1. Why the US trade deal matters
There is a part of Britain’s establishment which has always looked to the United States for leadership. For these Atlanticists, Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the USA is about much more than a shared history or culture. It goes beyond even the bizarre nostalgia for the power of Empire, though that is part of it. Most importantly, this part of Britain’s elite looks longingly at the US as a model economy in which the market rules, big business can behave as it sees fit, and rich individuals are free from irritating ‘burdens’ like public healthcare and redistributive taxes.
For such people, the referendum to leave the European Union presented an opportunity to unleash this long‑cherished dream. And one important vehicle to achieve this would be a trade deal with the USA.
Trade deals today go well beyond traditional issues like tariff policy. For instance, they interfere with how we regulate food production, how we provide public services, how we’re allowed to regulate big business and foreign investment, and how much we are charged for our medicines. Trade deals today deeply affect what sort of society we live in, promoting a model of free market economics, together with tools to discipline governments that step away from this model.
The US trade deal is not really about importing more American products. It’s about importing the American economic and regulatory model. It is not about whether we trade with the US or not but whether we capitulate to a set of policies that enshrine the power of the market and big business. A US trade deal is at the heart of what sort of country we become after Brexit.
Informal talks started with the US administration about a year after the Brexit referendum, with formal talks commencing in Spring 2020. They are currently being held every 6 weeks.
The chapters that follow will spell out the consequences of this agenda, how a US trade deal would irrevocably change our economy and society, and what we can do to stop it. A US trade deal poses some very specific threats:
- It would not only undermine our food standards, but also many other regulations and protections we currently enjoy. It would give big business a greater role in influencing our laws in their own interests.
- It would undermine our public services, making it harder to bring services like the railways back into public ownership, and posing a particular threat to the NHS and the price it pays for life‑saving medicines.
- It threatens to give US multinational corporations special legal powers to challenge the policies of the British and devolved governments, including their ability to introduce better environmental and public health policies.
- It would give Big Tech corporations like Amazon and Facebook more powers to use and abuse our data, and make it even harder to tax and regulate such corporations.
- It would threaten our ability to reduce carbon emissions and meet our climate change targets.
- In spite of the promises of ‘jobs and growth’ from this deal, it threatens to undermine workers’ rights.
- The fact that the deal is being negotiated in secret, and that elected MPs have no meaningful way of scrutinising the talks or stopping an eventual deal, is an affront to our democratic rights.
It’s important to say that in many ways there is nothing particularly special about these proposals for a US‑UK trade deal. They are an embodiment of how expansive and enforceable global trade rules have become.
Trade rules have always been about power. Britain built its wealth trading people, forcing China to import opium, and imposing trade rules that devastated the economies of a large part of the world. The impact of this reverberates today.
In the last four decades, trade rules have come to embed a ‘market knows best’ logic, which has given vast new powers to big business but left governments less able to protect their citizens or the environment. Trade deals set the rules of the game, restricting governments from making certain democratic choices that are considered ‘unacceptable’ by those who want the market to make decisions about how society operates. And trade rules are enforceable, meaning they can be used to discipline governments that want to take a different route. Trade rules allow big business to say ‘sorry, it’s just not possible, it would be against trade rules’.
In this way, trade rules have cemented the power of big business and reduced democratic space. They have helped build a global economy characterised by enormous levels of inequality, both within and between countries, and, by demanding that profit comes first, have fuelled an environmental catastrophe. Britain has been a champion for such trade rules and after Brexit is preparing to develop more of these deals with countries around the world.
So we must place our concerns about a US trade deal within a global context, and prepare to do battle not just with the US deal, but with the use of trade rules by our own government to plunder resources and exploit people around the world.
This book draws hope and inspiration from previous generations of trade activists. These campaigns stopped many awful trade deals, and today, as trade becomes deeply contentious around the world once again, we should pick up their torch and go beyond simply fighting individual deals to developing an ambitious agenda to transform the international economy so that it can work for people and the planet. In the final chapter I set out a description of what an alternative trade system might look like.
None of this is an argument against trade: trade in itself is simply a fact of life. The important question is how we trade. For decades, ‘free trade’ has been presented as an unmitigated good, bringing jobs, growth and a wider selection of cheaper products. But this is a half‑truth at best. Trade has always had losers as well as winners, but in recent years the ‘losers’ have been told ‘too bad, it must be your own fault if you’re unable to compete in the global economy’.
Of course there are many benefits to trade, but unless a society can control the market – can constrain the power of finance and multinational corporations, can tax them and build thriving public services – those benefits will flow upwards, while those below will experience job losses, impoverishment and despair. The political crisis we are now living through is an inevitable product of an unsustainable, anti‑social economy – an economy that has handed the major decisions over our lives to a super‑rich elite. Trade deals and trade rules have played no small part in the creation of this economy. People’s anger at this economy is driving the election of right‑wing populists like Donald Trump. But despite sometimes targeting previous “bad deals” in his rhetoric, his view of trade is little different to his predecessors: it continues to embed privileges for the elites of the world, only with a more explicit acknowledgment that ‘might is right’ in today’s global economy, and that the US will not hesitate to uphold its own interests at the expense of its trading ‘partners’.
It is possible to build something better, and this book proposes how we might start on that journey. For us, in Britain, the defeat of a US trade deal is an essential first step, throwing a major obstacle in the path of our government’s Atlanticist vision, and opening up a debate on what sort of society we want, and the role we play in the global economy, that is long overdue. From here, we can join with campaigners across the world who are fighting against similar trade rules to the ones a US‑UK deal would include, and begin to rebuild a movement capable of overcoming the ‘market knows best’ global economy which has wreaked such chaos on our world.
A note on the sources
Three sources are used extensively in this text to highlight what the British and US administrations want from a US trade deal. These sources are not individually footnoted but listed here:
- The US negotiating objectives1
- The UK negotiating objectives, which include the British rationale for the talks, responses to public concerns, an impact assessment and the formal objectives for the talks2
- A set of leaked documents related to six rounds of preliminary negotiations held between the EU referendum in 2016 and the general election in 20193
United States-United Kingdom Negotiations: Summary of Specific Negotiating Objectives, Office of the United States Trade Representative, Feb 2019
UK-US Free Trade Agreement, Department for International Trade, 2 Mar 2020
‘Explosive leaked trade papers show NHS, chlorinated chicken already on table in US trade talks’, Global Justice Now, 27 Nov 2019