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The pressure for protectionism

Stephanie Flanders | 14:41 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

"History is not destiny", Gordon Brown said in Davos this morning. His aides tell me he was referring to the need for governments to stop talking about the global crisis and start acting.

But this is a day when striking refinery workers have thrown his talk of "British jobs for British workers" back in his face.

He might just as well have been talking about the history of the 1930s - when countries turned to protectionism and the global capital market fell apart. The growing feeling in Davos is that it is history we may be about to repeat.

Gordon Brown in DavosI talked earlier this week about the rise of financial protectionism. Gordon Brown called it "financial mercantilism" in today's press conference and he stood against it.

He said that the banks' return to their home markets was already hitting capital flows to the developing world, and could lead to full-blown protectionism down the road.

He also grimly reminded his audience that "protectionism protects no-one and least of all the poor". And yet, his government's own approach to Britain's banks shows how hard it can be to resist.

We have a huge stake in keeping the global capital market going - global capital is something we need quite a lot of. But British banks have themselves been under pressure to focus scarce lending on borrowers here at home.

The pressure is not always explicit, but it's there - and as much in the City as on Wall Street.

At least one central banker I spoke to here in Davos politely suggested the prime minister might want to get his own mercantilist house in order before lecturing everyone else.

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