Good friends slip on a banana skin

Iraq is not the only target for US sanctions; so is Britain, at least as far as sheep's milk, candle

The French journalist could barely contain his satisfaction. It was the day after the United States had stopped bombing Iraq, with the able assistance of the RAF, and Britain's little-noticed reward was the announcement in Washington of a list of trade sanctions against the European Union, which will actually bear heaviest on America's most loyal ally. This is in pursuit of a trade war which, if it goes ahead, will be one of the most grotesque if not malign of recent times. If no solution is found, we are just a month away from a war between the US and EU. Over bananas.

This absurd conflict is over the import licences of bananas. Former European colonies (mainly British and French) get slightly preferential treatment over central American producers exporting bananas to the EU. The banana is a crop which the US does not export to Europe - but many of the Latin American bananas, or"dollar bananas", happen to be grown on estancias owned by US companies. The crop plays a minuscule part in annual trade between Europe and America; the quarrel over its export to the EU will cost jobs in British industries whose only connection with the fruit is in the lunchboxes of its employees.

It all makes for a notable test for the World Trade Organisation, set up in 1994, which is supposed to handle disputes like this but which may have expected its first big challenge between two of the world's largest trading blocs to arise from something rather more significant, particularly in a time of international economic crisis. Our government's much vaunted closeness to Bill Clinton has availed us absolutely nothing. We will be hit hardest by the American sanctions imposed as a result of the dispute. When it comes down to it, Washington knows on which side its fruit is peeled.

Hence the Frenchman's suave question to the European Commission in Brussels: "Are the sanctions a mark of the special relationship?" he asked smugly. "Or is this Britain's reward for supporting the United States' action in the Gulf?"

The Commission estimates that the list of unilateral sanctions the US government announced on 21 December will cost industries in the European Union about £350 million a year, nearly £85 million of that in the UK alone. The products targeted for the imposition of 100 per cent tariffs are a bizarre mix whose only uniting characteristic is that none of them has the remotest link with bananas, or any other fruit for that matter.

In the ponderously exact prose of the US Trade Department, it includes: "Pecorino cheese, from sheep's milk, in original loaves, not suitable for grating, sweet biscuits, bath preparations, other than bath salts, candles, tapers and the like, handbags, with or without shoulder straps, articles of a kind normally carried in the pocket or handbag with outer surface of reinforced or laminated plastics, uncoated felt paper and paperboard in rolls or sheets, folding cartons, printed cards (except postcards) . . ."

Take that! The rationale in Washington for the list is that it represents the equivalent value in trade of what it estimates US banana companies are losing in Europe. What is really happening, though, is that the American administration is threatening the eclectic mix of goods in pursuit of the right of its own multinational fruit exporters, chiefly the Cincinatti-based company Chiquita, to obtain what would effectively be monopoly rights over the 3.7 million tonnes of bananas consumed in the EU each year.

The EU's banana regime has long been a source of contention. It was devised to give a certain amount of protection to bananas produced in former colonies, not just in the West Indies but also places such as the Ivory Coast and the Canaries. The American view is that this has handicapped access to European markets for the "dollar bananas" - thus threatening the sacred profit-making potential of US companies. This has not stopped those companies cornering 70 per cent of the banana trade with the EU. As Sir Leon Brittan, the EU Trade Commissioner, sniffed: "They don't seem to be doing too badly out of it."

The US itself does not export a single banana to Europe. Politics is behind its stance: the rhetoric from the US has increased markedly since November's Congressional elections. Although the US first started muttering about bananas under George Bush, it is the Clinton administration that has really pursued the matter. When it made a complaint to the WTO, within 24 hours, the Chiquita chairman, Carl H Lindner Jnr, who had previously made donations only to the Republican Party, suddenly started giving away money to the Democrats as well.

Lindner is a religious man and one who apparently likes to give out gold-embossed cards bearing his philosophy: "I like to do my giving while I'm living so I know where it's going." His company is estimated to be worth $14 billion.

If his company and its fellows such as Del Monte get their way, small, independent banana-growers in some of the most impoverished islands of the Caribbean are likely to be pushed out of business. They may then turn to other, more profitable, products with a readier market in the US, such as cocaine. Some believe that Chiquita's complaint followed its ill-advised decision to sell its Caribbean plantations six years ago.

The American multinationals produce their bananas - larger and less sweet than Caribbean ones - on large estates in central and Latin America where their record as employers is distinctly unsavoury.

Peter Scher, the US administration's special trade ambassador, disavows any notion of wanting to harm the Caribbean banana trade. The regrettable necessity was that Europe had to be punished for not opening its markets sufficiently in accordance with a ruling by the WTO in Geneva. "We are showing there is a cost to pay for Europe's failure to comply with its obligations," he said. "This is about a much broader issue than bananas. It is about whether the WTO system will work. If it fails, there will be pressure in this country to act unilaterally."

The WTO panel ruled in September 1997 that the US was justified in its complaint that the EU's fiendishly complicated banana import regulations amounted to unfair discrimination and that the rules must be changed. The Caribbean countries were not allowed to give evidence as they were not a direct party to the issue. The panel, chaired by a former US congressman, contained a Japanese representative but no one from the developing world.

The EU claims it has now changed its rules in ten respects. The US contends that not enough has been done to make access fair. Bananas merely head a rising number of complaints from US producers against the EU and its regulatory approach over issues such as genetically modified crops and meat reared using hormones and antibiotics.

Sir Leon claims the US is defying the spirit of the WTO by imposing unilateral duties. The US claims it is entitled to do so because the EU failed to meet its responsibilities by obeying the WTO ruling against it. The only thing standing in the way of hostilities is a request by Ecuador that the WTO panel should reconvene to decide whether the EU's revised regulations do indeed comply with the ruling.

That will be a big test of the WTO's authority. Should European consumers be free to choose bananas from the Windward Islands? Or should an elderly American billionaire be licensed to extend his empire as a domestic political trade-off? One is tempted to say that it's a banana skin on which the WTO should not be allowed to slip.

Stephen Bates is European affairs editor of the "Guardian"

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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