What does it mean to love your country? What does it mean to defend its sovereignty? For some of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, it means reducing the United Kingdom to a franchise of corporate capital, governed from head offices overseas. They will take us out of Europe to deliver us into the arms of other powers.
No one embodies this contradiction as much as the man now charged with determining the scope of our sovereignty: the new international trade secretary, Liam Fox. He explained his enthusiasm for leaving Europe thus: “We’ll be able to make our own laws unhindered by anyone else, and our democratic parliament will not be overruled by a European court.” But of all the people Theresa May could have appointed to this post, he seems to me the most likely to ensure that our parliament and laws are overruled by foreign bodies.
Fox looks to me like a corporate sleeper cell implanted in government. In 2011, he resigned his post as defence secretary in disgrace after his extracurricular interests were exposed. He had set up an organisation called Atlantic Bridge, financed in large part by a hedge fund owner. It formed a partnership with a corporate lobbying group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by tobacco, pharmaceutical and oil companies. Before it was struck off by the Charity Commission, it began assembling a transatlantic conclave of people who wished to see public services privatised and corporations released from regulation.
He allowed a lobbyist to attend his official meetings, without government clearance. He made misleading statements about these meetings, which were later disproved. It seems extraordinary to me that a man with such a past could have been brought back into government, let alone given such a crucial and sensitive role. Most newspapers have brushed his inconvenient history under the political carpet. He is, after all, their man.
It’s extraordinary that a man with his past has been brought back into government — let alone given such a crucial role
At every turn he promotes the millionaires’ agenda while urging that the social contract, which makes this country more or less habitable, be ripped apart. He wants “a systematic dismantling of universal benefits … turning them into tax cuts.” He has argued for a three- to five-year holiday from capital gains tax. He wants to “freeze public spending for at least three years and probably more”, and to deregulate the labour market, making workers easier to fire. He suggests that access to housing benefit should be limited for people under 25.
This is the man who has been put in charge of making new trade agreements. What he wants to do with them is pretty clear. “We need to see a reinvigoration of our transatlantic relationship,” he argues. “We have a low-regulation and low-taxation environment, which is only likely to improve outside the EU.” Improve, in this context, means becoming yet more hostile to human welfare, social mobility and the defence of the living world.
One of the legitimate complaints against the EU is its determination to drag us into treaties that claim to be about trade but are really about releasing multinational corporations from democratic control. Three of the agreements it is trying to impose — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) — make a mockery of parliamentary sovereignty.
They threaten to reduce to the lowest common denominator the laws protecting us from predatory finance, the exploitation of workers, food adulteration, climate change and environmental destruction. They threaten to force the privatisation of public services. They would allow corporations to sue governments for compensation in offshore tribunals that, unlike the European court Fox professes to hate, are unaccountable, opaque and wildly imbalanced. The EU has no mandate to strike such agreements: a consultation on the offshore tribunals TTIP proposes attracted 150,000 responses, 97% of which were negative.
Leaving Europe should enable us to leave behind biased, destructive treaties of this kind; we will, after all, have to renegotiate most of our trade agreements. But by putting the Fox in charge of the chicken coop, May seems determined to replace them with something even worse.
The corporate army is already at the gates. The Republican senator Tom Cotton proposes that Britain should join the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Using the kind of international tribunals that TTIP threatens to impose, NAFTA has undermined labour rights and environmental protection. It has blocked attempts to produce more progressive laws and greatly restricted legislative sovereignty. Whether we formally join NAFTA, or connect to that trading area through TTIP or through another such agreement, the results will gravely threaten our sovereignty — unless negotiations are run on an entirely different basis.
In response to the Philip Green scandal, May says she wants to “tackle corporate irresponsibility” and “reform capitalism so that it works for everyone, not just the privileged few.” We have no idea what she means. But here’s where it should begin. Before her government starts negotiating any new trade treaties, it should open a public consultation about their purpose and scope. The UK’s trading relationships should be debated in parliament and the people of this nation should be allowed to determine how much control over national life our representatives should retain, and how much should be ceded to international agreements and international bodies.
Does this mean a referendum? If we can be trusted to decide whether or not to share our sovereignty with Europe, should we not also be trusted to decide whether or not to share it with transnational capital?
But the Conservative vision of sovereignty is highly selective. People such as Fox appear to hate much of what others love about this country: the NHS, our public broadcasters, our social safety net, the protection of the countryside, the notion that power resides in the people rather than in corporations and their shadowy lobbyists. There are traitors in our midst, who would rip down our most treasured institutions on behalf of the transnational elite and its offshore holdings. This, it seems, is what they mean by taking back control.