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One of the most important contributions which Britain made to the prosperity of the world in the 19th century was the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. By removing tariffs and other barriers to imports — and without demanding reciprocal concessions from other countries — the British government led the way in promoting the virtues of the free market, and helped to set in train the first wave of globalisation.

So much is familiar to students of British economic history. What is less widely appreciated is that Britain today is setting an example to the rest of the world on an issue closely connected with free trade: whether or not countries should let foreigners buy up their national ­companies.

While other countries are becoming increasingly protective, the British are quite happy to see a stream of leading industrial firms pass into foreign control. Examples include ICI, Courtaulds, Pilkington, British Steel, British Oxygen, Land Rover and Jaguar.

The contrast with France is particularly striking. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, prides himself on what he calls economic patriotism. In the recent presidential election campaign he made great play of his success in preserving Alstom, a large engineering company, as a French-owned national champion; if market forces had been allowed free rein, Alstom would either have gone bust or, worse still, been taken over by its German rival Siemens. While France cannot always prevent foreign takeovers, as when Arcelor, the steel company, was bought by Lakshmi Mittal, the London-based Indian entrepreneur (a transaction to which Sarkozy was strongly opposed), the government has made it clear that certain sectors are for all practical purposes off limits to foreign acquirers.

For France, these attitudes are not new. But other countries are moving in the same direction. There has long been a protectionist strand in the US (airlines, for example, cannot be controlled by foreign shareholders), and hostility to foreign investment appears to be increasing. To judge from what the presidential candidates are saying, a victory for the Democrats in November will make things worse. Other countries, notably Germany and Japan, are uneasy about the activities of foreign investors.

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