Where does the European impasse now leave Britain?

One month on, Cameron's veto looks an even greater folly.

There is another side to David Cameron's eurozone veto that hasn't been told. Staying out of the euro was not a cunning example of British sagacity but rather a potent symbol of the weakness of the British economy. What was not admitted was that, though still the sixth largest economy in the world, Britain was judged not fit to compete in an open European economy where a single currency was underpinned by fixed exchange rate and interest rates.

That judgement has been amply confirmed by events. In 1982 Britain had a surplus on its trading account in goods of £1.9bn. Since then it has steadily deteriorated to the point where UK deficit on traded goods reached an unprecedented £100bn, no less than 6.8 per cent of our GDP. What makes this decline so staggering is that it occurred despite a 23 per cent devaluation of sterling over the last three years.

Such a precipitate decline is simply unsustainable. We cannot continue to enjoy our standard of living when it is dependent on such a huge loss of competitiveness.

In that context to try to preserve the City of London untouched -- when it is a major cause of that competitive breakdown as well as largely responsible for the £850bn increase in Britain's indebtedness following the financial crash -- is utterly perverse.

Instead the number one objective for Britain should now be a single-minded concentration on a renascence of British manufacturing as the only means to regain the competitiveness on which our future depends. That should be accompanied by a radical reform of UK banking so that its prime role becomes the promotion and enhancement of British industry. This approach should then determine our policy towards the euro and any future EU directive on financial services regulation.

Hitherto Britain has attracted foreign direct investment largely as a base for export to the EU market and because costs are lower through low pay and de-regulated working conditions. R&D is generally centred abroad and profits generally repatriated to the foreign country. This is not an adequate platform on which to build a dynamic, competitive and sustainable manufacturing base as the core of UK economic growth.

Instead a successful national manufacturing system requires indigenous supply chains which profitably connect the different competences of a diverse population of small-medium-giant enterprises within powerful cluster networks. British manufacturing at present has few large corporate players with UK headquarters that have a global reach, broad capabilities and a large workforce over 50,000. Yet critically these are the companies that boost cost recovery by selling branded finished goods, sustain civil R&D, build high-tech capabilities, as well as connect backwards to domestic suppliers.

Britain lacks these crucial chain-supporting enterprises because short-termism always trumps long-term market share. Giant manufacturing firms like GEC, ICI, Lucas and TI were broken up when assessed as inadequately profitable, and privatisations (for example, rail and electric power) were carried through without regard to a domestic supplying industry.

As a result Britain is now an economy of small workshops, with less than 2,000 factories employing over 200 compared with 107,000 employing less than 10. The UK propensity to import is therefore much higher largely because of reliance on foreign-owned assembly within global systems, and UK balance of trade prospects project an unsustainable increase in the deficit which will require permanent deflation to damp down import demand.

All these entrenched problems point to the need for systematic prioritising on capacity building and investment right across the whole spectrum in manufacturing, as indeed has been advocated by the CBI 20-year export recovery plan. Central to achieving that is radical banking reform. The City of London remains heavily focused on mortgage lending, derivatives and offshore speculation. Worse still, many banks lend on a one-off basis for a specific project on a limited timescale and expect high annual returns on investments to meet their loan repayments which often appear too risky in uncertain market conditions.

By contrast, relational banking is a central factor underpinning German manufacturing success, linked with the clustering concept of the Mittelstand offering a strong local or regional network uniting major manufacturing companies with their suppliers, ancillaries and customers as well as their banks. This is a business model in Baden Wurttenburg, Aemilia Romagna and other European regions which the UK should develop in manufacturing arcs round Birmingham, Manchester-Liverpool, Newcastle as well as the South-East.

But the key banking reform needed is the restoration of public control over the money supply. As a result of the Competition and Credit Control measures in 1971, the lifting of exchange controls in 1979 and the abolition of all controls over consumer credit and the de-regulation of housing finance in the 1986 Big Bang, the commercial banks have now become responsible for the issuance of over 97% of domestic credit creation.

They have used that power to become the major generator of unsustainable asset bubbles and thus of great economic instability. Through the shadow banking system, proliferation of derivatives and securitisation they have gone to great lengths to evade public controls and to pursue their private interests at the expense of the national interest. They have used their control over the money supply largely to feed the property boom and foreign speculation whilst allocating as little as 8 per cent to productive investment.

For all these reasons control over the money supply should be brought back into the public domain. This was the mechanism used by many of the most successful countries in this last century, especially Japan, Korea and Taiwan after the Second World War.

Under this "window guidance" the central bank would determine the desired nominal GDP growth and then estimate the amount of credit creation necessary to achieve this. Then in consultation with the main financial and industrial sectors, but in accordance with strict criteria, it would spread this credit across the range of various types of banks and industrial sectors.

Speculative transactions like today's lending to hedge funds was firmly suppressed. Consumer loans on any significant scale which would trigger inflationary demand for consumer goods and draw in increased imports were discouraged and hard to get. Priority was given to productive investment - plant and equipment, key services, and enhanced productivity via new technologies and R&D.

By contrast, rejection of the eurozone and keeping the City untouched and unregulated is a tunnel vision leading to economic unviability and ultimately self-destruction. Only a sustained revitalisation of UK manufacturing, the real lifeblood of the economy, together with fundamental banking reform, can now save Britain.

Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

“If not evolution then revolution”: temperature rises in Catalonia as independence vote looms

Clashes between Barcelona and Madrid over the disputed referendum lead to protests and arrests.

Summer may finish today according to astronomers, but the heat in Barcelona has been steadily rising over the past few weeks. Things reached boiling point yesterday when the Spanish police arrested 14 Catalan officials responsible for organising a referendum on independence for the region. They also seized about 9.8 million ballots intended for this vote, which the Catalan government wants to hold on 1 October.

The Spanish central government, the conservative People’s Party (PP), is completely opposed to the referendum and has so far refused even to discuss it with the Catalan administration. This prompted the pro-independence Catalan parties in power to start planning it unilaterally.

On 6 September, the Catalan parliament passed the Self-Determination Referendum Act, which established how the vote will be organised and held. The question would be: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state with the form of a republic?” And since the electoral register can only be accessed by the Spanish authorities, whoever is allowed to vote in the Catalan regional elections can have their say.

Legal experts are divided over whether this kind of independence referendum is allowed by the Spanish constitution, which was approved in 1978. This was just three years after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and one year after the first democratic elections since the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

According to the constitution, sovereignty resides with the Spanish people. Opponents of Catalan independence claim it is therefore up to the whole of Spain to decide such a matter – and that in any case, it would have to be approved by the Spanish government.

But those in favour of the Catalan process argue that, given the complete lack of political will in Madrid regarding the referendum, the unilateral way is legitimate even if it may be declared illegal according to Spanish law.

As expected, two weeks ago the constitutional court suspended the Catalan Self-Determination Referendum Act, and yesterday’s police operation followed. Shortly after the raid began, during a government control session in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, prime minister Mariano Rajoy said “the rule of law has worked and it’ll continue doing so”. He insisted that the government was just “doing its duty”.

In this charged atmosphere, while Rajoy was still speaking, the MPs of the Catalan parties supporting the referendum walked out of the room, while those of the ruling PP chanted: “Leave here your salaries!”

Later in Barcelona, the Catalan regional prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, said Spain had “de facto suspended self-government in Catalonia and de facto applied the state of emergency”. Surrounding him during his speech, several other high officials looked funereal.

Applying further heat to the situation, the head of the Spanish tax agency signed an order on Tuesday that gave control of the Catalan public finances to the Spanish state. From then on, and at least until the end of the year, the Catalan administration isn’t allowed to allocate any money that hasn’t been sanctioned by Madrid.

However, the Spanish central government could still go even further and, using Article 155 of the constitution, suspend self-government in Catalonia – not de facto but officially. This extreme measure, never used in modern Spain, would in theory make possible what Catalans often joke about: tanks from the Spanish army would drive down the avenues of Barcelona.

Catalonia is the richest Spanish region, last year contributing 19 per cent of the country's GDP, while its population represents about 18 per cent of the total. It has long considered itself historically and culturally different from the rest of Spain, and yet just a decade ago an independence referendum would have been inconceivable.

In 2006, just 15 per cent of Catalans wanted “an independent state”. But that year the ruling PP referred the Catalan statute to the constitutional court, which declared part of it illegal. Then, after the PP won the general elections in 2011, the Spanish government started refusing to engage with Catalonia on the issue. 

Support for Catalonia becoming an independent state remains at around 41 per cent in favour and just under 50 per cent against. However, when Catalans were asked if they would vote in a referendum not sanctioned by Madrid, 67.5 per cent said yes, and of those, 62.4 per cent would vote “Yes”.

As of today ballot boxes are still being kept in a secret location, and Puigdemont and other Catalan officials insist the referendum will be held one way or another. In the past, the Catalan PM has said that if “Yes” wins, Catalonia will declare its independence within 48 hours.

For now the atmosphere is tense. On Tuesday, thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest against the police operation, in front of several offices of the regional government that were being searched.

The biggest demonstration was next to the Catalan finance ministry, which was being searched by the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police. Many protesters were carrying the estelada, the unofficial flag of the independence movement – some worn it as a cape, others waved it in the air.

“We are protesting against this unjust situation”, said 47-year-old sales rep Ferran Batalla. “[The referendum] is not an aggression, it’s an option to have justice, an option to ask the people what they think."

The protesters chanted in Catalan, “We will vote!”, and in Spanish, “We want to vote!” Some were distributing flyers that read in Catalan, “We vote to be free”, and graffiti on a telephone booth said in Catalan, “Voting is not a crime.”

In English a giant banner on top of the building that hosts the Catalan finance ministry read: “Welcome to the Catalan Republic”. At one point, police coming out of the building were met with deafening whistles before the crowd started chanting in Catalan: “Out with the occupying forces!”

“I don’t want to fight anybody in Spain, but we’ve reached a point in which we can’t understand each other any more”, said Batalla, who complained about the fact that the central government has always sternly refused to talk about planning a referendum. “When the state doesn’t want to negotiate, and doesn’t want you to leave, and doesn’t want to hear from you, and mistreats you… They think we are stupid, and we are fed up and this is over, because they are making us feel as if we are the bad ones."

In nearby Plaça de Catalunya just a month ago, barely a flag could be seen among the huge vigil following the terror attack on Barcelona. And if that proved to be a show of social and political unity between Madrid and Barcelona, today the Spanish government on the one side, and the Catalan authorities and many of their people on the other, couldn’t be more polarised.

Many Catalans mention the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and the agreement with Westminster that preceded it, as an example of how things could and should happen. But the two situations are actually very different.

Catalonia makes up a far larger chunk of Spain's population and economic output than Scotland does of the UK. Meanwhile, Spain has a constitution that the government considers untouchable, while there is nothing similar in the British legal framework.

Late Tuesday, Rajoy made an official statement urging the Catalan government to get back to  law and to democracy, and stop at last this “escalation of extremism”.

"This referendum can’t be held, it has never been legal nor legitimate,” he said, before adding: “And every illegal act and every infringement will get its response, which will be determined, proportional and rigorous”.

The PM’s intervention was followed by a huge cacerolada in Barcelona and many other Catalan cities – meaning people started banging pans in their windows in protest. In the streets, demonstrations went on through the night as people tried to prevent the Guardia Civil from leaving the Catalan finance ministry. The protest was mostly peaceful, but police cars parked outside were destroyed while people chanted a rhyme in Spanish: “¡Esta noche os vais sin coche!”, or “Tonight you will leave without a car!”

Finally, at around 4am the first Guardia Civil agents started leaving the building. There were moments of tension between the protesters and the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police, who opened the way for the Guardia Civil.

Wednesday began calmer, as both sides considered their next steps. The Spanish government remains focused on preventing the vote from happening, but has said it will be open to dialogue afterwards. “On 2 (October) we will talk and this new dynamic will take us to look for solutions because the coexistence of all Spaniards must continue in Spain... We’ll have to sit together and talk, and that we will do”, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, the spokesperson for the government, told Spanish Radio. 

By the afternoon, there hadn’t been word of response from the Catalan authorities, but having invested so much in the referendum and seeing the atmosphere in the streets, it’s not clear how they could backtrack.

In a bar in the Eixample area of Barcelona, right outside the city centre, people discuss the situation over their mid-morning coffee. “What happened yesterday was shocking, independently of whether one supports independence or not,” says 37-year-old Italian IT consultant Paolo Mosca, who has lived Barcelona since 2013.

“I understand that within the Spanish legal frame the referendum isn’t legal, I know this, but within the Catalan legal frame it is legal because it was approved in the Catalan parliament”, says Sergi Pedraza, a developer and who was born in Catalonia as the son of Andalusian parents.

“The only possible solution, because the situation has become unsustainable, is a referendum, but one well planned and agreed with the state”, says Álex Castaño, 28, also a developer, originally from Seville and who has lived in Barcelona since 2015.

All three would be eligible to vote and Sergi says he’d vote “Yes” while Álex says he wouldn’t vote. Paolo says he’d vote “Yes” because he understands and supports the will of those who want independence. But he and Álex say they’d probably leave if Catalonia becomes independent, because of the uncertainty of what may happen to today’s cosmopolitan Barcelona.

By noon the street demonstrations had resumed, this time in front of the Catalan High Court, where hundreds of people, many of them again carrying and wearing esteladas, were protesting against yesterday’s arrests. Loud Catalan music could be heard.

“The government in Madrid is insulting the intelligence of the Catalan people,” says retired businessman Enric T Coromina, who adds that he studied law and is “politically from the right”. He is wearing a barretina, a Catalan traditional red wool hat, and a T-shirt saying in English: “Make no mistake, I’m Catalan, not Spanish”. He’s sitting on a folding chair; has brought food, water and a blanket, and says he’s ready to spend the night here. He’s sure the vote will happen – he will back “Yes”– and will be legitimate even if not legal under Spanish law.

"If evolution is not possible from within the system, then there’s only one other way left and that’s revolution, civil disobedience,” he concludes, as more and more people join the protest.