Liam Fox has been in the news this week for being totally cool with the prospect of chlorinated chicken being put on our plates by US farmers. (At least, I think that’s his position; he’s been a bit coy about it, so it’s difficult to tell. And not all his Cabinet colleagues agree – which might explain the government’s slightly confusing message that, although it’s totally not cool, we can rely on British customers to pay extra for non chlorinated British meat, so it’s very important we allow the chlorinated stuff in so we can give people the choice to not buy it… or something.)
Global Justice Now have been on the case with some excellent pieces by Nick Dearden and Jean Blaylock, explaining why this is only the tip of the iceberg. Because chlorinated chicken isn’t an isolated issue: wherever you look, Liam Fox’s approach to striking trade deals is likely to lower our standards and accelerate a race to the bottom – whether it’s environmental laws, workers’ rights or product safety standards; whether it’s trade deals with the US, China or India.
Not only that, these deals pose a serious threat to our democracy. They are being negotiated behind closed doors, and are likely to replicate a lot of the things that got people angry about TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). That means handing power to corporations through secret courts allowing them to sue governments, and even giving them an effective veto on new laws that might hurt their profits. We’ve been told Brexit meant ‘taking back control’ from Brussels bureaucrats, only to let Liam Fox negotiate it away again to international corporations. The con is on.
If you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, just look at Liam Fox’s speech on free trade in my new adopted home town of Manchester last September – an absurd piece of neoliberal propaganda which is worth reading in full just to get an idea of the terrifying ideologue currently negotiating our country’s future.
Fox begins, misty-eyed, by evoking the memory of Adam Smith – and perhaps it’s just me that finds his characterisation of Smith’s legacy vaguely chilling: “Adam Smith argued that it is a moral right for people to buy whatever they want from those who sell it to them the cheapest.” What, really? Even if that happens to be dodgy chicken, clothes made by children or cars with fumes that choke their neighbours?
He goes on to recount the “epic struggle” of the oppressed masses against the Corn Laws; and talks in incredibly bombastic tones about having a “clear mission” and “great task” to promote free and open trade in the face of the forces of darkness: “protectionism and retrenchment”. Apparently, it’s “exhilarating, empowering and liberating” to trample all over your country’s food safety standards. Maybe he needs to get a hobby.
Fox pays lip service to the idea that there are “losers” to free trade – like, say, America’s rust belt or the British steel industry. But he seems to suggest that the right response to this deep-seated abandonment of communities, and the resentment it’s generated, is to “explain the process” by which free trade will ultimately make the economy bigger. This entirely misses the point that the people in question are feeling virtually none of the benefits of that growth, which mostly seem to be accruing to Liam Fox’s mates. They are not angry because they don’t understand: they are angry because they’re being shafted.
And while insisting that free trade isn’t synonymous with lowering standards, he goes on to extol the importance of getting rid of “non-tariff barriers” to trade – otherwise known as, erm, standards. You know, standards like not allowing chlorine-washed chicken into our food system.
It’s ok though, because Fox has a trump card up his sleeve (no pun intended) – the last resort of the defeated neoliberal, There Is No Alternative. Apparently “modern-day critics [of free trade] would do well to evaluate the devastating failures of alternative economic models throughout history”. Perhaps Fox would do well to pick up a history book himself once in a while. I can highly recommend Ha Joon Chang’s seminal ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’, which documents the key role played by protectionism in the UK’s own industrial revolution.
Whatever. It’s time for Fox’s rousing finale: “If other nations are hanging back, then the UK will happily lead the charge for global free trade” – and Brexit is a “glorious opportunity” to do this. Of course, it’s a bit ironic that in practice this turns out to mean a “glorious opportunity” to roll over for Donald Trump and his ‘America First’ economic nationalism. A noble and historic mission indeed. I’m sure that when the history of this period comes to be written, there’ll be a special place for Crusader Liam Fox and his Great Task of trashing our safety standards in the name of the free market.
To be honest though, my main reaction to all this has been disappointment at not seeing more journalists seize the chance to make fox/chicken puns. A missed opportunity if ever there was one. But it did remind me of this handily appropriately titled blog by my partner in geek crime Stephen (from 2016 and sadly no longer available on the original site), ‘Putting the fox in charge of the hen-house’. The fox in question is actually not Liam, but the corporate interests who are increasingly being put in charge of deregulating our economy and who stand to benefit the most from it. And the chicken in question is actually not US chicken, but good old British chicken. Because it turns out that deregulation has been stripping away animal welfare standards in poultry farming since long before Liam Fox and his Great Task came along.
This points towards an important truth: this whole fiasco around trade is not separate from the scandal of domestic deregulation which I’ve been blogging about recently (and ad nauseam for years). They are two sides of the same coin – two manifestations of the same neoliberal agenda to strip away laws and protections and hand over power to big multinationals.
With domestic deregulation exposed for the killer it is after the Grenfell Tower disaster, and the dangers of trade deregulation hitting the headlines because of the chicken issue, it’s vital that we seize this opportunity to start a serious fightback against this agenda. The Great Repeal Bill, which transposes EU regulation into UK law as part of the Brexit process, was published last week and already looks embattled. If MPs play their cards right and civil society mobilises to back them, it could be an opportunity to begin dismantling the poisonous architecture that binds government’s hands when it comes to new laws and protections. Apparently we are due a Trade Bill in the autumn, which could be a chance to do the same for the international scene.
But we’ll only do this if single issue groups make common cause against these grave systemic threats, and if they’re nimble in using news stories like this week’s to build the case and the movement against the bigger agenda they represent. Because of course, it’s true that this is about much more than chlorine-washed chicken. But it’s much easier to get angry about chlorine-washed chicken than it is to get angry about ‘deregulation’ – as I’ve learned over years of getting blue in the face about this and receiving mainly sympathetic looks or glazed eyes in return. It sometimes takes a visceral demonstration of what a policy really means to get people mobilised about it. And when those opportunities come along, we really can’t afford to pass them up.