When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn held up pages and pages of blacked out trade documents on ITV’s general election debate last November, it was the culmination of years of work.
My organisation Global Justice Now first submitted Freedom of Information requests for those documents, which contain crucial details of what the UK government was preparing to negotiate with the United States, in 2017. Despite numerous appeals and a legal challenge which still hadn’t made it to court, this essential record of the likely consequences of a US trade deal had remained entirely hidden. Finally, they were centre stage.
When the uncensored documents were subsequently leaked in full, it was easy to see why the government wanted to keep them secret – they confirmed many of our fears about its willingness to capitulate to the US corporate lobby. While much mud has subsequently been slung about the identity and motivations behind the leak (though with little actual evidence given), the authenticity of the documents, and what they reveal, has never been disputed.
Ultimately, the electorate’s desperate desire to stop discussing Brexit won out in December, and so Boris Johnson’s vision of future trade deals was never properly interrogated. But now that Brexit has formally happened, that interrogation is starting to begin, on both sides of the Brexit divide. Even media outlets like the Daily Mail are now reporting in detail on the threat to UK food standards from a US trade deal, as British farmers mobilise to protect their livelihoods. Parliament’s latest failure to put protections for the NHS, as well as the democratic role of MPs themselves, into the Trade Bill has received far more attention than over recent years. Other issues like Big Tech, cosmetics and animal welfare are starting to get more traction too. It’s not before time.
For many of us, it is a tragedy that this debate didn’t happen as part of the Brexit decision, given everything we suspected (and now know) about the intentions of this government. But it is also time to move beyond those divisions. A clear‑cut majority of the British public is opposed to most of Trump’s top priorities for a trade deal, with much of this corporate‑driven agenda also likely to continue under any Biden administration. If this central contradiction remains in the shadows, a catastrophic deal with the US could well be agreed. But if we can inform and mobilise a public that is already broadly onside, there is every chance it can be stopped.
London, August 2020.