Friday, August 29, 2014

Taking to the streets in a cause no one's heard of

I was delighted to receive this morning - slightly earlier than expected - a copy of James Meek's new book Private Island: Why Britain now belongs to someone else (Verso 2014). It's an exploration of the actual consequences of 30 years of privatisation, the selling off of public assets (gas, electricity, water, railways, the post office, etc) to private buyers. Has it created a nation of small shareholders? No, it has handed these assets, via the market, to mainly state-owned foreign enterprises. Was this the intention?

There's a flavour of Meek's powerful argument here. It looks to me that the book is essential reading for anyone interested in what kind of society we want the UK - or after September's vote, England, Wales and Northern Island - to be.

On Saturday, I will be joining a faithful few handing out leaflets and inviting people to sign a petition against TTIP. It's part of a 30 degrees day of action against a treaty few people have heard of. The transatlantic trade and investment partnership is currently being negotiated by the EU and the US - the world's two largest trading blocks. It threatens in its current form to hand huge amounts of power to global corporations and strip democratic assemblies at all levels of any power to decide what is best for their jurisdictions.

For example, the UK government will not be able to favour public provision in the health service; all branches of health care will have to be open to any bidder. The EU will not be able to continue its ban on genetically modified organisms in the food chain. It would almost certainly prevent the UK government from introducing a minimum price for alcohol or the sale of cigarettes in plain packs. The latter has happened in Australia but using a similar treaty, Philip Morris looks like being awarded vast amounts of compensation for lost sales (see here)

The key thing about TTIP is that I don't remember any political party asking me about it or putting it in their manifesto; the government has not informed parliament about the progress of negotiations in a way that allows our representatives to represent our interests in those negotiations; it was barely mentioned in the May European elections. Indeed the EU commissioner leading Europe in these negotiations has, apparently, complained that  his mailbag and inbox has been clogged up with submissions from concerned parties writing in response to a consultation he initiated. He has not complained, however, about the huge number of corporate lobbyists that visit and email to make their submissions as to why the treaty should offer companies a blank cheque.

So the thing about TTIP is the thing about democracy: do we value it? Do we want our voice to be heard? Are we prepared to stand up for it when it is under attack? At the moment the jury is out but I fear it will return with a shrug and a 'whatever' and we will kiss treasured freedoms and gains for ordinary people, hard-fought over the past two hundred years, a fond farewell

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