by Ken Fuller writing in the Philippines Daily Tribune
In Manila last Thursday, speaking at an event hosted by the Asian Institute of Management, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague affected the persona of the wise, benevolent uncle, lecturing this “flourishing Asian democracy” on the steps it should take to guarantee sustainable growth.
In doing so, he glossed over the history of his own country and that of development in this region – and the performance of his own government. And although he made mention of British support after last year’s natural disasters, his real interest was, of course, to promote British trade and investment.
Although Hague claimed that his government was in an ideal position to offer such advice due to the fact that it is getting its own economy “back on track,” the fact of the matter is that his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is a disaster for the majority of the population. In its attempt to “solve” the economic crisis which began in 2008 on the backs of the people, unemployment is high, wages and conditions have been worsened, and social provision has been reduced.
Last year, use of food banks — centers where the poor can, if certified by a healthcare professional or social services as being in need, obtain free food donated by the public — increased by 60 percent. Between April and December, half a million people received such help. Many had seen their benefits reduced. Some were actually in employment, some on zero-hours contracts. There are now over 400 food banks in Britain.
Back home, Hague and his colleagues represent the interests of British capital, and these were the same interests motivating his Manila speech. “My message today,” he said in what amounted to a veiled threat, “is that … we will of course have a particularly close bond with nations that share our values most closely and those that are ready to take the reforms necessary to advance free and open societies.” And, of course, the “reforms” he refers to are mainly those of the “free-market” variety.
Hague concedes that Asian economies have grown by a variety of means, but insists that there are five universal principles that “underpin sustainable growth and will be crucial for the stability and success of Asian countries…” These are as follows (and you can probably guess what’s coming).
First, the state must be small, allowing “market forces to drive enterprise and finance…” He praises Thatcher’s privatization program, and gives Rolls Royce as an example — a bad one as it happens, because the luxury car-maker failed as a private company and was rescued by, ironically, a former Conservative government, which took it into public ownership; only after it was rehabilitated with public money was it restored to the private sector.
Hague, in fact, has no problem with the state as long as it’s used to support the private sector. Later in his speech, for example, he boasts that the UK is undertaking “the largest program of investment in our railways since the nineteenth century.” Thatcher split Britain’s rail network into separate packages which were then awarded as franchises to the private sector. Another disaster. With sky-rocketing fares, often shoddy services, and significant taxpayer support, there is a rising clamor for the railways to be taken back into public ownership. The same is true of the privatized power sector which, as Herman Tiu Laurel pointed out recently in this newspaper, has seen power-bills rise to scandalous levels.
But never mind the British experience. What about the experience of this region? Did the “tiger economies” develop by slimming down the state? They did not. At the heart of each of their development strategies was an interventionist state that first decided which industries would be built, and then went about creating the conditions necessary for their construction. Telling the Philippines that it should slim down the state is tantamount to advising it not to develop.
Next, says Hague, there should be the rule of law; the judiciary must be reliable. Well, although he’s obviously keen to protect British investments, we should concede that he has a point here. But whose law? Which class of people should the law protect? In the UK, a worker could take a case to an Employment Tribunal, free of charge. Since last year, charges have been introduced, so that for a claim of unfair dismissal the applicant must fork out a claim fee of £250 and a hearing fee of £950 — a total of £1,200 (or almost P90,000 at the current rate of exchange). In whose interest is this law, Mr. Hague?
Last Friday, changes were introduced concerning the legal protection British workers receive when their company is taken over (in, for example, the case of privatization or franchising). Previously, their original wages, conditions and seniority were guaranteed. Now, the new employer can negotiate changes.
Three young men were recently charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act for “stealing” discarded food they found in a rubbish skip at the rear of a store. Doubtless due to fear of public embarrassment, the prosecution was dropped, but this case is a stark illustration of the depths to which Hague’s government has dragged the UK.
And what of the bedroom tax? If you occupy social housing, your benefits will be reduced if you have an unused bedroom. As a result of this blatantly anti-poor regulation, there has been at least one suicide. And Hague has the effrontery to lecture the Philippines about the law!
Thirdly, Hague pontificates on respect for individual freedoms, saying that it was in an atmosphere of a free and open intellectual and scientific culture that the great British inventions saw the light of day — the steam engine, the jet engine, the light bulb, television and the telephone. But each of these (and there are US counter-claims concerning the telephone and the light bulb) were invented and developed when Britain ruled the largest empire the world has ever known — where individual or national freedoms were either scarce or non-existent, and where the colonies were forbidden from developing their own industries
Then comes a hardy perennial: “The UK,” says Hague in a half-truth, “has long been a champion of free trade…” Maybe, but since when? When Britain was still developing, it opposed free trade and instead imposed a system called “mercantilism” whereby its colonies could only trade with Britain and all goods had to be transported in British ships.
This only changed when Britain became an industrial giant and wished to break into foreign markets — as Hague now wishes to expand in the Philippine market. Again, he turns a blind eye to (or is simply ignorant of) the history of this region, because the “tigers” followed a similar path to Britain’s, employing protectionist measures while their industries were still growing and only embracing free(r) trade when they could withstand competition. For an underdeveloped country like the Philippines, “free trade” will not lead to development.
Finally, there is investment in human capital and infrastructure which, like the rule of law, would be of benefit to this country. But you can bet your bottom dollar (if you have one left after he’s finished with you) that Hague, like all spokesmen for foreign capital, has in mind only the advantages in this for foreign investment: well-educated but poorly paid labor and modern transport systems to facilitate imports and exports.
But there’s more to this than economics. Hague says that the UK’s Asian engagement, which is undergoing a considerable expansion under a 20 year plan, “is as much about security as it is about as trade and prosperity, since these are all inextricably linked.” As he mentions, the UK is a member of the International Contact Group in the Mindanao peace process, and this leads one to wonder just what plans the UK and the USA (presumably with the former in the role of junior partner) have for their involvement in the proposed Bangsamoro entity.