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The Cultural Foundations of UK Trade Policy: Economic Imaginaries and the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement

June 2, 2023 @ 10:30 am - 12:00 pm

Authors: James Scott (King’s College London) and Silke Trommer (University of Manchester)

Building on Cultural Political Economy approaches, our paper scrutinises UK parliamentary debates on the UK-Australia free trade agreement (FTA) to understand how the UK’s first independent trade agreement came into existence. Within the debates, we trace shared and competing economic imaginaries, which are semiotic systems that help policy-makers to make sense of the complexities of the social world. A shared economic imaginary dominated UK Houses of Parliament debates on the UK-Australia FTA. Its constitutive elements are: (1) discourses of “free trade”, “international cooperation”, “democracy”, “high standards”, “animal welfare” and “climate action”; (2) the agency of the Secretary of State for International Trade and the Government in shaping trade deals; (3) economistic techniques of government on trade, including removing trade barriers, providing legal guarantees for essential public policy goals, and carrying out economic impact assessments; and (4) democratic, accountable and transparent institutions in trade decision-making. At the same time, competing imaginaries with diverging visions of each of these four elements animated controversies in UK Houses of Parliament over the UK-Australia FTA. The competing imaginaries are: (1) “competitive trade”, (2) “state-led trade” and (3) “rules-based trade”. Our analysis suggests that the UK-Australia FTA came about because actors in key power positions were able to pursue their competitive understanding of free trade within an unsettled and uncertain domestic institutional environment for trade policy post-Brexit. We conclude that given the backlash against the agreement from within the political system and a possible clarifying and tightening of domestic trade policy procedures, future trade negotiations may become more difficult for the UK, as international partners will expect to gain the same benefits that were accorded to Australia, while domestic actors may strive to climb down from the trade policy vision underlying the Australia deal.

About the speaker

Silke Trommer is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the University of Manchester, UK. Her research and teaching activities focus on the politics of global trade, global governance, development, social movements, and feminist international political economy. She is author of Transformations in Trade Politics (Routledge, 2014) and co-editor of Expert Knowledge in Global Trade (Routledge, 2016). She has published peer-reviewed articles in journals including Review of International Political Economy, New Political Economy, Journal of Common Market Studies, World Trade Review, Journal of Development Studies, among others. She is co-editor of Globalizations.


June 2, 2023
10:30 am - 12:00 pm
Event Category:


Hybrid – Zoom and room 123
67 Erb Street West
Waterloo, ON N2L 6C2 Canada
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