State control was responsible for the Irish famine, too Peculiarly Irish lessons from a famine 150 years ago

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The Independent Online
IN HIS thoughtful piece on the Irish famine, "The lesson from Ireland's famine was clear: the unfettered market kills" (21 May), Neal Ascherson claims that free trade contributed to the starvation of the Irish people, pointing out quite correctly that corn was exported from Ireland to Britain during the famine.

Between Ireland and Britain there was indeed free trade, the whole of Ireland being at the time a part of the UK. However, this operated inside a protectionist wall which was the antithesis of free trade. Britain sucked in imports from Ireland because prices for corn were kept artificially high by the Corn Laws. They were used to guarantee high prices and provide import protection for farmers (and indirectly to landowners) who had grown used to such support during the Napoleonic wars. Without these high internal prices (which the Irish could not afford), the incentive to export to the growing British industrial market would have been much lower. Furthermore, lower prices would have brought more food within reach of the Irish poor.

So when Mr Ascherson says "what works is the mixture of market forces and public control" he is being too sweeping and too optimistic. The Irish tragedy comprised precisely that mixture with disastrous consequences.

There is a present-day equivalent. It is the Common Agricultural Policy which sets high internal prices in the European Union and common barriers to trade. This penalises the poor by raising food prices. Fortunately it is not leading to starvation in Europe but it is leading to massive disruption in world food markets as we dump surpluses out- side Europe at knock-down prices subsidised by European taxpayers. These subsidies are ruinous to farmers in countries poorer than our own. And all in the name of managed markets. The mix of public control and market forces can work, but the lessons of history are that it is folly to assume that this will be so.

Robin Simpson

Head of Policy

National Consumer Council

London SW1