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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A Board of Trade?

Fifty hours before the polling stations open for the General Election, I first heard the suggestion from the Tory party that the Board of Trade should be revived, with the intention to drum up trade for the UK after Brexit.

A Liberal Democrat source was reported to have given the snap reaction that this was a seventeenth-century 'solution' to a twenty-first century problem. That was a clever comment, and it shows a fair knowledge of history; but it also shows that that source has not yet caught up with President Trump's thinking. As I have pointed out in this column recently, the policies that secured Mr Trump's election victory can be characterised as reminiscent of some that flourished in the seventeenth-century. I have suggested that Mr Trump has thought on parallel lines to those of the great J-B Colbert, who built up in the French economy massively in the reign of Louis XIV. But I explicitly said that I had no apprehension that Mr Trump was consciously citing mercantilist writers: my view is that in the present conditions of global trade and technology it is entirely rational to form policies that have resonances similar to those that worked triumphantly in the mid-seventeenth century; and through the eighteenth century, in those countries where they were intelligently applied.

Britain had a Board of Trade for centuries. It was allowed to become dormant - as a committee - in the very early twentieth century, though it was not abolished; and successive Archbishops of Canterbury were surprised to find that they were members of the Board which never met. The title President of the Board of Trade was given to a member of the government who bore some responsibility for trade matters|, including the supervision of the insurance industry until Gordon Brown's restructuring of financial services when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ancient titles, including Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Lord Privy Seal, remain to this day to be allocated to 'spare' ministers whose duties are determined on a short-term basis by the Prime Minister.

The new Board of Trade, if it is established, is seen as a body which will find customers for British products and services in the post-Brexit world; and seek 'inward investment' to the UK. The second of these objectives indicates that the little thinking that has been applied to the concept follows on from the second most destructive of the policy imperatives that was laid down by George Osborne. The ruinous policy of austerity [which Mrs May implemented at the Home Office in the reduction in the police force] was Osborne's number one priority. Osborne's number two objective was to attract 'inward investment' to the country; and its consequence was to sell infrastructure and the companies that operate it [such as water, power supply and railways] to foreigners. For a one-off sum flowing into the British economy, control of the firms and the income streams that they attract go to foreigners; and thereafter British consumers pay tribute to the alien owners. Even more damaging was the succession of innovative firms that had established now intellectual property that were sold to foreign owners before they had even begun to make significant profits for UK investors. Those investors, and the inventors themselves, were well-paid for surrendering their rights to future returns from the companies that could make vast amounts of money for their owners: to whom British users of the products and services would have to pay high retail prices.

Even the Econocracy* have recognised that Britain's economy is blighted by low productivity. This blog has repeatedly emphasised that productivity follows on from productiveness. As was emphasised in Millicent Fawcett's Political Economy for Beginners [1870] productiveness is the situation where firms make profits which they can invest in improving their products and processes and thus raise the productivity of their businesses. That key fact has been ignored by Economists since 1890, to the massive detriment of the economy. Selling the profit stream that comes into a business to a foreign firm gives the aliens the option to invest where they see fit, and often does nothing to enhance British productivity. So it looks as if the Tories have found yet another way of despoiling the economy, at no benefit to the population.

* For an explanation of ECONOCRACY, refer to the website of the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society.

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