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Andrew Glyn

Import Controls? No Answer to Workers’ Problems

(May 1975)

From Militant, No. 256, 30 May 1975.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The prestigious Cambridge Economic Policy Group wrote in its February Review the “Restriction of imports by quotas or high tariffs now appears to be the only way in which the trade deficit can be reduced without either very high unemployment or very large falls in the exchange rate.” But support for the ideas is not confined to academic economists.

In its Statement on the Economy Tribune (January 31) says that “import controls will be needed to see that the whole plan is not frustrated by excessive import bills and to maintain full employment.” Other aspects of Tribune’s proposals, like the NEB and planning agreements, have been discussed in previous articles in Militant, but the question of import controls deserves to be considered.

Superficially the idea may seem attractive. Imports of commodities which can be produced at home are reduced, the balance of payments is immediately improved and unemployment cut as consumers switch to home produced commodities. The great advantage claimed for controls is that, unlike devaluation, the cost of the imports is not automatically forced up.

But it would be wrong to suppose that living standards would not be hit. Foreign capitalists would certainly tend to charge higher prices if they were prevented from expanding their sales in Britain. Also British workers would be forced to switch to buying the more expensive British goods.

Finally British capitalists would take every advantage of the reduced foreign competition to push up their prices in the home market to restore their profit margins (now only one half of the 1964 level). So to a considerable extent ‘import controls’ are just a variation on the theme of ‘buying’ more jobs at the cost of lower living standards.

At no point when discussing this does Tribune approach the problem from the standpoint of breaking from the capitalist system.


Apart from this, Tribune brushes aside the question of retaliation. If other capitalist countries took similar action against British exports the whole scheme would be ruined as employment and the balance of payments would be hit. Foreign capitalists might accept a deflationary policy aimed at cutting consumption and thus imports, as the orthodox response to a situation of crisis where in their terms, the UK was consuming more than it was producing. But import controls would be seen as an attempt to deal with Britain’s problems at their expense.

The reaction would be all the fiercer since import restrictions would have to be concentrated and a relatively narrow range of manufactured commodities for more fuel and raw materials would be needed to sustain a higher level of production. To eliminate even the present deficit, manufactured imports would have to be cut by more than one half. Since some manufactured goods, especially machinery, could not be produced at home with the present capacity etc., in the short run the impact on other manufactured imports, such as cars, would have to be sharper still.

(Of the manufactured goods sold in Britain, about one half are imported. Last month showed a record 38% of new car registrations were imports.)

Such imports come of course from the major capitalist countries, the EEC, Japan and the USA – which are precisely those in the best position to take the most damaging retaliatory action.

It is no use the Cambridge Group saying that “those countries have most to fear from a trade war.” They would use their control of the international monetary institutions like the IMF, on which a capitalist Britain depends, to do all in their power to prevent the introduction of the controls in the first place.

Production Falls

Anybody who discounts the opposition to import controls has forgotten the outcry which greeted the last Labour Government’s 15% Temporary Import Surcharge. Wilson was forced to remove it within two years despite the fact that it reduced imports by only a fraction (estimated at about £100 million per year) of what would be necessary now. Moreover it was implemented in a period of booming world trade, quite unlike the present situation of stagnant exports and falling output (In the capitalist world industrial production fell by about 6% in 1974). With markets shrinking competition has intensified and each government would be under overwhelming pressure from big exporting industries to prevent British capitalists getting away with import controls.


Moreover the jobs of workers in industries exporting to Britain would be threatened by import controls so that pressure for retaliation would not come just from the capitalists. Workers in those industries could be pushed in to the arms of the capitalists on this issue as both would be calling for the same measures of retaliation to protect themselves. Of course genuine socialist measures carried out in Britain would face enormous disruption from foreign capitalists. But on the basis of a socialist programme this could be countered by a class appeal to the workers, rather than an appeal to foreign capitalists, to support the measures in favour of the British working class by stepping up solidarity action and the fight against their own capitalists.

The demand for ‘import controls’ is another variation of the nationalist approach of much of the left, exemplified in the EEC debate. Fundamentally it stems from a belief that, on a capitalist basis, the growing economic and social problems of the British working class can be solved.

On the contrary, the crisis should demonstrate that only socialist measures, and international socialist co-operation can answer the workers’ needs.

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