Seminal Event or Secular disaster?

Brexit could be a turning-point in more ways than one but much will depend on implementation and what follows, Rhys David suggests.

Peak oil, when the maximum rate of extraction, followed by decline, is reached, keeps getting pushed back but does the Brexit vote suggest peak globalisation – the progressive breaking down of barriers to global free trade – has been reached or perhaps faces a significant pause?

Economists have been worrying about a slowing down in the process for some years and their fears will certainly have been given momentum. Even before Brexit the signs were there in a slowing down in merchandise trade compared with the two decades leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. China, the export industries of which have been the driver behind the rapid growth in trade since the 1990s, has slowed down and is seeking to re-orient its investment towards the domestic market; and trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have become more difficult to negotiate in the face of opposition from trade unions and others in Europe. They fear further marketization of the European economy, including cherished sectors such as healthcare.

Following the June 23rd vote Britain now needs to negotiate its own trade deals outside the EU in a world where multilateral organisations set up to promote freer trade, such as the World Trade Organisation, have been losing their potency and becoming increasingly side-lined by the spread of bilateral deals. Across developed economies the impact of austerity is, too, continuing to be felt with some economies, such as Italy, unlikely to reach pre-crisis levels and hence consumer demand for internationally traded products until the 2020s.

How could this threat to what has seemed an inevitable progression have come about when so many people across Europe, including Britain, have benefitted greatly from freer trade? The price of those two human necessities – food and clothing – has fallen in recent years, helping to keep inflation at near record low levels. The previously inexorable rise in the price of running a car or a vehicle fleet has dropped as a result of an oil glut. Every imaginable commodity can now be summoned to the door with a few computer keystrokes from the mega-warehouses deployed across the Continent by Amazon and its competitors. In recent months British airports have been reporting record numbers of Britons flying away to take advantage of cheap flights and accommodation. Are we now be entering a period when barriers could creep up again?

Britons, albeit with a small majority, appear to have rejected the very instrument that has brought about these trading benefits – the EU. Why? Is there not a safety net for those poorer areas that have suffered from the global economic transformation brought about by the interaction of two factors – the standard shipping container and information technology, the combination of which lies behind today’s almost instant servicing of consumer needs and desires? What about all those blue signs proudly crediting the EU for the roads, bridges, arts centres and other projects in Britain’s poorer regions?

All true but if the British public has shot itself in the foot (and if some in other Continental nations are tempted to do the same) it could have done so in the true sense of the expression rather than the one in which it is now usually used. Like the World War One soldiers who carried out this act, it could be because they actively wanted to avoid something worse (going into battle in the case of the poor bloody infantry) rather than as an act of unintended self-harm. It could be that in rejecting the EU market vision, they are saying they also want a different kind of Britain.

At a recent finance conference in London in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote there was a sheepish acceptance on the part of several speakers that while Joe Public had indeed sprung an unwelcome surprise, the elite classes as represented by the overpaid denizens of the City of London had in large measure brought it on themselves. One admittedly pro-Brexit speaker at the FT’s Festival of Finance suggested neo-liberal policies as favoured by the EU had been oversold, with promises made that we would be moving into a period of permanent prosperity. The medicine globalisation would force on ordinary citizens would, like castor oil, taste horrible, they had been told, but it would be good for them in the end.

Instead, it had proved hard to swallow and had not made most feel any better. Wages for many people, including the middle classes had stayed the same or got worse; houses had become unaffordable and young people were unable to leave home to set up on their own; neighbourhoods where individuals had grown up and where parents and grandparents had lived before them now seemed unfamiliar as a result of large numbers of migrants moving in; schools with scores of languages being spoken were making people feel uncomfortable about the impact on their children’s educational prospects; moreover, austerity policies as a result of the financial crises of 2008 and its consequences had torn away large parts of the social security safety net on which the poor relied.

In a perceptive piece written four months before the Referendum vote the left-wing commentator John Harris writing in The Guardian could see what was coming, declaring that, although a Remain supporter himself, he had respect for the Leavers. On the Conservative side David Cameron had famously described UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, and one of his colleagues saw them as “mad, swivel-eyed loonies”. On the left, Harris noted, millions of Britons were seen as “gullible, if feeling charitable; as nasty and bigoted, when things turn cruel”. Harris had visited parts of Britain – the small towns of the agricultural East -where free movement was a reality, and where as a result, he argued “people had a feeling that huge and rapid social changes had been imposed on them by a power beyond anyone’s reach”.

In other parts of the country, too, there has undoubtedly been a feeling in older working class areas for some time that the system was rigged against them. The Brexit vote was a way of saying enough was enough. Literally billions have been spent in the south east on shiny infrastructure projects – Crossrail, Thameslink 2000, a £900m new station at Reading, with Heathrow’s new runway or some alternative still to come. Wales, by contrast, struggles to put together the funding to finance a relief road around Newport to remove M4 bottlenecks without breaking the budget, or to create a modest metro system on existing rail-tracks to better connect Cardiff with the poorer valleys that surround it.

People have tired of being told that spending on Heathrow, Crossrail or wherever will really benefit them 200 or 300 miles away because of some long-promised but never-delivered trickle-down effects. Nor is there much confidence HS2 will make Britain less centripetally focused on London. Yet, the concentration of infrastructure spending in the southeast has been rendered necessary because of a heavily over-stimulated finance sector much of which has largely detached itself from the rest of the British economy in order to service the needs of the multinational corporations central to global capitalism.

Other examples of unfairness can be cited. Agonised discussions over ways of relieving the pensions liabilities at Tata as a means of saving the company’s British jobs contrast powerfully with the sweetheart tax deals that British Governments over recent years have offered multinationals such as Google and Amazon, the latter itself responsible for changes in retailing that have destroyed thousands of jobs on British High Streets.

And, of course, there is the issue of executive pay. UK chief executives, backed by self-serving remuneration committees have become the beneficiaries of absurdly high pay packages and bonuses which often seem to bear no resemblance to performance. At the same time to reward shareholders, companies have chosen to retain profits and hire cheaper labour rather than share the benefits with their employees or invest in new technology that would help to boost Britain’s poor productivity record. Trade unions and many of their members have begun to realise that the vastly bigger labour market which employers could choose to dip into is not, as they had hoped and been promised, going to produce a one-off jolt to workers in industries across Britain but a permanent and long-lasting negative impact on their wages and their prospects.

To this extent the momentous decision taken by a small majority of the British people is not anti-immigrant per se or anti-Europe but a sign that sometimes ordinary people can see more clearly than their “betters” and, called upon to speak, have said, “All this is wrong. You promised us that globalisation/EU membership would bring prosperity but where we once made goods or delivered services we could be proud of we now despatch orders for products made half way around the globe to wealthy customers from an Amazon warehouse where our every activity is tracked and monitored.”

It will be argued that these examples of unfairness felt by ordinary people up and down the country could all be put right within the existing British political structure while retaining EU membership. After all, Government can still, despite the EU, legislate on executive pay, choose more broadly where to place infrastructure spending, and impose higher taxes – particularly on excessive rewards – to fund more generous social security payments It has not, however, happened.

Likewise, if there are aspects of the EU that we find unacceptable – its lack of accountability, its overweening bureaucracy, or perceived democratic deficiencies – we should, it will be argued, stay in and press for reform. The counter to this, however, is that campaigners have been calling for reform for most of the 40 years Britain has been a member with few tangible results. This in itself is hardly surprising, given that agreement has to be achieved on every occasion among 28 members, possibly to be joined by others in the years ahead. It is not hard to argue that the EU has become just too unwieldy for its own good or that even more importantly that it can never resolve its serious internal economic problems unless it proceeds to full political as well as economic union – a process Britain has always resolutely opposed.

Though the EU has always muddled through this fundamental structural weakness was identified a very long time ago and has been repeated many times since. Writing in the London Review of Books in October 1992 before the introduction of the Euro, the economist, Wynne Godley pointed out: “What happens if a whole country – a potential region in a fully integrated community- suffers a structural setback? So long as it is a sovereign state it can devalue its currency. It can then trade successfully at full employment, provided its people accept the necessary cuts in their real incomes. With an economic and monetary union this recourse is entirely barred and its prospect is grave indeed, unless federal budgeting arrangements are made which fulfil a redistributive role …There has to be quid pro quo for giving up the devaluation option in the form of fiscal redistribution…If a country or region has no power to devalue, then there is nothing to stop it suffering a process of cumulative and terminal decline, leading in the end to emigration as the only alternative to poverty or starvation.” One example of the distortions EU policies are creating will suffice. In 2016, as The Guardian reported a few weeks back there are 25,000 Greek doctors in Germany. Surely Greece did not unwittingly train 25,000 more doctors than it needed?

It is some of these central issues relating to the EU, international capitalism and globalisation which the public in their wisdom have grasped well ahead of their politicians. So it is interesting that in her manifesto ahead of winning the job Theresa May the new Prime Minister made tackling one of these – executive pay – one of her first promises, called for employee and consumer representation on boards, spoke up for the defence of important industrial sectors, and made the moral case for taxation. Following her appointment, she has gone further, declaring her government will be driven not by the interests of the few but by those of ordinary people. Implementation – and there will be many opponents in business and elsewhere –  must follow but if it does they are changes that could bring reality to all the previous pledges made by Governments of all hues to tackle imbalances and inequalities in society.

It will only become apparent over a period of time whether Brexit will prove a turning point for globalisation as a whole, with other countries looking to adopt an as yet largely ill-defined British model, much as privatisation swept the world in the era when neo-Liberal policies were gaining ascendancy in the 1980s. As the days pass, however, it is starting to look more like a seminal event and perhaps not the secular disaster many had predicted.

 

Rhys David

July 13th 2016