Adrian Hamilton: Politicians must recognise that globalisation is in retreat

You cannot brush aside the strikers' concerns with free trade platitudes

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One by one the great and good of the land have stepped forward to pronounce on the wave of strikes over foreign workers and to condemn them. "Xenophobia" is the dread threat raised by Lord Mandelson. "Protectionism" and even the British National Party have been the spectres raised by his colleagues.

And quite right too. Protectionism would be the worst fate to befall the world at this time. There is no reason to fear the EU in this context. The figures show that British workers have largely benefited from it. The political class is wise to warn of what could happen if the cause of these strikes were hijacked by the nationalists, the europhobes and the little Englanders.

But listening to the spokesmen of the workers involved I don't get the feeling that the actions do arise from xenophobia or hatred of Europe (although there is precious little love of it in this country). Indeed the leaders seem to be at pains to distance themselves from such causes, partly because the thrust of this dispute appears to come not from the unskilled, who have been most affected by immigrant labour, but from the skilled workers such as pipefitters who know the benefit of an open market.

If there is a broad resentment it comes from that British sense of fairness; the feeling that it isn't a level playing field, that foreign firms have favoured their nationals in the better jobs.

Now you can argue until the jobs come back whether this amounts to a demand for protection and a call to tear up the rules of open market in Europe (Unison has come dangerously close to that in recent statements). But what you shouldn't do – although that is what ministers are doing – is simply to brush the concerns aside with airy statements about principles of free trade.

This recession, as Jeremy Warner says on these pages today, is for real and no government, even authoritarian governments such as Russia and China (perhaps they least of all given the communist party's eternal fear of anarchy and revolt) can afford not to reflect the fears and concerns of their own people.

Economists can talk of reflation and credit shortages. Ministers can argue the need for propping up the banks, guaranteeing bad loans and printing money. But out there in the real world, it is about losing jobs, having a house worth less than the mortgage, of being unable to afford the repayments.

They understand the global nature of the crisis. They understand the need to take measures to combat it. But they don't understand why all the attention is being paid to the banks, whom they regard as the authors of their woes, and they want to feel government is on their side in the downturn. And that is even more true of all those countries, from Brazil to China by way of Germany, who feel the victims not just of the banks but of the Anglo-Saxon approach to finance.

Given these sentiments, it's surely pointless to keep talking about more globalisation through the Doha round of trade talks and to give out a load of platitutudes about how free trade is good for you. The political reality is that globalisation is not just stalled, it's on the retreat. In an economic downturn of this magnitude, every country is going to regard care for its own as the first priority.

You only had to listen to the speeches and comments of Prime Minister Putin of Russia in Davos and Wen Jiabao of China in London to know that the cash rich of yesterday are not going to ride to the rescue of the cash poor of today. And yet you only had to read their remarks to know that this does not represent – as yet – a retreat to economic isolationism. The problem is less how to stem a thirties-style disastrous rush to trade barriers, than it is how to re-present, and indeed recast, internationalism in a post-credit crunch age.

Davos was no help, although it should have been. The Americans, on whom the world depends for a route out of this crisis, were notable by their absence. The rest of the world, political leaders and businessmen, were still too stunned by the collapse of that vision of political, business and financial leaders marching happily together to the sunrise of a new age of free markets which Davos had done so much to promote and which now lay burned and shattered at their feet.

No, the political leaders of the world are going to have to start again to reforge an international consensus on trade and regulation. The internationalism of tomorrow – today indeed – will have to be recreated out of national concerns and a degree of national protection. The strikers of the Lindsey refinery are not the obstacle to progress, they are going to have to be the first port of call in achieving it.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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