Brexit negotiations: why are the liberal media accepting the first lie of nationalism?

On Steve Baker’s corporate interests and Brexit negotiations as shock doctrine.

As I crawled through our new Brexit minister’s asbestos-lined maze of corporate lobby links, something became more obvious than ever. Most of the liberal commentary on Britain’s negotiations to leave the EU has fallen for the first lie of nationalism: that there is such a thing as a coherent national interest.

While the right wing press waves its union flags as it cheers ‘our’ negotiating team, left and liberal commentators have largely lined up to sneer at how incompetent and underprepared Britain’s government is for such a complex process. But, while it’s largely true that David Davis and his junior ministers seem not to have much idea what they are doing, it’s not their incompetence that we should be worrying about.

In a couple of days of trudging through the new junior Brexit minister Steve Baker’s register of interests, his Companies House account, and his many hundreds of public statements, Peter Geoghegan and I were able to find countless examples of his willingness to repeat the lines of powerful interest groups. He accepted cash from the shady Constitutional Research Council, who’s Scottish chair has links to Saudi intelligence. He was paid thousands of pounds by an arms company and served as vice-chair of the all party parliamentary group on aerospace, promoting the arms industry in parliament. He articulated the arguments of extreme fossil fuel firms, the asbestos lobby, the vaping industry, even the oil-rich dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea.”

Other than the outrageous fact that it’s perfectly legal and not even particularly unusual for an MP to take thousands of pounds from a company, then promote their industry in parliament, the revelations tell us something really important about the web of power interests around the Brexiteers.

And, for me, this emphasises the real risk of Brexit. It reaffirmed what amounts to (along with Northern Ireland) the biggest worry of this whole affair, which isn’t about some abstract question of what’s ‘best’ for the country as a whole. After all, what do workers manufacturing cars in Sunderland have in common with those manufacturing credit default swaps in the City? Do the crofters of Sutherland really share much of an interest with the Duke of Sutherland? Do Tory voters in David Davis’ seat have the same worries about Brexit as Sinn Fein supporters in Derry?

Whilst, of course, some things will impact on everyone who lives within the British and Irish Isles to some extent, the troubling questions aren’t really the ones about things which impact all of us. The worrying issues are the majority, where both sides in the negotiations will have to choose what – and who – to prioritise.

In her now legendary book “The Shock Doctrine”, Naomi Klein details how, for decades, neoliberals have used crises to force through their radical, pro-corporate agenda. It’s not through the slow mechanics of normal democratic processes that the great privatisations and deregulations have taken place. Rather, big business tends to grab everything at precisely the moments that it’s all up in the air. From the plundering of Russia in the wake of the collapse of the USSR to the privatisation of beaches after the 2004 tsunami in south east Asia to the attacks on public housing, schools and hospitals in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, the corporate agenda has marched on the back of crisis after crisis the world over.

The only thing that’s different about Brexit is that the crisis wasn’t a natural disaster or the final collapse of a dying regime. It was actively created by the same groups as have promoted shock therapy before, as an opportunity to force through the interests of the rich and powerful. Whatever the various possibilities for ‘Lexit’ might have been with a theoretical different government, the people who led the campaign to deliver a Leave vote saw it as an opportunity to remove Britain’s ‘red tape’ protections against corporate abuse, to turn the country into a playground for the rich and powerful, and to undermine the global action on climate change which the EU has played a key role in, and which represents an existential threat to much of the fossil fuel industry.

And the people in the room, negotiating what our future relationship with the EU – and our future trade deals with the rest of the world – will look like, were at the forefront of that movement. They are exactly the same people whose networks of friends and backers include the ‘think tanks’ with unknown funding sources, who argue against any kind of law which restricts profit, and who think that freedom means only the freedom to extract wealth from workers and the planet.

The threat of Brexit is not that Davis and his team are incompetent, nor that Liam Fox’s attempts at trade deals fail. The worry is that they might just turn out to be competent enough to achieve some of what they set out to achieve. They may just deliver a small percentage of the Brexit they envisaged, which could mean American agribusiness sweeping away England’s hedgerows and pumping our beef full of hormones. It could mean US health firms winning the right to bid for NHS contracts. It would mean the dismantling of rights at work and giving corporations the right to sue Britain for any laws which impinge on their profits. In the shadows around the negotiating room, who knows what the tobacco lobby, the asbestos lobby (which, it turns out, is still a thing), and a whole range of other corporate groups we’ve barely yet heard of will be pushing for?

The threat of Brexit is not that Davis and his team are incompetent, nor that Liam Fox’s attempts at trade deals fail. The worry is that they might just turn out to be competent enough to achieve some of what they set out to achieve. They may just deliver a small percentage of the Brexit they envisaged, which could mean American agribusiness sweeping away England’s hedgerows and pumping our beef full of hormones. It could mean US health firms winning the right to bid for NHS contracts. It would mean the dismantling of rights at work and giving corporations the right to sue Britain for any laws which impinge on their profits. In the shadows around the negotiating room, who knows what the tobacco lobby, the asbestos lobby (which, it turns out, is still a thing), and a whole range of other corporate groups we’ve barely yet heard of will be pushing for?

And as it becomes clearer and clearer that large portions of the City backed Brexit as a way to free themselves from pesky European regulations, who knows what Davis and co will give them as they untie Britain from the EU’s web of rules and laws?

The worry in the Brexit negotiations isn’t that the EU officials walk over the British government. It’s that both sides succeed in doing what they do best: putting the interests of the rich and powerful ahead of the concerns of ordinary people across Britain, and Europe, and the world. And the problem with the way it’s being covered is that it makes it harder for us to mobilise against this onslaught on ordinary people.

We shouldn’t be mocking Davis, Fox and co. We should be mobilising to defend our holiday pay, our clean air and water, our health service, our countryside and wildlife, and everything else that they will auction off to the highest bidder before you can write another joke about how they didn’t have their meeting papers properly indexed.

*

Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. You can follow him at @adamramsay. This article was first published on openDemocracy here.

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  1. Elaine Fraser says:

    For what its worth can I just say a big thank you to Adam (and Peter G) for your work in exposing all this . On behalf of myself , my kids and my grandkids. Have contributed a little to you efforts keep up the good work for all our sakes.

  2. bringiton says:

    The Tories doing what they always do.
    The major problem in England is that there has not been a political alternative since Labour bought into the Englishman’s Home nonsense spouted by Thatcher.
    Even if Corbyn succeeds in putting the brakes on these maniacs,England will return to it’s beloved culture of the individual over the collective.
    Problem is,we will be forced to continue accepting that as well.

  3. Paul Codd says:

    Great article and a vastly important insight. They know exactly what they’re doing. It just has nothing to do with the “stated objectives”. Just like the rape of Greece, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, Syria et al there’s no plan to mop up the aftermath of crisis because that mess is part of the unstated objectives. The City, big oil, and big arms all face existential threats from progress towards the commonweal.

  4. Willy Maley says:

    Excellent, insightful piece. Should be widely read. Only reservation was use of “National interest” in relation to Britain.

  5. Doghouse Rielly says:

    But
    “American agribusiness sweeping away England’s hedgerows and pumping our beef full of hormones. It could mean US health firms winning the right to bid for NHS contracts. It would mean the dismantling of rights at work and giving corporations the right to sue Britain for any laws which impinge on their profits”

    Is exactly what the EU has planned with TTIP isn’t it?

    1. Pogliaghi says:

      Why don’t you tell us? Whatever the case, an independent Scotland in the EU would wield a veto power over any treaty like TTIP. It has none over reserved matters subject to the diktats of Dexeu as the Tory neolib maniacs sell off every provision in the “Great Repeal Bill” to lobbyists.

      How “TTIP” became a lexit meme I’ll never understand. *The British were the prime movers in TTIP*. Lots of countries on the continent are doing the very things anti-TTIPers wanted to be avoided through rejection of TTIP. Like banning fracking and neonicotinoids. As is always the case when it comes to the EU, *the problem is us*. For some reason, a formula that’s crystal clear when it comes to military adventurism but not when it comes to post-imperial blustering on trade policy and regulation.. maybe we need to brush up our understanding of how deep and subtle the UK’s malevolence runs.

      1. Calum McKay says:

        Points very well made on TTIP, yet never exploited here as it should have been or could still be.

        You can imagine Liam Fox puring like a cat with cream round his lips at the thought of introducing a version of TTIP between the uk and US.

        One of the many things I like about the EU is that they / it cares for the citizen in the street. They have said no to GM food from the US. Sadly the uk’s perverted press mixes this up with bent bananas and metric measures.

        The uk would look at things in the round, loobyists for GM supported by uk government will say GM is the only way and will stop world hunger, etc, etc. The uk government will permit it if that removes barriers to Rolls Royces being sold in US, the list will grow. Basically, the uk government could not care less for the average person! Look at their treatment of people in the English NHS or vulnerable people on benefits!

        Then down the line the EU woluld say to the uk, no we can’t have your imported foods, they contain GM ingredients from the US. The eveyone hates we don’t care little Englander cry along with chest beating will emerge. Next up, uk tries to sell these goods to Egypt, India or Mexico, etc, where they believe standards are not as strict as the EU. Good luck with that, remember beef bans post BSE.

        Basically we are looking at the downward spiral of uk goods, that will include salmon and whisky. What will our beloved Scotch Whisky Assocition make of that?

        All round I see standards falling post brexit, that includes, food, industry, finance and most of all living standards.

        I harbour two hopes, first and favoured, the YES movement takes up the fight for the EU exposing what is means for the woman and man in the Scottish street. Second, the uk realises it will sink its economy and people by leaving the EU, and does a U turn.

  6. Doghouse Rielly says:

    The point seemed to me that the EU and the UK political and academic establishment have been, for all practical purposes, captured by the neoliberal project.

    Which is no more than to say that the capitalist state machine can serve only one master, the borguoise class.

    The central political task is to win it to serve the working class. And that will mean a very different state.

  7. IJM says:

    As I have said from the outset, this clusterf*** which is Brexit has been engineered by the
    “elite” as a kind of social experiment, and thanks to your tattooed necked Englander/Welsh
    we can all share in its joys.

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