The lesson of US tariffs on whisky for post-Brexit Britain – Brian Wilson

I felt quite nostalgic on hearing the US will impose tariffs on an eclectic range of EU products in response to a World Trade Organisation ruling that Airbus benefited from illegal subsidies to the detriment of Boeing.

Donald Trump may not be directly responsible for planned US tariff on whisky (Picture: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Donald Trump may not be directly responsible for planned US tariff on whisky (Picture: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Single-malt Scotch whisky is on the list. What, you may wonder, does whisky have to do with planes? But then what did cashmere knitwear have to do with bananas, a question which exercised me 20 years ago as UK Trade Minister.

That was the last big US retaliation against EU subsidies. These had been driven mainly by the UK to protect Caribbean banana producers from the full blast of competition from American corporations operating in Colombia and Ecuador.

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I worked closely with the Scottish cashmere industry and we managed to protect them by Government underwriting the threatened tariffs. Eventually, the WTO greatly reduced the total sum the US was entitled to extract and “Banana Wars” faded away – though Caribbean countries still live with the consequences.

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One thing I learned from the experience is that the US trade authorities are ruthless and largely independent of political direction. Tony Blair raised the cashmere issue directly with Bill Clinton who explained the limitations of his influence to resolve it, much as he would have liked to!

Against that background, I have listened with some sceptisicm to promises from President Trump and John Bolton – remember him? – of huge, fast-tracked trade deals post-Brexit. They’re having a laugh.

When it comes to trade, America will act in American interests first, second and last. No special deals will conflict with that doctrine, so get used to it. Now, if anyone needs advice on how to fight Airbus Wars...