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Economic patriotism in a downturn

How should a nation react to tough economic times? Journalist and broadcaster Tim Harford asks whether we should become all patriotic about it.

Bruce Forsyth in 1971
Bruce Forsyth's "I'm Backing Britain" sold only 7,319 copies
"I'm backing Britain…", crooned Bruce Forsyth in 1968. "Yes I'm backing Britain/We're all backing Britain."

Despite Brucie's support, the "I'm Backing Britain" campaign did not last long. The campaign's T-shirts were even produced in Portugal. Typical, perhaps, of the difficulty of building up a head of steam in support of the national economy.

Economic patriotism was never really Britain's thing, but it seems to be enjoying a comeback.

Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, told an audience of farmers last October that he wanted a return to the "Buy British" mindset, with government support.

Last week, the environment secretary Hilary Benn also called for consumers to buy British food, also at a farming conference.

No doubt it was crowd-pleasing stuff, but it is puzzling.

After all, every time we deliberately Buy British we are also deliberately "Not Buying From Foreigners".

Existing in isolation

In a world where racism is rightly viewed with disgust and contempt, it is a strange thing that discrimination against foreigners is regarded as acceptable, even laudable.

British farmers protesting against French lorries in 1999
Is it wise to turn our backs on foreign imports?
It is also not very smart, because there are so many more foreigners than us.

The economist Gary Becker has tried to calculate the economic costs of discrimination. What he found was common sense. When a large group and a small group discriminate against each other, it is the small group that suffers. The rest of the world could happily do without British products, but Britain cannot happily do without the rest of the world.

It is true that if a "Buy British" campaign persuaded many of us to seek out British products and turn away from imports, that would be a shot in the arm for the workers and companies who produced those products.

But here is the bad news. If foreigners find they cannot sell us their products, foreigners would also find that they had no sterling to buy exports.

For every local product that beat off foreign competition, there would be a British exporter struggling to find customers. We cannot have a world where we sell lots of products to foreigners, but they never buy anything from us.

Environmental cost

Granted... such a world would, at least, cut down on food miles and you might think that would be good for the planet.

But not necessarily. Buying foreign products may add to food miles but it can also cut down on the need for heated greenhouses or intensive farming. In any case, international freight is very efficiently done. (No, those cut flowers from Kenya do not fly first class.)

When Hilary Benn had a different job - development secretary - he agreed with me, calling for people to buy Kenyan flowers for Valentine's Day in 2007. He must have forgotten.

The biggest environmental cost of food transport comes, not from international shipping, but driving to and from the supermarket, often with just a couple of carrier bags in the back of the car.

Having looked closely at the evidence, I have concluded that what really reduces carbon emissions is making sure you walk or cycle to the shops.

Do not get me wrong. I am backing Britain. I am just not backing the British at the expense of foreigners, or national producers at the expense of British exporters.

But if I have not convinced you, please wait a moment before getting on the phone to Portugal to order your T-shirts.

There is already a hugely effective policy in place that will help support British firms and British workers: the collapse in the value of the pound, which makes it harder for foreigners to find buyers here and easier for British exporters to expand. It will have more impact than 1,000 "Backing Britain" campaigns.

Perhaps Brucie could sing us a song about it.

Tim Harford, a Financial Times columnist, is author of "The Logic of Life" and presenter of Radio 4's "More or Less".




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