Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all

A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

October 4, 2017 · 12 min read
Illustration: Martin Rowson

Never did a man better embody the right-wing fantasy world of Brexit than Liam Fox. Fox, the UK’s trade secretary, inhabits a parallel universe in which buccaneering adventures 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 chose a portrait of arch imperialist Cecil Rhodes to hang above his desk. Even by the standards of the current government, Fox is a hard-right free marketeer, close to US conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and to Donald Trump’s administration. 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 per cent.

Fox is a hard-core 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.

This man is now in charge of our trade policy. That’s a big deal, because trade today is not simply about finding better ways to sell 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 puts the ‘right to profit’ above any other 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 foreign governments if that government endangers corporate profit. Governments might do this, say, by putting cigarettes in plain packing, removing toxic chemicals from petrol, increasing the minimum wage, or placing a moratorium on fracking. These are all real cases. And the government in question has no right of appeal.

The Fox and the chlorine chickens

Up to now, Britain has shared the European bloc’s standards and regulations. Many of us already regard these standards as pandering to the interests of the corporations that lobby for them. But for people like Liam Fox, they are far too high. They would far rather we shared the standards of the North American bloc. This would mean out of the window with workers’ rights, food standards and the precautionary principle, which makes sure something doesn’t do harm before allowing it to go on sale.

In July, Fox was embroiled in a story about chickens, because US farm standards allow chickens to be washed in chlorine to burn away the diseases of a deeply unpleasant life. Fox likes the idea – but the EU bans these chickens. A US-UK trade deal would likely insist on letting them in. And this is just one small example of what Fox is likely to cook up with his elite friends in Washington.

This is all part of Fox’s wider vision. The closer we step towards the US trade bloc, the further we get from the European bloc. Rejoining would be much more difficult. A trade deal covering anything more than basics would be more difficult. Standards would plummet. Indeed, one reason the right wing of the Tories likes the idea of a ‘no deal’ Brexit is that any serious deal means accepting EU standards to some degree. For them, no deal is better than a good deal.

Fox will also attempt the same with poorer countries than Britain – soaking up cheap food and basic resources that those countries require for their own development, and selling them back financial services at vastly over-inflated prices. That’s how the empire worked – there’s a ‘core’ economy and a periphery.

India is too canny, and not playing ball at the moment. But Fox has his eyes on the oil tyrants of the Gulf, on the rising right-wing governments of Latin America, on Erdoğan of Turkey and Duterte of the Philippines, and various other dictators and anti-democratic thugs.

In this Brexit Empire, Britain will be the trader of every dirty derivative invented, the purveyor of luxury apartments to every oligarch who’ll wash a small fortune in London, the chief flogger of arms to those who others wouldn’t touch.

We will have no farmers or industrial workers, only the high-flying executives, corporate lawyers and financiers – and an army of baristas and cleaners and waiters to serve them.

Averting disaster

It’s a horrible vision of what the future could be. But it’s not inevitable, and there is a reasonable chance that this can all be averted. The good news is that Fox can’t possibly conclude a trade deal for another 18 months, and in the real world, rather than Fox’s fantasy, it will take far longer to get a deal done and dusted.

But Fox does have one thing in his favour. At the moment our mother of parliaments, whose sovereignty was so bravely defended in the Brexit campaign, has no power over trade deals. It cannot guide or scrutinise the trade secretary. In fact, it has no right to know anything about the negotiations themselves. Once agreed, parliament cannot amend or stop these deals becoming law. Even getting a debate is no easy matter.

MPs have tended not to be too fussy when it comes to trade deals – they tend to cheerlead whatever is on offer. But the political turbulence of the past 18 months might have started chipping away at that support. Labour, SNP, Greens and Lib Dems all made some level of promise about a more democratic trade model in their 2017 manifestos. So this is winnable.

A major campaign alliance, including Global Justice Now, War on Want and the Trade Justice Movement, will launch this autumn calling for a ‘democratic trade’ system. It will demand that MPs have full access to all trade negotiating papers, and that they have the right to set binding guidelines for those negotiations, to scrutinise the government, and finally to amend and, of course, stop deals if necessary.

Regulate wealth…

Beyond the form, the left needs to consider what sort of trade it wants to see. Neoliberalism is dying, and the battle today is about what takes its place. Neoliberalism was defined by freedom of capital to move where it wants, when it wants, to do what it wants. Free trade and investment deals were one key mechanism to achieve this.

That’s why Trump’s protectionism resonated with many working-class communities, fed up with being told their rights and protections cannot be allowed to obstruct the all-seeing market. When people’s experience of globalisation is simply unemployment, commodification and marginalisation, it’s easy to jump on this nationalist bandwagon, especially when it depicts itself as anti‑establishment.

So how do we respond? There is no question that national law needs to be reclaimed as a means of regulating big business and ‘investment’, to 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. Trump’s beggar-my-neighbour policies are based on the idea of a zero-sum global economy in which the US can only gain by undermining everyone else’s economic interests.

This is fascist economic policy, and will lead seamlessly from economic war to real war. But it isn’t neoliberalism – and unless the left can come up with its own alternative to neoliberalism, one that resonates with the millions of people who have lost control of their lives under that economic model, we will see these policies grow in strength.

The left needs to redefine the limits of trade policy, to ensure that it benefits the people of all participating countries. Labour’s ‘just trade’ initiative is a great start, but it needs to go much further. Trade deals should never trump climate or environmental obligations. Intellectual property rules, which continue to make medicines unaffordable for millions of people, should be dropped from trade deals. Corporate courts should be abandoned and replaced with a mechanism that allows ordinary people to take action when their rights are undermined. Public services and government purchasing should also be removed.

Governments also need to recognise that there are losers from trade deals – just as there are from automation. Society as a whole might still benefit – from more choice, or more efficiently produced goods – but the losers need local investment to provide new jobs, new training, new skills.

…and free the people

Some of this can be achieved at the level of a nation state. But in an era of overwhelming corporate power and global problems such as climate change, it cannot be achieved by individual governments alone. ‘Socialism in one country’ will crash against the power of big business. That’s why early in the life of the radical Latin American governments, they devised an economic trade arrangement known as ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) – one of many attempts at integration to help the people of that region stand up to global capital.

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 to develop such social and democratic elements that meant many standards increased.

Countries of the global south could benefit from doing the same – regional integration with strong social and democratic dimensions to break the stranglehold the global north still enjoys. The problems of the south don’t usually arise from the fact that it is insufficiently integrated into the global economy, as the free traders would have it. Rather its economies are integrated in the wrong way – one which embeds colonial forms of trade, prioritises the export of commodities to the richer part of the world, and pushes big business over small business and farmers. The left needs to call for an international trade policy that encourages their regional integration to break this power. It would mean less cheap stuff, but that should be dealt with by higher wages, not cheaper prices.

There are other elements of economic integration that can free people rather than capital. At the centre of this is free movement of people, an idea that is currently being hotly contested in the Labour Party. For some, free movement of people is no different from the free movement of capital – a plot by big business to ensure it can use the resources of the world (in this case workers) as it likes.

But this is a misunderstanding of how free movement works. It doesn’t ‘allow’ business to relocate people so that they can produce more efficiently. Rather, that is how virtually every other migration system works – and how even the most ‘generous’ post-Brexit migration system is likely to work. Power will always reside with the economic giants and what they demand in terms of a labour force.

Free movement is different. It’s one of the only immigration systems in history where the ability to move is a human right. Of course, migrants won’t decide to come in large numbers to a country facing a recession – that’s the ‘safety valve’ in the system – but choice is in the hands of people themselves.

Unlike other migration systems, free movement gives ordinary people rights to organise for better conditions and pay on the same terms as other workers. Much could be done to improve those rights for all workers – a system called ‘free movement plus’ is currently being pushed by groups such as Another Europe is Possible.

Free traders like Fox, who speak endlessly of liberty, freedom and openness, only apply those terms to the wealthy. The 1 per cent and their investments should be free. But Fox is equally comfortable bashing migrants – he is a ferocious opponent of free movement post-Brexit. For Fox, migration is better when it comes without rights.

Free movement of people would massively increase the incomes of those moving, and would ensure significant amounts of wealth, skills and talent would be reinvested in poorer countries.

While much can be said about the EU’s own barbaric immigration policy, the answer should not be to rescind these rights of ordinary people, but to extend them to more people. On this issue, Jeremy Corbyn must stand strong and resist calls for ‘managed migration’.

Those on the left who buy the propaganda that free movement of people is a big business plot to undermine workers’ rights are echoing those who, a century ago, argued for excluding women from the labour market because it undermined male workers’ pay and conditions.

Free movement should be a pillar of a left, internationalist economic policy that combines two important principles. On the one hand, we need to rebuild local economies and local democracies – giving people real power over their communities, including significant local spending and investment. On the other hand, we need to give people much greater citizen rights at regional 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 can help us overcome the neoliberal versus protectionist ‘choice’ on offer. It also allows us to develop a clear and compelling vision for international economics that taps into the concerns of those who voted for Brexit out of desperation, while preserving the internationalist outlook.

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