What it’s about is not what it’s about. The referendum is a proxy question. Underlying it is the fundamental political question, one that is seldom asked precisely because it cuts to the heart: how do we best keep money out of politics?
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Without sufficient public scrutiny, all political systems degenerate into the service of wealth. All end up controlled by the few with the cash, not the many with the votes. The primary democratic task is to break the nexus of money and power. So the question we face next week is this: “In which political unit can money best be resisted?” We are not embarrassed by choice. This is a contest of plutocracies.
The European Union is a festering cesspool of undue influence and opaque lobbying. Prompted at first by the tobacco industry, the European commission is slowly dismantling, through what it calls its “better regulation agenda”, many of the hard-won laws that protect our health, working conditions and wildlife. Once they are torn down, corporate power will be locked in place through the TTIP — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — it is negotiating with the United States.
TTIP has two main strands. One is regulatory cooperation, which means standardising the laws on either side of the Atlantic — almost certainly downwards. The other is investor-state dispute settlement: allowing companies to sue governments through an offshore tribunal if a law threatens their profits. Democracy means being able to change those aspects of governance we do not like. TTIP, if it goes ahead, will ensure that this is not an option.
And if TTIP fails? Well, there are other means. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Europe and Canada, imposing much the same package, quietly transacted, now remains only to be ratified. The proposed Trade in Services Agreement — between North America, the European Union and 19 other nations — is a turbocharged version that has been negotiated behind closed doors for the past three years.
The trade secrets directive, approved by the Council of the European Union last month, threatens to treat as commercial property any information that a corporation hopes to keep out of the public domain. Whistleblowers and campaigners trying to expose corporate malfeasance — tax evasion, falsifying emissions tests, polluting rivers — could be subject, depending on how it is interpreted by the courts, to massive fines and compensation claims. If the EU sometimes looks like a matchmaker for wealth and power, that’s because it is.
By comparison with the British system, however, this noxious sewer is a crystal spring. Every stream of corporate effluent with which the EU poisons political life has a more malodorous counterpart in the UK. The new Deregulation Act, a meta-law of astonishing scope, scarcely known and scarcely debated, insists that all regulators must now “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. Rare wildlife, wheelchair ramps, speed limits, children’s lungs: all must establish their contribution to GDP. What else, after all, are they for?
Britain has become a power base for a legalised financial mafia that strips the assets of healthy companies, turns the nation’s housing into a roulette table, launders money for drug cartels and terrorists, then stashes its gains beyond the reach of police and tax inspectors. Through privatisation, outsourcing and the private finance initiative, the public sector has been repurposed as a get-rich-quick scheme for friends in the City, licensed to erect tollbooths in front of essential services. The media, largely owned by members of the same class, directs our attention elsewhere, blaming immigrants for the ills it has inflicted.
It was British lobbying that sank Europe’s soil framework directive and the financial transactions tax. Without a mandate from either parliament or people, the British trade minister wrote secretly to the European commission insisting that investor-state dispute settlement should remain in the TTIP. Wherever barriers to the power of money are being kicked over, there you will find David Cameron’s bootprint.
Since the first states were established, they have sought power by making alliances. The splendid autonomy we are told a Britain out of Europe would enjoy is an illusion: we would swap one transnational system for another. The demand to leave Europe in the name of independence has long been accompanied by a desire to surrender our sovereignty to the United States. If judged by their own standards, the Brexit campaigners who foresee a stronger alliance with the US are traitors, ceding the national interest to a foreign hegemon.
Sixteen years ago, the Conservative party published a draft manifesto in which it proposed that we should join the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). This remains a plausible outcome of leaving the EU: it is hard to imagine the business class permitting the UK to stand outside a formal trading bloc. What this means is swapping a treaty over which we have had some influence for one in which we have had none.
How do we know that TTIP would tear down public protections? Because the same clauses in Nafta have already started doing so across Canada, the US and Mexico. A closer alliance with the US means surrendering to a system that has been signed, sealed and delivered to the power of money. A Congress bound and gagged with dollars; a police and military machine pressed into the service of plutocracy; a media that scarcely bothers to disguise its own corruption. The political power of money there is naked, unashamed — even proud.
I suspect that Donald Trump, or at least Trumpery of some kind, represents the future of US politics, especially if the Democrats fail to connect with people who are catastrophically alienated from the system. Exciting as it will be to have a woman in the White House, Hillary Clinton is embedded in corporate power and corporate dollars.
We do not release ourselves from the power of money by leaving the EU. We just exchange one version for another: another that is even worse. This is not an inspiring position from which to vote remain. But it is a coherent one.