such trade agreements. The National Farmers Union said farmers would be thrown under a bus. Mark Drakeford, Premier of Wales, rightly asks: ‘How can our hill farmers compete with the Australian climate? How can our hill farmers compete with the space available for the huge farms they have in Australia? In Scotland, they fear Australian precedents will be set for new deals with America, New Zealand, South Africa and the rest of the world where the climate and land are better suited to cultivation and to the breeding of cattle. There will be an agricultural depression unprecedented since the 1930s.
This is the reason why a trade deal between the UK and Australia (apart from the postponement of EU deals) has yet to be concluded. It’s not just that we’ve all been a little busy with the pandemic. This is because allowing free trade in Australian products would destroy large swathes of British agriculture.
It was always a bit of a mystery to some of us as to why in 2016 when we found ourselves in the countryside there were huge signs in the fields for Vote Leave and we were later urged to “Vote Tory” and “Make Brexit over”. It has always been true, and regrettable, that the EU was a protectionist bloc aimed at protecting farmers. Why would farmers want to change this? Perhaps they thought that the subsidies would continue, as would the tariffs, and that the Conservatives would take care of them.
Global Britain is supposed to have cheaper food (and everything in between) to lower the cost of living. The Tories could cut food bills all at once if they went for free trade, but they seem reluctant, caught between loyalty to Brexit ideals and the farm lobby.
I didn’t mention animal welfare and food standards for the simple reason that they are a bit of a false argument, an excuse for protectionism. Even if Australians were to agree to change their laws and adopt UK standards, or the equivalent, at least for their exports, they would still have huge competitive advantages, such as weather and economies of scale.
But let’s take a closer look at the standards and welfare argument. Why, on the other hand, shouldn’t Australians argue that the UK needs to change its laws instead if it wants a level playing field? Maybe we should try to agree on mutual standards? It is curious that this is the sort of thing that we feel sullenly that the EU is trying to negotiate with the UK, and yet, in a bilateral trade deal between the UK and the UK. Australia between two independent and friendly nations, such mutual intrusions into sovereignty are considered perfectly acceptable. In any case, the Australian deal is not worth much to them if their products are banned from the UK because we don’t like genetically modified beef or wheat, pigs kept in pens, mutilated sheep, battery hens and all the rest. . There isn’t much left except the Vegemite sandwiches.
The Conservative manifesto promised that we would not lower our standards for a trade deal, and we will not; but Ian Botham and Liz Truss will not ask the Australians to increase theirs, because they cannot.
No doubt some sort of deal will be concocted, but it will be marginal and often insignificant – chocolate bars and the like. Australians are at a slight disadvantage at the moment as the Chinese are giving them shivers over politics, and a new market, even a small one like the UK, would be welcome. But even though the deal was much more comprehensive than it seems likely, and even though it was followed by similar triumphs with, say, America and India (who are also playing tough in trade) , it would be overshadowed by the loss of easy access to European markets. markets (and Northern Ireland) currently underway.
A good bottle of Botham brand Malbec will cost a few pounds cheaper, however. Howzat?