Reflection on Theresa May’s “Global Britain” speech (Opinion)

UTU Director reflects on the speech made by Prime Minister Theresa May (17 Jan 2017) on her plans for Britain leaving the EU.

Theresa May had to speak to lots of different interest groups today. The point slogged was that we are a “Global Britain” and she had to speak to EU member states, other countries, and internally to our own factions. She is no economist but has strongly led and offered the clarity she promised.

She’s done what few politicians probably could in a short space of time.

But while May’s eye is fixed on the global we, residents of Britain, must not lose sight of both locally-generated power and internationally-minded vision. If we do, working people will be the disposable “means” of Theresa May’s “global ends.”

May staked a claim to the economy not being as badly hit as “some people” expected. That’s a moot point and an ongoing conversation. But one does not get the impression it’s the vital measure for May.

Sovereignty was much more to the fore throughout the speech and even when it came to trade it was about being sovereign over our own negotiation rather than better off because of them.

May is no more an economist than Cameron or Brown was and we’ve not really had strong economic advice in this country in decades. The closest we came recently was Corbyn’s quickly suspended group of economic adviser which brought together some of the most incredible thinkers on economics in the western world.

May referred to the UK as “a trading nation” several times. This is clearly a phrase that, if it takes, will be a buzz for the next year or so.

On immigration she borrowed the language of UKIP who, like May, want to see free movement of the well qualified and well-heeled but not of working people: “we want to welcome the brightest and the best” she insisted more than once. Here lies a tension.

There is no doubt that in specific cases job agencies have deliberately used the free movement of people to exploit the European workforce from the poorer EU members and this has depressed wages and made work insecure in, for example, picking and packing industries: A now classic example being Sports Directs who uses agencies to recruit unorganized workers from Eastern Europe to their factory in Shirebrook, Derbyshire.

On the other hand, a policy that gives freedom on the basis of economic privilege is anathema to the virtue of a whole range of positions from those who believe in the myth of a meritocracy, the redistributive Keynesians, to the internationalists and many trade unions.

May’s most hopeful language was around mutual self-interest. She claimed that she wants the “ends” to be  of “a benefit to other countries in Europe” and was her most passionate when she insisted that our negotiated exit need not be a “zero sum game.”

This was both an invitation and a threat and she warned EU member states against a punitive approach, massively over-egging the idea that it would be the EU who suffered more than the UK.
In any bargaining who can only negotiate to the extent that you show a willingness to walk away if the deal isn’t right. This is universally true and in making this threat explicit she is only recognizing the world as it is.

The most sinister thread that wove its way through May’s speech today was her repeated vow that the end is more important than the means. This smacks of ethical utilitarianism and weakens any assurances she might make on workers’ rights.

Nearly all our workers’ rights in the UK are enshrined in EU law and not UK law. May intends to TUPE (or whatever the word should be) across all EU laws over to parliament in a single Bill before then debating them over time.

At this point our working time directive will be extremely vulnerable to attack.

It is at this point that people like Rupert Murdoch and his friends Michael Gove and Donald Trump will be using all the power at their disposal to erode the rights and privileges of British workers: maternity and paternity leave, working time, pay and conditions, safety at work. None of these things are ends to Theresa May; they are merely “means”.
Theresa May vows to bring the final deal back to the UK parliament before the Brexit button is finally pushed. An act of actual and/or symbolic sovereignty.

But really there is no ‘final deal’ for the British people and the exit we vote on is merely a vote on what playing field we set out onto for the next phase of the fight for political, social, economic, and environmental justice for all and not just a few.
Starkly, as it stands, the British workers deserve to lose all their rights. Some of these rights were won by the work and sacrifice of union members a generation or more ago.

Today most unions act as insurance and legal support; more likely to get their members a discount on home content insurance than to bring an end to zero hours contracts.

They have moved to a mobilization and advocacy model for most campaigns and rarely organize deeply into any sector or recognize their members as more than just workers with wallets instead of citizens with communities.

While there is the beginning of an awakening on this matter we are a long way off having the kind of civic power that will earn us the protections we may be about to lose.

Too often people who benefit from the strike action of a generation past dismiss such things, “I don’t agree with strikes” they say while enjoying their current pay and conditions only because others lost their in industrial action: naïve hypocrisy that will reap the whirlwind if left unchecked much longer.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus arrives at a town that has been militarily and economically oppressed by a foreign power. Those who suffer the consequences of this are violent and taboo-breaking: the story of the Geresene demoniac, who wanders naked among the dead and whom chains will not hold.

Jesus response is to help him name his demons and fears and leave him “clothed and in his right mind.”

This exorcism of foreign occupation allowed the demoniac to “take back control” and was disorienting for the demoniacs neighbours who had become accustomed to the madness and violence of the oppressed among them and the economic oppression that kept them in safe and sound.

Foreign occupation had been their only imagining.

But now they had no idea what to do: In chasing the demons into the sea Jesus set them free from a foreign economic power that kept them alive: they urged him to leave.

The Greresene went back to his own people, clothed and in his right mind. I believe he was sent their by Mark’s Jesus to organize those people to resist evil and seek the common good.

To build the power of civic life on the principals of nonviolent resistance to evil.

If we do not do the same – if we do not return to our communities, clothed and in our right minds – then the working people of Britain will become Theresa May’s disposable “means” to achieve “Global Britain’s” ends.

We do not deserve rights, we fight for them and each generation has to fight for them all over again or, without a shadow of a doubt, they will lose them.

Opinion pieces represent the views of their authors and are not a formal positions of UTU members or trustees. 

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