The TUC rally, hummus and me

Those of us who were proudly and peacefully protesting in Hyde Park resent being associated with the

I don't like hummus. In fact, I despise hummus. I prefer going straight for the main "dead animal" course in my local Lebanese -- a shawarma, perhaps, or even a lamb chop. But hummus? Never.

So the claim that those of us who preferred to go on the TUC march -- rather than vandalise a state-owned bank or throw paint at the police -- were just "munching houmous in Hyde Park and listening to some speeches" would have offended me if it wasn't so silly.

But my fellow NS blogger Laurie Penny is allowed to be silly if she wants to. If she wants to hang from a set of traffic lights in Oxford Circus, then that's her prerogative. She's entitled to her views -- and her "riot boots".

But I'm entitled to my views -- and I'm annoyed with the violent "protesters" (thugs?) who tried to wreck an important and historic march by rewarding right-wing, pro-cuts media outlets with the negative headlines and imagery that they had so craved. Then again, what else does one expect from a bunch of outraged kids who prefer to gesticulate for the sake of the Murdoch-owned television cameras? For whom "solidarity" is merely a word to daub on the side of Topshop, rather than a lived act of joining fellow citizens on a mass scale? In my view, solidarity isn't about smashing windows in a co-ordinated manner. (Oh, and I refuse to refer to those louts as "anarchists" until I see any evidence that the disgruntled youth I saw kindling that pointless bonfire in the middle of Oxford Street has read even a page of Kropotkin.)

Here's my rather simple and old-fashioned view: the trade union movement persuaded 500,000 people to turn out on Saturday to protest against the coalition's spending cuts and "march for the alternative" -- the Robin Hood Tax, green investment in education and jobs, reform of the banks and tax justice. Five hundred thousand people. That's half a million people for those of you who can't count.

There were dozens of speakers at the Hyde Park rally -- from the leader of the opposition to elected general secretaries of Britain's biggest and smallest unions; from the National Pensioners Convention to Operation Black Vote; from poets to freeminers. There was a call-centre worker who'd walked all the way from Cardiff to make his voice heard. And, no, I didn't spot a pot of hummus in his hand.

So why was there a need for an "alternative" protest, away from the main march in London and the rally in Hyde Park? Why did UK Uncut -- a group, incidentally, whose aims, principles and even tactics I have wholeheartedly supported since its creation last year -- decide to stage a sit-in at a posh shop no one's ever heard of on Saturday afternoon? Don't get me wrong: UK Uncut had nothing to do with the violence at the weekend and have since been wrongly maligned by much of the mainstream media, but why consciously opt out of a march involving -- one more time -- 500,000 of your fellow citizens? Couldn't the well-heeled shoppers in Piccadilly have been rudely interrupted on Sunday instead? Or Friday? Or Monday? Any day other than the day of the TUC march? This scene from the Life of Brian comes to mind . . .

It's a point that Anthony Painter makes this morning over at LabourList. Like me, he objects to Laurie's blog post on the NS site and I can't help but agree with much of what he writes. Having said that, I was amused to see Anthony, an intelligent and informed blogger, whose posts I often enjoy and admire, making an idiotic demand via Twitter for an "apology" from the New Statesman. Referring to Laurie's post, he says: "A hasty apology and retraction of that part of the piece would be welcome."

First, isn't it odd that centre-left bloggers should be demanding such brazen censorship from a centre-left magazine? We're a broad church here at the NS; plural and proud of it. Second, I'm astonished that a clever, web-savvy guy can't seem to distinguish between the New Statesman -- the award-winning current-affairs magazine, founded in 1913, employing dozens of writers -- and a single blogger on the New Statesman website. Third, I think it is remiss of Anthony to write a blog post in which he takes a potshot at the New Statesman on the subject of the march/rally without acknowledging that the senior politics editor of the magazine compered the final section of Saturday's TUC rally (the video, if you want proof, is below). In return, I could now demand an "apology" from LabourList. But I won't waste time.

Instead, I'll carry on marching and rallying with the mainstream. Some of us actually want to try to change things.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.