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Laurie Penny on a subversive idea: compassion

Britain is being refashioned into a nation which believes that helping the needy is morally and fiscally wrong.

It's a freezing January morning, and "Cuts Kill" has been written in bloody letters across Regent Street. Disabled activists in wheelchairs have lashed themselves together across the road with thick chains and D-locks, blocking the road.

This is not the vision of human need that the Conservative Party had in mind when it began to extend Labour's welfare cuts. There is nothing abject or cringing about these disabled people, although many of them have put their health at grave risk to come here today to protest against the Welfare Reform Bill. Provisions in the bill will make disabled people "lose our homes, lose our jobs and lose our care payments", according to one young woman in a wheelchair who holds up a sign saying: “No more meals on wheels? Eat the Rich!" Tiny Tim this ain't.

The way we talk about welfare is changing. Debate surrounding the bill has focused largely on whether or not it is moral to allow a tiny minority of families to receive £26,000 or more in state benefits - overlooking how housing benefit, which makes up most of this figure, goes straight into the pockets of private landlords.

Last week during a radio phone-in, I spoke to a woman whose voice shook with rage at the idea that immigrant families might be receiving tens of thousands of pounds in payments when her own benefits are due to be cut. It's a callous but effective strategy: turn the anger of the working poor against the non-working poorer, diverting attention from the biggest redistribution of wealth to the very rich in a generation.

At the protest, officers from the Metropolitan Police - who have a less-than-spotless record when it comes to dragging peaceful protesters from their wheelchairs - are looking nervous at the prospect of arresting 15 wheelchair users in full view of the national press.

Lee, 32, who has cerebral palsy and receives Disability Living Allowance, is worried about losing his livelihood. "It could happen to anybody," he says, shifting himself in his chair, which is chained to a line of others across the street. "They don't realise that, by doing this, it means a lot of people will go into decline and a lot might even lose their lives."

Hear no evil

Unfortunately the government does realise but it chooses to ignore the evidence. Official consultations on disability benefits advised that forcing the disabled to hunt for non-existent jobs they can't physically handle in the middle of a recession is no way to "make work pay". "It's about saving money, basically," Lee says.

Lee is wrong on that count. Across Regent Street, UK Uncut activists hold a banner stating "Tax Avoidance £25bn; Welfare Cuts £4.5bn". There are quicker, easier ways to pay down the deficit than throwing the disabled and mentally ill out of their homes and communities, and this government knows that full well. Instead, the reforms are about changing our political culture to one in which basic compassion no longer plays a part.

Britain is being refashioned into a nation which believes that helping the needy is morally and fiscally unaffordable - and no sum of money saved is worth that shame.

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

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lucky Dave

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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.