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Modernising the monarchy? Hardly, says Laurie Penny

The way the royals are reported is like a Disney film.

In our storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy wellingtons over democracy.

The true purpose of the British monarchy, as the late Douglas Adams might have put it, is not to wield power, but to distract attention away from it. We can be curiously coy about the way privilege works in this country: consider, if you will, the horrified reaction to the news that Prince Charles has been allowed to dabble in the affairs of government.

Parliamentary loopholes have meant that the unelected heir to the throne has been granted power of veto over matters that affect the private interests of the Duchy of Cornwall, including road safety, planning and environmental policy. We are shocked by the reminder that the royal family is more than a tinselly relic to bring in the tourists: it actually has political influence and some of its members are uncouth enough to use it.

While all of this has been going on, there has barely been a day when the young Duke and Duchess of Cornwall have been absent from the front pages. It's as if the loveliness of the Duchess, wafting in designer gowns around various official engagements with her subtly balding beau and the international media in tow, were enough to distract the world from a nation creaking with corruption and civic breakdown.

In Britain, we are comfortable with the trappings of power as long as they are phrased in the manner of a fairy tale. At the end of last month, changes to the royal succession were made, to much fanfare, to ensure that female firstborn will be able to inherit the throne. "Put simply, if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen," said David Cameron, with all the political gravitas of an episode of Jackanory. This "modernisation", which, like most recently hailed feminist triumphs, makes cosmetic alterations to the existing system while ensuring that nothing of relevance changes, is as clear a message as any that the House of Windsor intends to squat in its position of privilege for many generations to come.

Giving it welly

The real story of power and privilege in Britain is far murkier than the Disney-princess version peddled by the tabloids. In this storybook world, royalty open hospitals with their shiny-haired brides, rather than stomping in muddy, expensive wellingtons over the democratic process.

It is worth noting, in these circumstances, that the word "privilege" actually means "private law". It means that wealthy or aristocratic influences are allowed to bend the rules to suit their own interests - and this goes on all the time behind the closed doors of Whitehall, not just with the Windsors. Documents leaked to Private Eye showed that the permanent secretary to HM Revenue and Customs personally shook hands on a deal that let off the investment bank Goldman Sachs £10m in unpaid interest on a failed tax-avoidance scheme.

The Ministry of Defence is only just staggering away from a scandal in which it emerged, among other things, that a lobbyist who had paid a reported £20,000 in expenses to Liam Fox's aide was granted face-time with the arms sales minister. Time and again, private law trumps the public interest, yet we allow ourselves to be distracted by a fairy tale of functioning democracy.

This is no time for sugarplum politics. Behind every modern fairy tale is an ancient fable of thuggery, hierarchy and blood, and the story of modern Britain is no different.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.