19th December 2016
–By Keith Nieland-
“Welcome to the Newly Opened Brexit Superstore!”
“Welcome, Sir and Madam, to the brand new opening today of The Great British Brexit Superstore. Our guarantee to you is that everything we sell is manufactured in the UK by UK workers.”
“Excellent! Too many of our jobs have been going to Johnny Foreigner abroad. I say ‘British jobs for British workers’ that’s why I voted Brexit. We need to show those damn Europeans and Chinese a thing or two.”
“Fantastic! Now can I interest you in today’s launch special – this smart phone? I can assure it was made in the UK by our workers. Look here is the symbol of authenticity – this little union jack on the back.”
“Does it take good photos? Must keep up with the tech savvy grandkids. We oldies can show them a thing or two.”
“It certainly does and to the highest quality. Just right for Whatsapp and Facebook.”
“I will have one then. How much?”
“Well, with our special opening day discount just £650.”
“What?! I can get a similar model on the internet for £550. That’s a rip off!”
“But Sir I should explain. This model is assembled in this country from imported materials by our workers. We have to pay more to get the raw materials imported as they do not already exist in the UK and, of course, UK workers earn more than Chinese and Far East workers. This model is aimed at good, decent patriotic people like your good self who wish to support the post-Brexit economy.”Bak In The Day
“Not at those prices I don’t. I blame the unions and those overpaid, lazy British workers. I am off to the Apple Store.”
“But, Sir, you could consider our rental option.”
“Will that cost me more as well?”
“Only a tad.”
Back In The Day
Do you remember when Marks and Spencer proudly boasted that it made all its clothes in the UK? What about the Bruce Forsyth-led “Buy British” campaign from the 1970s? Both were short-lived as British consumers could not afford home-made goods at home-made costs with UK levels of wages. In order to sell, manufacturers searched the world for cheaper sources of labour and costs. This might have led to the decline of the home manufacturing industry but only crocodile tears were shed for closed mines, mills and factories as we lapped up imported clothes, cars and electronics at prices which brought more and more of these goods within peoples’ budgets. To replace lost industries the UK carved new niches in the service and banking sectors and focused on the added value and high tech worlds.
The problem was, of course, while the benefits of globalisation were gleefully reaped, the consequences were not properly attended to. The economic crash of 2008 saw the sticking plaster come off and ever since the UK has become a more and more unequal society and hence a divided one.
It may not be very scientific but from my own observations I see more and more people homeless and begging in various city centres while at the same time more and more upmarket shopping centres open and those that can afford it flock to them. Those wishing to know more about the consequences for unequal societies should dip into Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s excellent “The Spirit Level”.
The division in the UK is shown, according to the latest opinion polls, in the near even split between EU remainers and leavers. In the US it has been illustrated in the near 50/50 split in the Trump/Clinton popular votes even though the Electoral College tells another, perhaps misleading, story.
A Seismic Shift?
Is the UK on the verge of a seismic shift in political loyalties, not between Labour and Conservative, but between Remainers and Leavers? As inequality spreads, populist parties of the right gain traction. This has been seen to varying degrees across Europe in major countries like Germany, Italy, Austria, Holland and France. The far right may not be gaining power but they grow in popularity.
In the face of the economic consequences of globalisation combined with the aftermath of the economic crash, what has been the response? Have we looked back at the last time something similar occurred in the 1920s and 30s, learnt the lessons and applied new thinking? Sadly the answer appears to be a resounding “NO!” The call now, as then, is to tighten borders, repel immigrants, apply tariffs to imports and turn inwards to ourselves. For evidence we need look no further than Donald Trump’s attacks on China and threat to apply tariffs to imports. Trump is the modern day flag carrier for isolationism. We should not need reminding where the politics of blame and envy led the world in the 1930s.
The reality is that ever since men and women first stood up and looked around we have migrated around the globe and societies have grown richer from trading. The British Empire grew on the back of trade – “the flag followed trade” – I well remember from school day geography lessons. Trade enriches us both personally and culturally. Our place as one of the richest countries on the planet owes itself to the foundations laid in the 19th century. A United States more unified after the Civil War of the 1860s industrialised and took its place on the world stage. China has done likewise since the 1980s.
If the world does not trade, individual countries become poorer and, of course, so do its citizens. Since its economic reforms of the 1990s, Vietnam has moved from having over half its population living in poverty and not being able to feed itself to now being a net exporter of rice.
How should progressives respond to the rise of the far right, isolationism and restrictions on trade aimed at boosting home markets? How should we also respond to the xenophobia, fear, hate and discrimination that are the markers of isolationism? Well, not by joining in or marketing a watered down version, that’s for sure.
Progressives should be promoting the benefits to economies and workers that comes from expanding markets through international trade. Just think of the benefits if a British company invented an easy to install conversion kit that changed the 7 million mopeds in Ho Chi Minh City from petrol driven to electrical power. Less pollution, lower running costs, etc.
While making trade more difficult by the imposition of tariffs may look attractive on the surface, there is no evidence home markets can compensate.
However, the left should be arguing that we cannot return to “business as usual”. There needs to be a stronger social and cultural influence on trade negotiations. There should be a focus on fairer tax regimes, particularly corporation tax, and explicit undertakings by governments expressed as part of trade deals that there will be a dividend for the whole of society in the form of skills training for life, improved housing, infrastructure investment and more equal wage structures. The government needs to be clearer about society’s dividend from striking trade deals. Trade deals are not just for the benefit of wealthy investors, shareholders and large corporations.
Progressives need to be honest with communities but at the same time be giving them hope by making commitments on infrastructure improvements and new work opportunities. It is just deceitful to hold out the prospect of coal mines, mills and factories reopening. What can work is building design and manufacturing around “added value” goods and services.
While the right looks to the failed and potentially dangerous solutions of the past the progressive left should be re-defining and promoting a new notion of “responsible capitalism” built on hope, opportunity and aspiration and attacking prejudice and social injustice. For the Labour Party this means truly becoming the party of work and workers and being willing to work positively in partnership with business.