New Labour and international development

Speech to the European Social Forum, London, 15 October 2004

Mark Curtis

There is a great myth currently being peddled not only here but elsewhere in Europe – that the British government has a positive development agenda and is a champion of the world’s poor. Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown are posing as the saviours of Africa. The mainstream media have fallen for it; every other week they dutifully report another supposedly new government initiative as displaying the wondrous morality of our leaders. Ministers might be liars and criminals on Iraq, but at least they really care about global poverty.

This myth is nonsense and dangerous. Not only is the public being kept in the dark; the government is lining up for a massive propaganda victory next year when it hosts the G8 summit. A big danger is that some mainstream NGOs will help the government in this task.

So let us look at the reality of British policy.

First, Tony Blair is currently receiving immense praise for his Africa Commission, a body which is meant to recommend ways the rich can help Africa. After 200 years of British intervention in Africa, the time to worry most is when a government shows an interest in any part of the world. Blair’s Africa Commission is an unnecessary diversion from the real problem – which is a total lack of political will to undertake even the simplest of policy changes. We already know how the rich can help Africa – stop selling arms, write off debt without conditions, stop forcing liberalisation, change global trade rules, stop exploitation by transnational corporations. The Africa Commission is basically a PR stunt for a government desperate for international credibility after being ridiculed over Iraq.

Second, Britain is widely praised for its debt relief proposals. Yet countries only get debt relief when they follow World Bank/IMF economic policies. Debt relief is a tool to push corporate globalisation – which partly explains New Labour’s enthusiasm for it.

Third, take aid. The government’s flagship aid project is Gordon Brown’s proposal for an International Finance Facility that he claims will double international aid. The opposite is the case: WDM’s analysis shows that that this won’t double aid but will likely reduce aid over the longer term. Also, the aid is conditional on countries “opening up to trade and investment”, as Brown recently said – ie, more liberalisation.

Or take trade. The government receives much praise for championing market access for poor country exports into the EU. But the reason why is because it wants all countries to liberalise their economies. The only qualification is that the poorest countries are to be given longer time periods to do this. Meaning they have longer to make themselves poorer. The key beneficiaries are New Labour’s key clients – big business, who gain access to new markets.

Look at where the UK currently stands on global trade issues:

1 It is supporting the EU’s demand for duty free access into poor countries markets and for new rules on investment and procurement with those countries that have already been rejected in the WTO.
2 It is supporting the EU’s demand to include water delivery to become part of the GATS agreement – meaning that it will become easier to force water privisation on the poor.
3 It is refusing to support binding regulation on companies to stop them damaging the environment, violating workers rights and avoiding taxation. It simply believes in voluntary standards and codes of conduct for business.

The most important fact about British policy has never been reported in the mainstream media – that the British government is one of the world’s leading champions of the corporate takeover of the planet. New Labour ministers are the new liberalisation theologists. The fact that they are getting away with this is not unrelated to another area where they lead the world – in state propaganda operations, or what the government calls “information support”, a term Orwell would have understood.

In fact, ministers have been quite open about their goals, as when trade minister Baroness Symons told business leaders that the government was their “greatest ally” in the WTO negotiations. Or when former Development Secretary Clare Short promised business leaders her help in “overcoming the contraints business faces in the regulatory environment for investment in any country”.

There is one major exception to British support for free trade – the massive taxpayer subsidies given to arms corporations, like BAE Systems, whose chairman is a regular visitor to No.10. These amount to up to £1 billion a year in public subsidies for arms exports.

My view is that there’s a lot of naivity in liberal, and in some NGO, circles, about Britain’s role in the world. My research on British foreign policy in the formerly secret planning files, shows two very clear British goals in the world. The first is to maintain British elites’ standing in the world, or “great power” status. This requires invading countries from time to time, keeping nuclear weapons and providing total support to US foreign policy.

The second goal is to ensure that the global economy and important regions function to benefit British and Western corporations, meaning that countries’ markets are to be opened up to those corporations. 

A secret 1970 report called “Priorities in our foreign policy”, notes that Britain needs “to act in support of our commercial and financial interests throughout the world… We must contribute… to … the protection of our interests in the rest of the world from which so many of our raw materials derive… We shall need to pay particular attention to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa”.
A secret Foreign Office report from 1968 states that “we should bend our energies to help produce a world economic climate in which our external trade, our income from invisibles and our balance of payments can prosper”. The key to this is “freer” global trade and “increasing our efforts to open up new markets in Europe, Latin America and the Far East”.

Exactly the same goal was recently repeated by Trade Secretary Patricia Hewitt, when she said: “we want to open up protected markets in developing countries.”

This is the basic goal that explains why the UK supports corporate globalisation.

So what should we do?

First, we need to ensure that the public hear the message that the British government is primarily part of the problem, not the solution.

Second, we need to be mounting a much bigger, more powerful immediate challenge to the government. My own view is that we need to undertake harder-hitting campaigning and consider methods such as peaceful direct action that challenge policy-makers. Groups in the development sector have never done this – why not?

Third, we know that our goal must be to reverse the economic model of corporate globalisation that puts profits before people. But more civil society groups need to tell their supporters that more radical change – system change – is needed. I am stating the obvious, but many household name NGOs simply do not do this – many prefer messages that either support the government or promote only mild reform.

Fourth, it is clear that we need to build up the global justice movement – build a bigger movement of people working for radical change across the different social sectors. Again, this is obvious but too few organizations really prioritise this way of working.

I’d like to see the development of a common, radical manifesto to unite behind and a set of positive alternatives to campaign for.

The one big issue that we could unite behind could be our commitment to real democracy. For us here in Britain, this is surely the main lesson of Iraq. We’ve just seen a prime minister, with a handful of appointed advisers, invade another country illegally in the face of opposition from most of the public. We talk about the EU’s democratic deficit, but Britain’s political system is also deeply centralised and has become a kind of personalised autocracy. Our system actually has very few real democratic elements.

It’s not only Britain’s policies on development issues that are so bad, and nor is it just Iraq; the British aggression against Iraq, and the contempt for international law and human rights it shows, is only the tip of the iceberg. Britain under Blair is a supporter of regimes in Russia, Nigeria, Colombia, Indonesia, Nepal and Israel. Until this decision-making system changes, and is democratised, terrible policies will continue to be promoted in our name.

It is this struggle for real democracy, alongside our commitment to reversing corporate globalisation, that unites us and which could attract larger numbers of people to our cause.