Tourism or Smuggling?



Looking up the hill at Robin Hood’s Bay

During our summer holiday we visited Robin Hood’s Bay. The entire town, tumbling down a steep Yorkshire cliff, was once an eighteenth century smuggling machine. To avoid tariffs, goods would be unloaded at night in the bay, either to be clandestinely stored in wall cavities and under floorboards, or carried via a hidden route through the houses and narrow lanes to the clifftop, where carts waited to move them away to market. The rewards were considerable, as would be expected when all wealth ultimately comes from trade. The risks, however, were great. Smuggling was a crime entirely created by governments, for which governments reserved their severest punishments.

Today Robin Hood’s Bay is a charming tourist destination and smuggling is not what it was. This is because, until recently, the world has generally supported an international trading system which does not use protective tariffs. A survey of American economists conducted by Robert Whaples in 2006 found that 87.5% believed the general benefits to society of free trade considerably outweighed local disadvantages. The overwhelming opinion of professional economists is that society would have benefited if the people of Robin Hood’s Bay had been allowed to carry on their business in peace.

There are dark echoes of the past in the way today’s populist politicians are calling for protective economic policies. This is part of a general trend of people wanting to retreat behind the apparent security of various borders. Politicians who support the rational idea of free trade, basing their support on the advice of the world’s leading economists, are vilified.  Just as smugglers of Robin Hood’s Bay were deemed criminals, one of Hilary Clinton’s “crimes” as defined by the recent Republican convention, is her past advocacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement which established open markets in 1994.  Personally I think Robin Hood’s Bay works better as a tourist destination that a smuggling operation.  It is somewhere to remember the bad old days, and learn the lessons of history.

Disraeli still has something to say


The balcony in Maidstone, Kent, where Benjamin Disraeli gave his victory speech when he first became an MP in 1837

Theresa May in her first speech outside Number 10 said that she was a one nation Conservative.  As it happened, I was just finishing Sybil, by nineteenth century Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli – the book from which the One Nation idea derives.  Sybil, set in northern England, describes a calamitous divide between rich and poor, a division so dramatic that people live entirely different existences within one country.

Sybil certainly does not shy away from the iniquities of social division.  The descriptions of poverty, oppression and infanticide are comparable with Dickens.  Nevertheless, the complexity of the book comes from showing that the two nation divide is also an illusion.  There are all kinds of plot twists showing complex links between the two worlds.  Today Labour leaders like Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell cling to the illusion of worker solidarity; but as they face another day of rows, resignations and turbulence, perhaps they should read the following passage from Disraeli’s book as the lovely Sybil comes to realise that her cause is not as straightforward as it appears:

There was not that strong and rude simplicity in its organization she had supposed. The characters were more various, the motives more mixed, the classes more blended, the elements of each more subtle and diversified, than she had imagined. The People she found was not that pure embodiment of unity of feeling, of interest, and of purpose, which she had pictured in her abstractions. The people had enemies among the people: their own passions; which made them often sympathize, often combine, with the privileged.

As a story, Disraeli shamelessly uses that tried and tested Mills and Boon device, where a man and woman, though apparently hopelessly divided by wealth, find unlikely love – the worthy shop girl catching the eye of the billionaire idea.  This familiar plot becomes part of Disraeli’s bigger argument about the complexity of social divisions.

There are long nineteenth century sentences to deal with; and at some points Disraeli gaily abandons that good advice to show rather than tell.  But this is a great book, one of the most influential in the history of modern British government, with continuing relevance to the politics we see today.


In Praise Of Prime Ministers Who Do Nothing


Portrait of Harold Wilson by Ruskin Spear

Prime ministers are usually assessed historically by what they did. With the Chilcot Report giving a damning report on Tony Blair’s decision to support America’s invasion of Iraq, it is instructive to recall a prime minister who in a similar situation did nothing. Sometimes doing nothing is very difficult, and achieves more than any grand scheme. Prime ministers of the past such as Robert Walpole and Lord Melbourne were masters of doing nothing. But it is Harold Wilson’s success in holding off the people who wanted him to act which is most relevant at the moment. The best illustration of Harold Wilson’s cunning ability to do nothing is seen in his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson, like Tony Blair after him, came under intense pressure from the United States to commit British troops to a highly dubious foreign war. Unlike Blair, Wilson resisted the pressure. The situation was complex. Britain was relying on American aid to support a weak pound. So Wilson tried to give an impression of involvement. Foreign secretary Michael Stewart publicly defended the American position in Vietnam, and offered to mediate in peace talks. This was a lost cause, but it gave the impression of action, while keeping British soldiers from getting involved. Hopeless peace initiatives also helped keep certain aggressive elements in the Labour party happy. Wilson was to be heavily criticised for his seeming support for America in the Vietnam War. He couldn’t visit a university campus without students – supported by grants his government had instigated – calling him a fascist pig. Wilson it seemed had done nothing. Little did the students know the effort and resilience that had gone into doing nothing.