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Dear Brexiteers, free trade does not mean what you think it does

They’re such keen supporters of free trade, that they’re willing to hammer Britain’s trade in the process. 

There’s a concept in linguistics called an “auto-antonym” – a word that can, quite ridiculously, mean its own exact opposite. “Fast”, for example, can mean moving at speed, or unable to move at all. Or consider the sentence: “He tried to cleave them apart, but they cleaved tight to one another.”

Having words which can carry two diametrically opposed senses could, one might think, get confusing, but it rarely does: the meaning intended is almost always clear from the context (at least to a native speaker). Nonetheless, I think I’ve found a term which can carry two completely contradictory senses, in a way which many people seem not even to have noticed. What’s worse, their failure to notice this is about to take us tumbling over an economic cliff.

That term is “free trade”.

A few weeks ago, my old mate Daniel Hannan finally revealed what he’d do with himself once the EU stops paying him large amounts of European taxpayer’s money. His new “Institute for Free Trade” is a pro-Brexit think tank which will, it says, make “the moral case for open commerce”. Its name recalls that of another pro-Brexit pressure group, Patrick “lol” Minford’s Economists for Free Trade.

The funny thing about both these organisations is that they believe the case for free trade is best made by pulling Britain out of the largest and most established free trade bloc in the world. If you were truly a believer in free trade, one might think you’d want Britain to be able to trade as freely as possible with its nearest neighbour and largest trading partner. And yet, no: there’s an entire subculture of free trade fundamentalists who want us out of the single market and the customs union, effectively throwing up barriers between us and the continent.

Several explanations for this apparent contradiction come to mind, many of which you can probably guess. But one which has, I think, received relatively little discussion is that the term “free trade” is surprisingly hard to parse – it can mean, in fact, two things so distinct they’re almost antonyms.

The “free” in the free trade proposed by the fundamentalist right is a negative freedom: the freedom from regulation. The problem these guys have with the EU is (let’s be charitable) not that they’re all a bit foreign, but that it’s a bureaucratic body: it wants to interfere in the market by imposing costly regs on decent, hard-working businesses. If you think that free trade means less regulation, that should mean less EU.

But there’s another form of freedom that applies here: a positive freedom, the freedom to trade. If I want to sell my widget in your market, then the things that stop me might be government-imposed rules like tariffs; but they might also be the fact our two markets have different regulatory regimes, so that none of my potential customers know whether my widget is safe or useful or does what it’s supposed to. In the latter case, increasing the freedom to trade might mean actually increasing government regulation, by imposing common standards.

This, of course, is what the EU has done through the single market. It’s been incredibly, visibly successful, in that it’s increased trade between the members of that market. If you believe trade is A Good Thing in terms of increasing the wealth and happiness of humanity, well, you should support it.

Yet some people, who claim to believe in free trade, don’t. Why? Because it doesn’t fit their idea of freedom – because it conceives of government not as a barrier to freedom, but as the body that facilitates it.

Those people are now in the ascendant, and determined to take us out of this free trade area. They’re such keen supporters of free trade, that they’re willing to massively reduce Britain’s trade to show their support. Black is white, up is down, and words have no meaning any more.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.