Nick Dearden on the chilling world that awaits if the free marketeers get their way
Boris Johnson has been clear that a trade deal with the US is an absolute priority for him, and has planned a series of meetings with Trump’s administration, while snubbing European leaders. Johnson’s new Trade Secretary Liz Truss met the US ambassador to talk trade only a few days into her new job. So what is this trade deal likely to mean for us?
First it’s important to recognise that Johnson’s new cabinet is stacked with ultra-free marketeers, who are deeply sceptical about protections for workers, consumers or the environment. Founder of the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, Liz Truss herself is a turbo-charged Thatcherite who has spoken of her desire to drive down taxes, cut back public spending and strip away regulations on everything from housing, to education, to the workplace.
In 2012 she authored a report with a group of Conservative MPs who are now in key government positions: Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Kwasi Kwarteng. ‘Britannia Unchained’ claimed the British were “among the worst idlers in the world” and declared war on the “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation”, believing, somewhat surprisingly, that Britain suffered from masses of over-regulation on the part of successive governments from Tony Blair to David Cameron.
This is all deeply worrying, because the post-Brexit trade deals Truss hopes to sign give her the perfect vehicle to introduce some of these policies – none more so than a trade deal with the United States. Many Brexiteers have looked longingly across the Atlantic for decades, to an economy where, as they see it, business is free from the shackles of tax and regulation. Brexit gives them the opportunity to emulate that model. And because modern trade deals are concerned less with tariffs, and more with how a country can regulate food standards, run public services and treat overseas investors, a trade deal with the US would be a powerful mechanism for transforming our economy.
Truss will see eye-to-eye with Donald Trump’s administration. We know this because Trump’s administration, unlike our own government, has told us exactly what they want from a trade deal with us. First, they are clear that under a trade deal, Britain must allow food produced in enormous animal factories, pumped with steroids, hormones and antibiotics, into our markets. That’s the chlorine chicken, but it also involves lower standards on the amount of pesticides allowed on vegetables and the quantity of pus cells acceptable in milk – as well as less labelling, which would at least allow us to know what we’re eating. British farmers will naturally lobby to push down our own standards, unless they want to be forced out of business because they can’t compete with these industrially produced horrors.
But it’s about much more than chlorine chicken. The US wants us to accept even greater monopoly rights for big pharmaceutical corporations, meaning higher prices for medicines and more strain on the NHS. They will want to lock in privatisation of those parts of the NHS which are already being run by private companies. And they will want more opportunities for US companies to get procurement contracts, potentially making it more difficult for public services to purchase supplies from good quality, local businesses and farmers.
The US want us to allow the Silicon Valley tech firms from Amazon to Facebook to Google to have greater power to use and abuse our data. And they want to extend the rights of American corporations to enjoy ‘regulatory stability’, potentially giving them the right to sue the British government in secret ‘corporate courts’ for daring to do things like introduce a sugar tax or pass a law to stop fracking.
In early August, documents were leaked from the US trade talks to the Telegraph, documents that neither we nor our MPs have been allowed to see up till now. They show that the US is streets ahead of us in negotiating ability and that they are fully prepared to use a trade deal to prize Britain away from the standards and protections we enjoy in the EU. US negotiators were clear that we will not be able to introduce the sort of special tax on Silicon Valley corporations which Philip Hammond proposed, and which is being introduced now in France, if we want a US trade deal.
This should alarm us, but will doubtless be music to the ears of Liz Truss, who believes we are “a nation of Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating, Uber-riding freedom fighters”. She has criticised any attempt to control the overwhelming power of these corporations. When people have raised concerns about Airbnb in the tourist industry, or on the cost of housing, her answer is simple: cut all regulations in those sectors too. She’s called for sweeping cuts to regulations in the workplace too, boasting about making it easier for employers to sack the idlers and make the country more efficient. Anyone who disagrees must be part of that “blob of vested interests” seeking only their own protection to waste the country’s resources.
Given that trade deals now focus extensively on regulation, they will give Truss a mechanism to drive forward this deregulation agenda. They are particularly useful mechanisms for politicians like Truss because they are also highly complicated agreements with almost no transparency or accountability to parliament. During his time at the department for international trade, Liam Fox refused to give MPs any right to amend or stop trade deals, or even to see the papers during negotiation. When parliament tried to give itself the power to stop trade deals earlier this year, Fox simply left his Trade Bill to die in the House of Lords. So Liz Truss will be operating under royal prerogative. What’s more, as international treaties these deals take precedence over domestic law and can be difficult and time-consuming to extricate yourself from.
Given the beliefs of Truss, as well as her new colleagues in cabinet, it’s impossible to imagine she will stand up to Trump’s negotiators even if Britain had the ability to do so. Unless stopped, she will rather collude with Trump to unleash a bonfire of regulations, and clear away any impediment to the big businesses agenda.
In the months ahead, we will need to work with others to build a movement capable of stopping this trade deal, just as we did on TTIP. Part of that struggle will be continuing to support trade democracy, something which all opposition parties in Parliament now agree with us on. Part of it will be ensuring that people understand the impact of modern trade deals on our everyday lives. So get prepared – we’re in for one hell of a battle to protect people from the ravages of the free market.
Nick Dearden is Director of Global Justice Now