View from the Street: The case against Scottish wine


View from the Street: The case against Scottish wine

I am sure there is some vineyard being dreamt of or tried somewhere in Scotland, so this is not intended as a slight on those putative hopes should they exist. And having served Nyetimber at my nuptials last summer, I know that there are good English producers making their way in that world. But I can call in evidence no less a figure than Adam Smith on why we don’t – as an historic commercial rule – produce wine in Scotland, or indeed to a great volume elsewhere in these islands of ours:

"The natural advantages which one country has over another in producing particular commodities are sometimes so great that it is acknowledged by all the world to be in vain to struggle with them. By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hot walls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries. Would it be a reasonable law to prohibit the importation of all foreign wines merely to encourage the making of claret and burgundy in Scotland?"

In a nutshell, the case for trading freely: specialise in what you are good at and trade with others in what they are good at. As a result, the welfare and living standard of all improves. More people in work, labouring more productively and consuming at better value and quality than would otherwise be the case. Rocket science it is not, but a lesson of history that has to be learned and relearned? I am afraid so.
Smith completed his wondrous ‘Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ in no less auspicious a year than 1776. Meanwhile, in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, a group of ungrateful subjects of the British Crown decided that independence would be a good idea and the United States of America was declared.
That country has gone on to be a moderate success it is fair to say. Its embrace of the lessons of Adam Smith’s work, finished in the year it was born, has never been complete. At their best, the Americans are global, engaged and worldly, bringing the benefits of their technology, talent and capabilities to better the welfare of all. At their worst? Well, the opposite of all of that.
The evil of two lessers on President 45’s shoulder is currently whispering “trade war” into his ear. Out of his mouth flows threats of tariffs and restrictions on people and goods. Someone could usefully pop something onto the other shoulder that would counter the argument and point out that the majority of his people have seen earnings flat or falling after tax for much of this century to date. What has kept living standards tolerable is the ability to buy products made cheaply and well in Asia.
The idea that erecting tariffs or other trade barriers will raise jobs and living standards sustainably is a fraud on the people who can least afford the consequences. Pretty much always and everywhere it diminishes or destroys living standards long term. When policymakers and politicians promote barriers to people, goods and services moving, they tend to do so to blame someone else for home-grown problems. Adam Smith spotted this in 1776 and economic experience has since borne it out.

I am excited to learn that the excellent brain and pen of Jesse Norman MP are about to publish a new book on Adam Smith come the summer. There can be no better time for re-learning and reminding the core lessons of Scottish Enlightenment thinking, and respectfully asking our leaders and policymakers to steward our interests for the long term.
I am all for tenacious pursuit of our enlightened self-interest and the passionate promotion of our economy’s best products, services and talents. Always.
But pretending that stopping someone else living, selling or producing in our home market will somehow make us better off? That, there, is the historic lie.
As long as the French are better at producing Claret, they should, and we can sell them our whisky and salmon in exchange. Multiply that simple equation exponentially and it is how the world has globalised for us all.
Sadly though, every so often someone pops up selling the case for walls rather than bridges. And we know where that always takes us.