Will Hutton’s speech to Wales for Europe: three key points

Last night, Will Hutton gave a passionate and powerful speech to a Wales for Europe gathering in Cardiff.  The event had been scheduled to include Andrew Adonis, and was focussed around their book Saving Britain; in the event, rail chaos at Paddington meant that he was unable to attend.


Much of the material in Hutton’s address was drawn from that book, and similar to his talk to the Cardiff Book Festival in the Summer (and which I blogged about at the time). In particular he argued passionately about how those areas that voted for Brexit were those that had been left behind by successive economic and social failures that were made, not in Brussels, but in Westminster.   However, there were three key points that bear repetition.

First, Hutton was scathing about the idea of a WTO-based Brexit (and scathing, too, about the political journalists who keep repeating this as an option).  He pointed out that in leaving the EU – and in particular the customs union and single market – we were not just jeopardising trade relations with the 27 other members of the EU, but all the states that already had trading relationships with the EU; 88 nations in total, amounting to around 50% of world GDP.  Because of this, the EU anchored the world trade system.  The WTO was ineffectual, had no enforcement powers, and was essentially a tribunal of judges with  President Donald Trump blocking the appointment of a successor; it had no real power whatsoever.  Moreover, the three biggest economies with whom the Government is looking to establish a trading relationship are China and the US – both of whom are adopting policies of extreme protectionism – and India, which was both reluctant to open up its markets in those service sectors in which the UK was strong, and would demand a degree of freedom of movement of its citizens which would be wholly incompatible with the Brexiters’ aims of controlling borders.  Moreover, because of its dominant role in the world trade system, the EU was in effect the world’s standard-setter – a fact that is not lost on some US politicians who complain that measures such as the GDPR, adopted by organisations like Microsoft and Google, were unacceptably constraining US businesses. But by leaving the EU, the UK was giving up its voice; a voice that had been heeded, with the UK view prevailing in more than 90% of negotiations about standards.

In other words, the idea that Brexit could make the UK freer, more prosperous and able to strike trade deals around the world was, to use Hutton’s word, “risible”.  But one searches in vain for any serious discussion of these points in the media.

Second – and a point that I have argued in the past, but needs to be emphasised more strongly than ever:  the fight against Brexit is a fight for liberal enlightenment values, against nativism and crypto-fascism.  It is a fight against post-truth politics of both the right and left.  For all the transactional arguments about how Brexit will make people worse off, it’s essential to realise that this is a debate about the sort of political culture in which we want to live.

Third – defeating Brexit is not enough.  The Brexit vote was the result of failures in our own domestic politics, especially austerity and inequality; those areas that have been left behind, in particular the towns and the coastal communities, were precisely those that voted for Brexit.  So it is absolutely incumbent on those of us who are opposing Brexit to understand that we need to be bold about changing our economic settlement.  Hutton argues for a purposeful, socially responsible capitalism, in which corporate governance is reformed to allow employees and communities a stake in their running and profits.  He argued that the best companies already do this; and that this is mainstream within the EU, going with the grain of EU policy (which has long upheld the rights of trade unions and of employees to have a real role in shaping the decisions of the companies that employ them).  He argued that the opposition of private and public that has dominated political debate for Britain since the days of Thatcher is futile; both have a vital role to play.  And the devolution of power is essential.

Will Hutton described Brexit as the biggest political crisis of his lifetime.  But that is not just because of the facts of Brexit; I’d argue that it is about what Brexit represents – the final, desperate fling of the Thatcherite project.  It is why anyone who calls themselves a democratic socialist should be opposing Brexit with every breath in their body; Brexit is a state of mind that is rooted in nationalism, elitism, and austerity – things that every democratic socialist should oppose.  Defeating it is essential, but it is only the starting point.

Photograph (c) Neil Schofield-Hughes

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