Recently President Trump signed executive orders imposing a new 25% tariff on imports of steel and aluminium. The move has been met with disapproval from US conservatives and business groups, with 107 Republican lawmakers signing an open letter against trade barriers. The policy is a clear reaction to China’s “dumping” of below-cost steel on global markets. China’s long term strategy is to render Western governments dependent on Chinese resources by undercutting domestic industries. Many on my own section of the British Left have spent years calling for the UK government to intervene in the steel market by nationalising and subsidising British steel. Our government should be using our steel in its infrastructure projects and keeping the industry alive.
Conservative (and Lib Dem) governments in the UK since 2010 have consistently cosied up to Chinese suppliers at the expense of British manufacturing – when the Coalition came to power, one of its first acts was to cancel an £80 million loan to Sheffield Forgemasters. This approach is based primarily on the short term benefits of cheaper steel, but it’s ultimately unsustainable and foolhardy. Western governments need concerted action against China’s neocolonialist actions, or we risk becoming client states once we have little to no industry of our own left.
It’s not often that I praise Donald Trump for anything, but these tariffs are in my view a welcome first step in protecting American industry and American workers. It’s unlikely that Trump will ever go further and nationalise the great foundries, but raising trade barriers does buy time against an aggressive Chinese trade strategy. Trump’s order to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership is also a welcome step, given the probable effects of the deal on working people in Asia and America. NAFTA has been a disaster for indigenous Central American peasants and US industrial workers alike, and the TPP isn’t much better – it’s been consistently opposed by trade unionists and the progressive left.
These tariffs are also the first major sign of a new kind of politics coming to Washington – a resurgent nationalist right co-opting some of the economic ideas of the progressive left to bring about a new synthesis. It will be a huge challenge for the Democratic Party to beat Trump if he keeps his hold on blue-collar former Democrats in the Industrial Midwest. Another East Coast liberal, spouting free market orthodoxy and vague social niceties, won’t be good enough. Protectionism has long been a dirty word in both major parties, with centrist establishment Democrats and almost the entire Republican Party pushing deals like NAFTA, TPP and TTIP. In 2016, Trump and Sanders were the two candidates challenging this consensus, despite their obvious differences in other areas.
Most polling showed Sanders beating Trump by a wide margin compared to Clinton, so it’s clear that there is a public appetite for a break with the economic orthodoxy. In the run-up to the 2016 general election, even Clinton was forced to U-turn on the TPP by pressure from the left of her party. Democratic candidates in 2020 will need to propose radical economic solutions to the problems ordinary Americans face, or be crushed by Trump. We will see in October’s midterms if the Democrats have learned their lessons.
However, from a European perspective, the US tariffs could negatively affect our own steel industry. British and European steel is still favoured for certain projects because of its typically higher quality than what China produces – for instance, Sheffield Forgemasters was recently contracted by the US Navy to manufacture components for new nuclear submarines. This is one of the areas where Brexit could affect the UK economy very badly, because we’re currently part of the world’s largest trading bloc and share market access with the rest of the EU. Once we leave, it’s uncertain whether UK goods will still be used worldwide, because of the difficulty of arranging new trade agreements. It’s been rumoured that British steel could be exempt from the US tariffs, but the mechanics of this are unclear and the EU’s Cecilia Malström has protested loudly.
On balance, steel tariffs are a good move for US workers and should be celebrated. Governments across the free world must take action including nationalisation, state subsidies and yes, import tariffs, to combat China’s deliberate manipulation of the market. Steel is one of the commanding heights of our economy, as important as ever in the age of robotics. The natural resources of our country belong to the people and should be overseen by our democratically elected government, not by multinationals who fire hundreds at the drop of a hat when the stock market sinks. It’s time for a new economic order where workers and the public have a stake in our key industries, and where our future doesn’t depend on a large, potentially hostile dictatorship.