Nick Dearden exposes the myths of a ‘global Britain’
No single person better embodies the right-wing world of Brexit than trade secretary Liam Fox. Fox inhabits a parallel universe in which buccaneering adventurers scour the world for new wonders to sell in an ever-expanding marketplace ruled over by the imperial warships of Britannia.
Fox’s own civil servants brand his trade strategy ‘Empire 2.0’, fitting for a man who chooses to have a picture of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes looking over his office. Even by the standards of the current government, Fox is a hard right free marketeer, close to Trump-supporting US groups like the Heritage Foundation. This might be why Theresa May retains his services. He moves in circles with climate deniers, Big Pharma CEOs, oil men, billionaires. The 0.1%.
So Fox can teach us an awful lot about Brexit – not in terms of understanding the myriad reasons that Britain narrowly voted to leave the EU, but recognising where hard Brexit will take us unless we stop it in its tracks. For beneath the bumbling, the bluster, the seeming incompetence of Fox and his hard Brexit companions, is a deadly serious vision for a very different Britain, stripped of social protection and dedicated to the pursuit of profit above all else.
Fox is also important because he inhabits the key ministry for bringing this vision to fruition. After all, for the leading Brexiteers, unlike the masses who voted with them, the core of their vision is not limiting immigration, nor even parliamentary sovereignty, but Britain’s right to sign independent trade deals. Through these deals, a new world will be created – that is, unless we stop it.
Liam Fox is a hardcore Atlanticist who regards Europe as a nightmare of socialist bureaucratic hell. He dreams of deregulated markets, where the state is reduced to one man sitting in an office with a nuclear weapon. He plans to use trade policy to inch us closer to that place. How? Well, trade today is not simply about finding ways to sell more cars and clothes (or even financial services). Rather, trade deals are about deregulation, liberalisation and muscular corporate power. They are about a set of rules that put the ‘right to profit’ above any social or environmental objective.
Nothing better illustrates this than the corporate court system, politely known as ‘investor protection’. These are secret courts, embedded in many modern trade deals, which allow big business to sue states if government policies endanger corporate profit. Governments might do this, say, by putting cigarettes in plain packaging, removing toxic chemicals from petrol, increasing the minimum wage, or placing a moratorium on fracking. In fact, these are all real cases. The government in question has no right to appeal, no right to take a similar case of its own against a corporation, and must pay extortionate legal fees for each case, win or lose.
Up to now, Britain has shared the European bloc’s standards and regulations. Many of us regard these standards as pandering to the interests of the corporations that lobby for them. But for people like Liam Fox, even these standards are far too high. They would far rather we shared the low standards of the North American bloc. This would mean out of the window go workers’ rights, food standards and the ‘precautionary principle’, which makes sure something doesn’t do harm before allowing it to go on sale.
Chlorine chickens are the tip of the iceberg. The US is pretty public about what it would want from a trade deal with the UK – they have published a 400-page document to tell us exactly what they don’t like about EU standards. This includes a stomach-churning list of foods the US would like to import into Britain – including meat from animals stuffed with hormones, steroids, ractopamine, and endocrine disrupters (chemicals that mess with animals’ hormones and can cause cancer and birth defects), more genetically modified foods, and more pesticide residue allowed on fruits and nuts.
It gets worse when you look at the other side of the ‘staying healthy’ equation: treatment. Medicines in the US are vastly more expensive than they are in Europe, and the US is unhappy about the (still very moderate) limitations that many governments place on pharmaceutical corporations. The US wants Big Pharma to have more say over the prices charged for medicines, curtailing the NHS’s limited power to negotiate pharmaceutical pricing. And the US wants to make it easier to renew patents on medicines, allow an even greater degree of corporate control over clinical test data, grant new patents on biological medicines (including many new cancer treatments), and give corporations a greater say in healthcare policy.
If the US successfully pushes through these top-line demands in a trade deal with the UK, the NHS would either have to spend more money on drugs each year, or more patients would be denied access to those drugs. The reality is that regulation is already too lax. In the last five years the cost of medicines to the NHS has increased 29% – that’s more than the NHS’s total deficit. It can’t afford US drug prices. Indeed, most Americans can’t either.
On top of this, a US trade deal would give US corporations greater powers over public services like the NHS. US corporations would have more rights to bid for contracted-out bits of the NHS, and could then use the corporate court system described earlier to make it nearly impossible to ever bring those contracts into public ownership. While the government has previously claimed that the NHS is at no risk from a trade deal with the US, legal advice sought by trade union Unite disagrees with their assessment.
The Brexit empire
The list of potentially weakened regulations and standards goes on and on: it includes threats to our online privacy, to our ability to move to renewable energies and our right to pass public health regulations. This ideological vision of Britain’s future has been described as ‘Singapore-on-Thames’, an (inaccurate) shorthand for a low-regulation, low-tax, free-market paradise.
It’s not all about the US. Liam Fox is talking trade with a whole host of countries. The oil tyrants of the Gulf. The rising right-wing governments of Latin America. Erdogan of Turkey and Duterte of the Philippines. Any dictator or anti-democratic thug seems ideal for a trade deal. More recently, Theresa May has toured Africa, promising to spend aid money to help us get trade deals, in an effort to re-create imperial trading relationships. Her hope is that Britain will soak up cheap food and basic resources (even though those countries require them for their own development), and we will sell them back financial services at vastly over-inflated prices. That’s how the empire worked – a core economy and a periphery.
MPs currently don’t have any power to stop or change trade deals. Despite attempts by opposition MPs to give parliament and the public some voice in trade deals, Fox’s Trade Bill, currently making its way though parliament, has conceded nothing substantial to date. The trade secretary acts under royal prerogative and has set up more than a dozen trade working groups to begin negotiating post-Brexit trade deals behind closed doors. The most MPs can do, if they’re really lucky, is to postpone ratification of a trade deal for a month. So much for the all-important concept of parliamentary sovereignty.
Brexit and Trumpism
One way to undermine Fox’s vision is obviously to remain in the EU. Given the popular mandate given for leaving, it’s hard to imagine anything short of a referendum could achieve that. Such an outcome looks increasingly possible, as there seems no parliamentary majority for any specific deal.
But a second referendum is not a long-term solution. After all, Brexit did not fall from a clear blue sky. Along with Trump, and the rise of the far right across Europe and authoritarianism across the world, it is a symptom of the deep problems at the heart of our economy and society. While a People’s Vote is necessary, on its own it is not sufficient. We require radical change to massively reduce inequality, constrain the power of the 1% and protect the environment. And those messages must be part of any new referendum campaign, if we’re to have any chance of winning.
One important component is rethinking the global system of neoliberal trade rules. Neoliberalism is dying, and the battle today is about what takes its place. National (or even better, EU) law needs to be reclaimed as a means of controlling big business and ‘investment’ to genuinely build a more equal and sustainable economy. But that doesn’t mean that erecting trade barriers everywhere is desirable, or that propping up corrupt industries is the best use of taxpayer money. The left needs to redefine the purpose and limits of trade policy. Trade is not an end in itself, and where it takes place it should benefit the people of all participating countries, rather than being used to exploit. Labour’s ‘Just Trading’ initiative is a good start, but it needs to go much further. Economic integration doesn’t have to be neoliberal. The key to success is that integration must have a strong social and environmental basis, and even stronger democratic control. For all its faults – and they are huge – the EU is the world’s biggest trade bloc with such social and democratic elements.
What’s more, economic integration cannot be based on the super-exploitation of the planet’s limited resources or of poorer countries, as the World Trade Organisation dictates. Developing countries should be encouraged and supported in forming their own regional integrations, with strong laws to control investment and trade. This is the very opposite of the Empire 2.0 logic of hard Brexit.
An internationalist policy
There are other elements of economic integration that can free people, rather than capital. At the centre of this is free movement of people. Free movement doesn’t ‘allow’ business to pick up and relocate people in order that they can produce more efficiently – rather, that is how virtually every other migration system works: power resides with the economic giants and what they demand. Free movement is different. It’s one of the only immigration systems where the ability to move is a human right. Free movement gives ordinary people rights to organise for better conditions and pay on the same terms as domestic workers.
Our internationalist economic policy should combine two important principles. On the one hand, rebuilding local economies and local democracies – giving people real power over their communities. On the other hand, giving people much greater citizen rights at European and global levels, fostering much bigger democratic discussions over how we trade, how we control corporations, how we ensure that humanity survives the climate catastrophe we’re facing.
This also allows us to develop a clear and compelling vision for an international economics that taps into the concerns of those who voted for Brexit out of desperation, while preserving our internationalist outlook. It is the only progressive future for Europe.