The road to British serfdom

Reeve and serfs. Wikimedia Commons

A group committed to a crude, self-serving, brutal worldview, derived from the writings of 20th-century neoliberals, controls the cabinet and will likely continue to, says Andrew Levi. Its members are determined to transform Britain radically. They want a Hayek Brexit: a constitutional hijack.

A road paved with bad intentions

What are Charter Cities? And are they being created in the UK?

A rather bad-tempered debate has broken out among bloggers, journalists and researchers. We’ll come back to that.

But, to answer the questions:

▪️ Charter Cities can take many forms. The kind worrying some people is a privatised fiefdom where all services and many or all citizens’ rights and protections are controlled by a private, profit-seeking corporation.

▪️ Perhaps they are coming to the UK, perhaps not. The dystopian prospect has spread alarm – including a view that their creation has, all along, been the primary objective of Brexit – in turn startling some who see only an unhelpful distraction from the real dangers of Brexit and related developments.

Whatever the truth of all that, a powerful faction among the Brexit elite has, for many years, seen leaving the EU not as an end – nor even particularly important – in itself, but as a prerequisite for a radical reshaping of the UK, in parallel with similar processes across a global network of countries and territories. A revolution partially inspired by Friedrich von Hayek’s most emotional, least rooted-in-reality, best-selling work The Road to Serfdom.

None of this would matter much, if the first stage of Brexit – legal departure from the EU, its single market, customs union and institutional structures – had not already happened; if Hayek’s disciples (as they see themselves) had not already taken control of the UK’s cabinet; and if they were not about to consolidate that victory by installing a new prime minister apparently determined, come what may, to implement Brexit 2.0: a Hayek Brexit.

Hayek Brexit

Professor von Hayek would have shuddered to hear the mangled, facile versions of his theories doing the rounds among the Hayek Brexitists:

▪️ The complete dismantlement of the publicly-accountable state and its replacement by the extreme version of the Charter City, but on a country-wide scale; ▪️ The removal of human and societal rights, to be replaced by the mystical, invisible hand of market competition. Amidst a wholesale bonfire of regulations.

He shouldn’t have shuddered too much though. His book, and much of his more serious thought, encouraged it.

Decades of effort by opaquely-funded think tanks, preparing the ground for policy change in the wake of crises, has brought us to the point where, in the UK, the cabinet, its outriders and financial backers are determined to deliver as close to that Hayekian caricature as they can.

In plain sight

Anyone who has experienced the internal deliberations of the Hayek Brexitists during their long march knows all this.

Unsurprisingly, it is often harder to get the evidence on the record. Which is why the recently-leaked recording of Liz Truss privately decrying Britons’ lack of work ethic, while also apparently admitting Brexit was deliberately sold on a false prospectus (that the UK had to leave because EU membership was damaging its prospects), was so striking.

In fact, a large body of evidence is available, written or recorded, in plain sight.

Examples include endless think tank publications. Like the Taxpayers’ Alliance suggesting, in 2010, that it would be a good plan to ‘shut down the North’(they asked ’have you ever been to Hull?’”), and create privately-run Charter Cities, from which benefit claimants would be removed – if they still wanted benefits – to publicly-run cities.

Like Jacob Rees-Mogg, as this article is being drafted, about to say in the Daily Telegraph that now we have Brexit we need ’a re-thinking of the British state [and to consider] whether the state should deliver certain functions at all‘.

Like Dominic Cummings, as head of Vote Leave, making clear in a 2016 interview with The Economist that right at the top of his campaign’s list of Brexit objectives was the removal of the UK’s treaty obligations to respect human rights.

Like Nigel Farage, a few days before Rees-Mogg, also in The Telegraph, declaring ’proper’ Brexit requires the UK’s departure from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Maybe he should be ignored. But he’s only saying what the current attorney general Suella Braverman has already stated. And what Theresa May said before the EU referendum (although she seemed to believe the UK could leave the ECHR while remaining in an EU which requires all member states to adhere to it).

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are only half a step behind the Farages and Bravermans, as their campaign literature, speeches and interviews show.

And they are competing over who can promise the fastest, most complete binning of the thousands of EU-derived UK regulatory statutes. They claim they want high, Great British standards for the environment, workers’ and human rights, and more. The sewage flowing into the rivers and onto the beaches could hardly be more symbolic of a very different story.

But why would one be surprised, when Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Raab are co-authors of the 2012, quasi-libertarian, largely evidence-free Britannia Unchained? Slash the state. Biff the idlers. Be optimistic. All will be well.

The conspiracy theory conspiracy theory

The Hayek Brexit looks well on its way, unless a political counterpunch, or perhaps events beyond the government’s control, prevent it.

Against this background, the government’s rhetoric about and plans for so-called freeports in multiple locations around the UK have led to the increasingly bitter argument mentioned above, over whether the real intention behind them, with Brexit as the essential gateway, is to introduce grim Charter Cities, covering hundreds of square miles and millions of people.

The jump from a few bonded warehouses plus manufacturing and port facilities with special tax status and other privileges, to wholesale shredding of regulations and safeguards, and full-scale privatisation of the public realm across large areas of the country is big. Respected voices have accused anonymous bloggers of peddling conspiracy theories on the subject, and so undermining well-founded opposition to Brexit.

Some have even gone so far as to claim those bloggers are part of a disinformation conspiracy by Brexitists. It’s hard to keep up.

The truth

As with almost anything, it is always possible the bloggers are right. After all, we’ve had a sort of Charter City for centuries: the City of London ’square mile’.

But it’s reasonable to ask what reliable evidence they have found. Among much apparent chaff, they have highlighted – from open sources – some kernels of truth about efforts around the world to create Charter Cities, and the links between those involved and think tankers and others associated with the troubling Brexit we are experiencing.

Whether Charter Cities end up being part of the toolkit of those attempting to execute a Hayek Brexit, only time will tell.

What’s clear, now, is that the UK is in danger of a constitutional hijack, a bleak road to British serfdom. And extreme vigilance is required.