What now for trade and health politics post-Brexit?

With the election over and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union on some terms or other now a certainty, it is useful to reflect on the trade negotiations that will follow.  I offer these  initial observations.

First, there has been much talk of the option of reverting to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules in trade relations if ‘deals’ to replace the agreements to which the UK was party by virtue of its EU membership cannot be negotiated by the end of 2020.  However, thanks to the United States’ refusal to agree to appointing new members of the WTO Appellate Body, effectively there will be no WTO rules going forward, until and unless a future US government changes this position in 2021 or thereafter.  Once out of the EU, the UK is effectively unprotected in a trade policy jungle, not having been able to negotiate independently of the EU, so pressure quickly to negotiate new agreements will be intense.  Domestic proponents of a deregulated, ultra-liberal future, including (for example) further privatisation in the NHS and opening the country’s arms even wider to dodgy flight capital, will make use of this opportunity. The government’s announced intent to legislate an exit from the EU at the end of 2020, whether or not an agreement has been reached, is a first step in this process.

Second, in this process the UK will be at a substantial disadvantage as it negotiates with entities like the United States (an economy more than six times larger, based on GDP at purchasing power parity) and the comparably large European Union.  It will have to offer more, in terms of market access and other considerations, to get less.  And when anyone in an official capacity says that a particular service or health protection measure, such as the NHS or food safety standards, ‘will not be on the table’, we have to ask what else will be on the table instead.  That is the reality of asymmetrical trade negotiations, as countries throughout the Global South have found out.

Third, the House of Commons will be largely irrelevant.  A former Canadian cabinet minister pointed out decades ago that: ‘Under our parliamentary system, a Prime Minister or a Premier with a majority has immense power …. [In] 1688 we traded the divine right of kings for the divine right of a Premier or a Prime Minister with a majority at his or her back for a period of five years’.  The new Conservative government has a large enough majority that even with a unanimous opposition, close to 40 defections would be necessary in order to defeat whatever legislation the government proposed, and that is all but unthinkable.  Advocates for health equity concerned with the implications of post-Brexit trade policy will have to look elsewhere for points of influence.  There may not be many.

Thus, fourth, a final irony. The campaign to leave the EU was waged using the mantra of taking back control. During the process of leaving and after its completion, influences and actors outside the UK’s border will probably be more important in terms of shaping the direction of the economy, society and everyday life than they were during the country’s EU membership.

Why no talk of an inequality emergency?

We hear much talk now of a climate emergency.  As I was revising a talk I give frequently on ‘global health in an unequal world’, I realised that there is no talk of an inequality emergency, either globally or close to home, although the same macroeconomic trends and political choices driving increased inequality within national borders and on a variety of smaller scales are often involved wherever on the map one happens to look.  (On these inequalities at metropolitan scale, I cannot recommend too highly photographer Johnny Miller’s compelling aerial images.)

Why is there no talk of such an emergency?  Many manifestations of climate change occur on a scale that makes them fodder for our spectacle-hungry visual media: think Californian and Australian wildfires; collapsing glaciers; and catastrophic damage from hurricanes and floods.  The casualties of inequality tend to be smaller in scale and less visible: the lives ended sooner and more painfully than they should have been because of the accumulated damage done by relying on food banks and fearing the ‘brown envelope’ that initiates the vicious privatised process of fitness-for-work assessments here in the UK, or the estimated 300,000 women per year who die in pregnancy or childbirth from causes that are routinely avoided in the high-income world.   Academically, it may be effective to compare the annual toll from death in pregnancy and childbirth to the crash of two or three airliners every day of the year, as a colleague and I have done, but such comparisons have little salience in the broader, media-corrupted world of political priorities.

Relatively vast resources have been devoted to climate science – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the world’s largest-ever scientific collaboration – and climate researchers  long ago realised that just generating more evidence was never going to be enough to generate the change needed.   So many became advocates, for example tracing 63 percent of cumulative worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 and 2010 to just 90 massive state- and investor-owned corporations (and their customers, of course).  More recently, another group of authors (supported by more than 11,000 signatories) argued that ‘Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat’.  Researchers on health inequalities, in particular, have generally been more circumspect.  In the UK, advocacy that looks far enough ‘upstream’ at the economic and political substrates of health inequalities – more on that point later – is unlikely to be acceptable to agencies of the capitalist state and the trustees of billionaires’ fortunes whose funding priorities shape the direction of academic research and the career paths of academics.  And the health inequalities of greatest concern, by definition, do not affect ‘all of us’.  Whether the consequences of climate change will genuinely do so is too complex a question to be investigated here, but the question is well worth asking.  Certainly, its effects will be felt first and worst by those least implicated in its origins.

Another issue is the decades-long rhetorical and ideological Thatcherite drumbeat that ‘there is no alternative’ to rising inequality and the policies that drive it.  This problem is particularly acute with regard to the austerity that has been thoroughly discredited in terms of the macroeconomic objectives of sustaining growth that it was supposed to achieve, whether in the era of World Bank and IMF-mandated structural adjustment or, more recently, in post-2010 responses to the financial crisis.  As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman commented in the run-up to the 2015 UK election: ‘All of the economic research that allegedly supported the austerity push has been discredited. On the other side of the ledger, the benefits of improved confidence failed to make their promised appearance. Since the global turn to austerity in 2010, every country that introduced significant austerity has seen its economy suffer, with the depth of the suffering closely related to the harshness of the austerity’.  Post-2015, of course, austerity in the UK became harsher still, demonstrably redistributing income and resources upward within British society, through both tax and benefit ‘reforms’ and savagely destructive cuts to local authority budgets.

Now, austerity has become normalised; it is part of the quotidian policy landscape to the extent that we are almost no longer capable of rage when the strutting, glossy Home Secretary straightfacedly claims that poverty is not the government’s problem, when the evidence is overwhelming that post-2010 public policy has systematically and premeditatedly made the problem worse.  Despite the best efforts of the fossil fuel industry, we can imagine a decarbonised economy, even though we may not be able to specify its details.  Too many of us now have difficulty imagining economic systems that do not operate as what Serge Halimi, the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, has called an ‘inequality machine’.  A powerful antidote to this well-funded intellectual cauterisation is the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s 2017 blueprint for a global new deal.  How many global health researchers have read it, I wonder?  How many medical or MPH students have been asked to do so?

Back to the view looking upstream.  Failure to understand and declare an inequality emergency reflects the success of neoliberalism or ‘market fundamentalism’ as a global class project of restoring inequality and the privileges of the rich to the levels that prevailed before what has been called the ‘great compression’ that reduced inequality after World War II in much of the high-income world, and inspired egalitarian visions far outside it.  The evidence on this point can’t even be summarised here – I am glad to provide key sources – but in the context of the work that academics do, two decades of marketisation in British universities must be understood as part of the project.  Centrally funded institutions that served a public educational and scholarly purpose were dismantled, replaced by corporate-style enterprises organised around generating income from deep-pocketed funders and indebted students, with careers often ended by failure to put out salable products.   

Isn’t this a form of conspiracy theory, you ask?  Empirically, the best rejoinders come from the work of journalists like Jane Mayer and historians like Stefan Collini and Nancy MacLean.  Conceptually, an especially apposite riposte comes from the brilliant legal historian Douglas Hay, who established himself in the field with the research that underpinned the following conclusion: ‘The private manipulation of the law by the wealthy and powerful’ in eighteenth-century England ‘was in truth a ruling-class conspiracy, in the most exact meaning of the word. …. The legal definition of conspiracy does not require explicit agreement; those party to it need not even all know one another, provided they are working together for the same ends.  In this case, the common assumptions of the conspirators lay so deep that they were never questioned, and rarely made explicit’ (1).  Enough said.

(1)  Hay, D.  Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law. In D. Hay et al., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (pp. 17-64). New York: Pantheon, 1975,