Brexit and the American Revolution aren’t exactly the same. There will be no war over Britain’s exit from the oppression of the European Union. But as we celebrate our Independence Day, it’s worth reflecting on what the British did last month and the themes of trade, jobs, social justice, living standards, and rights and responsibilities.
These are issues that drove Brexit, and the ones that seem to be driving America’s upcoming election as much as they did our separatist rebellion.
“No taxation without representation” was a compact rallying cry, and an easy explanation for why the American colonies broke from England. Historians, though, say the truth had more to do with trade restrictions than the colonists’ lack of representation in Parliament. No British colonies had seats in Parliament in 1776, and only 3 percent of people living in England, land-owning males, could vote.
What was intolerable about the colonists’ situation were the restrictions imposed by Parliament. All colonial trade had to be handled by British ships, and lucrative raw products like tobacco, sugar and rice could only be shipped to England or its colonies, not sold on the open market for higher prices. Anything sent to the colonies from Asia, Africa or Europe went to England first, so tariffs could be collected. Taxes were levied on paper, paint, lead, glass and tea, and colonists were barred from importing those goods from outside of Great Britain.
Besides the expensive rules, there were silly ones, much like the oft-mocked EU bans on overly powerful vacuum cleaners, too-bendy bananas and eggs priced by the dozen.
For colonists it was illegal to export woolen cloth and hats. The rules kept colonists from getting fair prices when selling or buying.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would have found a lot to rail against in the 18th century, just as they do in the rules governing our trade with Canada, Mexico, China and dozens of other countries. And rightfully so.
In the United States and Great Britain today, the economic challenges of the middle class are a dominant political concern, with globalization at its root. Both nations built a century of broad prosperity on manufacturing, but saw that prosperity dwindle as jobs went to countries with cheaper labor.
There was a recklessness in the execution of both the European Union and U.S. free trade deals. In the EU, too little thought was given to how open borders and unlimited trade and migration would affect the region, and how far bureaucrats in Brussels could go down the path of regulatory surrealism. In the United States, corporate interests sold the idea that a rising world tide of prosperity would lift all ships, but failed to mention that eventually, neither ships, nor steel, nor seemingly much of anything would be made here.
Many of our trade deals make it too easy and beneficial to move jobs overseas and do too little to assure that other nations play fair with currency rates, protect their workers, safeguard their environments and suffer consequences when they violate agreements.
The globalization of markets is a fact of life, and an often-positive one. There are benefits to reducing the economic plight of workers in other countries. Painful poverty is lessened and stability increases. Over time, that should decrease conflict between nations, one purpose of the EU, which rose out of the ashes of two world wars. But in England and the United States, too much was lost in deals that brought cheap goods for consumers, high profits for companies, and enormous paydays for the highly skilled, but stole the security of middle-class workers.
These problems will be even harder to solve than they were to foresee. Already, the leaders who sold Brexit are hedging on their promises.
Here, Trump’s presidential campaign has channeled the rage over lost jobs. But Trump’s answer is bold promises to get those jobs back by forcing other nations into deals they won’t necessarily accept, which will win voters but won’t revive stagnant wages. Last week, Trump’s major trade speech earned him jibes from the heads of both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a tough pair to unite, but it earned cheers from his own camp and may attract some Sanders fans.
Hillary Clinton faces the opposite problem. She and her husband, who enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement, have repeatedly cheerleaded trade deals that sent many good jobs overseas, and her promise to toughen up now plays false to many. Even Barack Obama has been bedeviled by the difficulty of trade pacts. In his 2008 campaign, he called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake” and threatened to opt out. But Canada responded by threatening to sell all of its oil to China, and Obama dropped it.
The challenge both candidates face is to provide specific plans on trade, that can restore our nation’s prosperity and hope.
Slogans like “No taxation without representation” in the colonies in 1776, “Take back control” in England on June 23 and “Make America great again” today in the United States can fuel a movement. But it takes smart policies and savvy politics to lift a nation.