OPINION: Campaigners score a victory

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust

Stephen Byers made an extraordinary about-turn last week. The former government minister had been a high-profile advocate of full and unfettered free trade. Indeed it was he, as Trade Secretary, who had led negotiations on behalf of the UK government at the WTO summit in 1999, trade talks that attracted world attention when anti-globalisation demonstrations spilled over onto the streets of Seattle.

But now it appears he has had a change of heart. One year after leaving the Government, Byers announced that he no longer favours full trade liberalisation and believes that the process of opening up domestic markets in the developing world to competition needs to be carefully managed in order to protect their citizens from slipping further into poverty.

His volte-face was greeted with jubilation by the voluntary organisations that have spent years campaigning against international trade policy.

To hear any politician questioning the established orthodoxy on trade is unusual but to hear such views from a former Trade Secretary left aid agencies not quite believing their luck.

But what lessons can be learned from this campaign victory?

There are really only two credible explanations for Byers' change of mind. Firstly, there is his own account of what happened. In a newspaper article he described how once he was "no longer sitting in air-conditioned offices" in Whitehall and had escaped "the persuasive arguments of trade policy experts", he saw the issue in a different light. With time to visit Africa himself and witness the plight of farmers first-hand, he saw how removing protectionist trade measures could be harmful to the poor.

The other explanation is, sadly, more plausible. Byers always sympathised with the views of the campaigning organisations but as a minister was not prepared to challenge the prevailing ethos. Now that Byers has so little political credibility left, he had nothing to lose by expressing his personal views. But this will hardly encourage his contemporaries to follow suit. Perhaps it was a pyrrhic victory for the campaigners after all.

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