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When the economy stalls, inequality rises and life becomes harder, there are two popular reactions. One is to reach beyond your borders to find something better in the larger world. The other is to put up walls, blame foreigners and try to isolate yourself from the world.

This week the leaders of the three NAFTA countries, all of them broadly centre-left politicians with liberal records, met in Ottawa in an effort to break the economic malaise with small moves to lower barriers to human and economic movement and make the case for further integration. But the bigger development was the explosion of isolationism in U.S. Republican politics and, very dramatically, in post-referendum Britain.

You might think, from these events, that barrier building and isolationism are naturally, and perhaps rationally, conservative responses – a rejection of a liberal elite's international cosmopolitanism and an embrace of national self-security. Yet there is nothing ideologically inevitable or politically rational: It is an artifice of electoral politics, created by opportunistic politicians who could just as reasonably make the opposite case.

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That was apparent in the runup to Britain's vote on its European membership, which was triggered by a devastated economy, an angry population and a deeply divided governing party. After an ugly campaign in which the tabloid press denounced the Leave campaign as "doctrinaire Marxist socialism" and all major parties supported Remain, almost 70 per cent of British voters voted to stay in Europe. Yes, we're talking about the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in the political and trade bloc that would become the European Union. It was virtually the same referendum as last week's, with the same arguments – except left and right were precisely reversed. In 1975, it was economic collapse that triggered the referendum, whereas in 2016 it was the referendum that has now triggered a likely economic collapse.

In the 1970s, conservatives, liberals and about half the left saw free trade, migration mobility and political unification as the way to escape the deep decline caused by a protectionist, closed-border country. In the words of Nicholas Ridley, the right-wing Tory who led the join-Europe campaign for a decade, Britain could only be saved from decline through "the full economic, military and political union of the free states of Europe, and ultimately all of Europe."

His party almost unanimously backed what it called the "cold shower thesis" which held that, in the words of historian David Seawright, "the free movement of labour and capital would open up the closed nature of so much of British industrial life." Unification provided what Tory grandee Nigel Lawson called "the cold douche of competition."

In 1975, the 33 per cent who voted Leave were mainly on the left, hoping to defend a self-segregated "socialism in one country," but also, and perhaps mainly, anxious about the prospect of foreigners, and foreign influences, in Britain. After Britain had joined the European bloc, about 300 of them greeted the Queen and Prime Minister Edward Heath at the Royal Opera House with chants of "Sieg heil."

What caused a complete reversal of positions in 2016? It certainly wasn't logic or ideological coherence. Rather, it was electoral calculation: In 1975, fear of economic ruin was a potent driver. In 2016, fear of outsiders was equally strong.

Arguments in favour of cutting off trade and political relations have almost always been, at root, election bids based on fear of the foreign. That doesn't mean that every trade agreement is a good idea, or that policies to protect or bail out national industries are wrong. But exits, prohibitive tariff walls, or complete isolation are never rational or principled.

The original free-trade battles of the 1860s pitted isolationist segregationists and colonialists against movements that linked free trade with peace and anti-slavery campaigns. The 1930s isolationism was tightly linked to the exclusionary nativism of the time. A large part of the opposition to Canada-U.S. free trade in the 1980s was pure anti-Americanism. Donald Trump's pitch to completely cut off China and Mexico has nothing to do with economic logic, or conservative values, but with a manipulated hatred of the foreign.

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The fact that left and right have traded positions so many times shows isolationism for what it is: not ideology or economics, but a reflex appeal to fear.

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