Trade Versus Democracy

Anti-trade agreement flyer. Berlin, December 2014.

It was in late March last year that LBC Radio hosted a debate between Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and UKIP chief Nigel Farage, over whether the UK should leave the European Union. It was meant to be a reasoned debate, where the opposing cases on the EU could be heard and judged by the British public. But, as to be expected, it failed.

Nothing outside of the usual oscillation between the liberal centre-ground and hard-right nationalism came up. An energtic Farage gave Clegg a kicking, and the crowd cheered. Populist nationalism has long taken immigration as its core issue, and it’s easily exploited in times of economic stagnancy. With little room to manoeuvre on the domestic front, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister was left to defend the EU as it already exists, and decades of immigration policy.

The real debate was already foreclosed from the outset. The EU-US free trade deal, otherwise known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), was neither raised nor alluded to. Yet the agreement is at the core of European grievances about  globalization, which empower populists like Farage, and allow them to scapegoat immigration and minorities, instead of multinational corporations, who, under deals like this, will formally be allowed to bypass courts and subordinate democracy to the market.

The most heavily-criticized part of TTIP is what is referred ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) which empowers companies to sue national governments when their profit-making is threatened by legislation. As its critics have argued, such a mechanism would specifically discourage regulatory practices, and guard against shifts towards progressive tax rates.  It would also further entrench the economic reforms of the last four decades, and raise international obstacles to any government looking to change course. The reason why it isn’t critically discussed in debates like that which took place between Clegg and Farage, is that TTIP is considered to be a fait accompli amongst Britain’s main political parties. Fiscal neoliberals, they all agree on the necessity of economic union with the United States.

Tellingly, another side of this consensus is support for American-style health care privatization. The Health and Social Care act (2012) allows 70% of NHS contracts to be farmed out to private companies. TTIP will extend this, not just to British companies, which is bad enough, but to US companies seeking to enter the UK healthcare market. At the same time, the Cameron government has underfunded the NHS by increasing funding at 1%, while the costs of the health system rise at a much higher rate. Of course, the current coalition has spent £3 billion on a bureaucratic overhaul to ‘devolve’ power to the doctors.

Anti-TTIP march. Brussels, December 2014.
Anti-TTIP march. Brussels, December 2014.

What about the Eurosceptic populists? Where do they stand in all of this? The record is clear. Nigel Farage himself has said that he believes the UK should move towards a market place for health insurance. Of course, UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall has come out in support of NHS privatisation and the Tory defector Douglas Carswell wrote a book with Daniel Hannan in which they endorsed wholesale privatisation of healthcare. But, to get them to admit that they would, in effect, be selling out Britain’s public health system, to American companies, would be impossible. Foreign workers are one thing. Foreign companies are another.

Unsurprisingly, UKIP has toed the line on TTIP. MEP Roger Helmer, another former Conservative, formally endorsed the agreement on behalf of his party. “We have no alternative but to support the deal,” he said, giving as clear a statement as one might hear from UKIP, on the subject. It’s a peculiar kind of internationalism, for sure, but one that remains consistent across the party. Take, for example, Farage’s comments in a follow-up LBC broadcast, in May, about the difference between German and Romanian immigrants. Citing “eye-watering” crime statistics he ascribed to Romanians, when asked if he’d prefer German neighbors, Farage responded, “You know the difference.”

Union demo. European Commission, July 2014.
Union demo. European Commission, July 2014.

Liberal internationalism and conservative nationalism feed into one another. Their relationship is dialectical, both oppositional and complimentary, and ultimately, they spiral into the same downward trajectory. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage are all on the same page when it comes to opening up British public services to foreign companies. The coalition government may have moved to tighten immigration controls, but it’s not enough for a lot of working people who feel threatened by cheap migrant labour.

We’re not talking about unrestricted mass-migration. UK immigration policy has long been an ebb-and-flow approach, whereby policy adjusts to changes in the labour market. Multiculturalism emerged out of compromise and eventually acceptance of non-white immigration from former colonies, like Jamaica and the Indian subcontinent. This is far from the grand left-wing plot that the nationalists claim has been imposed on the UK.

Today, the foreign-born UK population comes to 7.5 million people. Even with the EU -endowed right to free movement, the UK maintains controls on its borders and puts non-European incomers through the filters of a points-based system. The gradual rise in immigration over five decades comes with the decline of social democratic protections on workers’ rights. Naturally, the average worker feels less secure than ever and fears competition from foreign workers.

At the same time, the nationalist base of working-class support for UKIP would probably be opposed to the privatisation of public services. 84% of the UK population thinks the NHS should remain in public hands, just as 67% of people opposed the privatisation of the postal service, and 71% of people think water should be renationalised. Polling estimates find that 75% to 93% of people think the railways should be held in the public sector.

This is why Nigel Farage now stresses that he does not want a system which isn’t free at the point of service. UKIP now shares the Labour stance on TTIP to guarantee the NHS is exempt from its auspices of neoliberalism. Of course, the Labour left is too withered to put up much of a fight to Blairite homilies. Meanwhile, Farage hopes he can adjust policy on an ad hoc basis to keep the core support in line. But the lines of possible internal conflicts remain.

The right-wing variety of Euroscepticism was best summed up in the words of Margaret Thatcher in 1988: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” It’s up to the Left to take advantage of this weakness if it has any hope of challenging the consensus.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.

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