Vote Conservative for a Federal Superstate

William Hague’s bold new vision for Britain is to put us in the same position as Mexico

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 7th September 2000

On Tuesday morning William Hague reiterated that yes, he really did drink 14 pints a day in his youth. While millions have reacted to this boast with incredulity, I believe him. In fact, I’m not convinced he ever stopped. For the latest chapter of what the Tory leader calls his “Common Sense Revolution” contains the first official notification of a plan that could only have been hatched in the bottom of a bottle. The Conservatives’ solution to the impositions of what they call “a European federal superstate” is to join an American one.

Senior Tories, backed by the Daily Telegraph, have long been campaigning for British membership of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. At first the plan was to leave the European Union. Now they seem to believe that other European nations will subscribe to their interesting variety of common sense. In their draft manifesto, published on Tuesday, the Conservatives reveal that they want to “extend the free-trade zone across the Atlantic.” The publication is called “Believing in Britain”. It would be better christened “Believing in America”.

Quite what the basis of this belief might be is anyone’s guess. If you want to know what would happen to Britain as a member of NAFTA, you need only look at Mexico. The weakest member of the original pact, Mexico has become a dumping ground for the unsavoury industrial practices Americans want to keep out of their own backyards. Under the agreement, there is nothing the Mexican government can do to stop this: while in theory its signatories are obliged to offer foreign corporations precisely same terms as domestic ones, in practice they must give them far more. NAFTA empowers companies to sue governments for the removal of regulations which might affect their profits. So US corporations have begun suits against environmental protection laws in both Mexico and Canada.

When the agreement was signed in 1993, its US negotiators promised that that it would generate 200,000 new American jobs a year. Four years later, US government departments admitted that they could find only 1500 new jobs, while 204,000 had been lost. Some people suggested that the jobs had moved to Mexico, but between 1993 and 1997 unemployment there rose by two million, while wages fell by 29 per cent and 28,000 small firms disappeared. What had happened was that big companies, most of them from the US, merely expanded their markets at the expense of everyone else.

As new members of NAFTA, we would not be better off than Mexico, but worse, for we would be obliged to accept the outcome of negotiations to which we were not party. The Conservatives might moan about Maastricht, but at least we were there.

The contradictions between this crazy plan and the rest of the Tories’ draft manifesto reveal a political naivity so touching that you almost want to give the poor inebriates your vote. “To protect the competitiveness of our haulage industry”, the Tories would “charge foreign lorries to use our roads.” Under NAFTA, whose stated purpose is to create equal conditions for domestic and foreign corporations, this would be immediately struck out. The Conservatives’ commendable plan to “return discretion to local communities, enabling them to protect their neighbourhood” is a precise description of what NAFTA prevents. Whitehall, the manifesto complains, is “imposing an oppressive uniformity and reducing the opportunity for local initiative.” Just wait till you see what NAFTA can do.

Nor, of course, is there any way in which this plan could be reconciled to the Tories’ commitment to defend our “national sovereignty”. “We are being guided,” the manifesto complains, “by people who believe that Britain cannot survive as an independent nation in a global economy and should instead become a small part of a regional bloc.” The solution? Britain should become a still smaller part of a much bigger bloc.

It could be argued that the Tories are simply responding to an alarming global reality: under pressure from big businesses hoping to become still bigger, trade blocs are expanding and beginning to elide, with the result that national parliaments are being forced to submit to ever more supranational laws. But by insisting that he wants to keep the pound and defend our “independence and integrity”, William Hague creates the impression that he wants to stop all this, rather than encourage it. The Conservatives have long sustained the irreconcilable beliefs that while European integration is bad, global integration is good.

If Hague really sought to defend national sovereignty, there might be something to be said for him. But, for all his subtle xenophobia, in truth he is the enemy of independence. If you want to belong to a federal superstate, vote Conservative.