Slash and Burn Capitalism

Now the government intends to strip away protection from our most treasured places

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s website, 1st December 2011

What sort of a world would George Osborne like to live in? I imagine him fantasising about the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Unprotected workers, assigned their places in a fixed social system, crawl over toxic waste dumps, while the upper castes, though rendered sterile by unregulated pollution, live without fear of democracy, trade unions or the minimum wage.

The Republic of Gideon began to take shape on Tuesday, when the Chancellor launched a full-spectrum assault on both workers and the environment. In his autumn statement, he curtailed public sector pay and, once again, hammered the tax credits and benefits upon which the poorest people depend. At the same time he gave away £250 million in yet another bail-out for big business: in this case the UK’s most polluting industries. Read Damian Carrington’s withering exposure of this exercise in crony capitalism, and you will rage and gnash your teeth.

He also snuffed out the government’s attempts to limit the amount of transport fuel the UK consumes, announced the construction of new roads, airports and power stations and reneged on the promise the energy secretary made just a month ago, that there would be “absolutely no backsliding” on carbon capture and storage at the UK’s power stations. Now the £1bn set aside for CCS will be given (in the Treasury secretary’s words) to “different sorts of projects”. Another corporate tax break perhaps?

But perhaps the worst of Osborne’s environmentally-destructive proposals was his attack on the laws protecting England’s wildlife and places of natural beauty. These were first introduced in 1994 by the previous Conservative government. He claimed that they are “gold plating” European rules and “placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.”

He is wrong on both counts. The Davidson report in 2006 found that the European rules had not been gold plated. The laws defending our Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas impose costs on business only if business wants to trash the few corners of England which have been placed off-limits. That means spots such as Lyme Bay, the New Forest, Epping Forest, the Norfolk Broads and Flamborough Head.

Why should corporations be allowed to do to these treasured places what they can do anywhere else? Osborne might as well complain that the rules forbidding developers to knock down St Paul’s Cathedral and build a new bank there place “ridiculous costs on British business”.

His intentions are spelt out in more detail in the Treasury’s National Infrastructure Plan 2011. To prevent the protection of our natural heritage from imposing “unnecessary costs and delays” on money-making projects, the Treasury will “give industry representation on a group chaired by Ministers so it can raise concerns … at the top of Government”.

This, remember, is a government umbilically connected to big business, which has so thoroughly infiltrated Westminster and Whitehall that government and corporations are almost indistinguishable. Now the Treasury claims that business needs even more access?

Worse still, bodies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency, which are supposed to defend our treasured wild places, will now “have a remit to promote sustainable development.” This is a complete inversion of their purpose – from restraint to promotion.

The Country Land and Business Association, representating the class of rentier capitalists whom Osborne appears to see as his natural constituency, professes itself “delighted” with these proposals. I bet it is. The big landowners it represents have been pressing for slash and burn capitalism for years, while simultaneously insisting that the taxpayer stocks their wine cellars and cleans out their moats through farm subsidies. Now they have a government which gives them everything they ask for.

These people will never be satisfied. No ancient woodland, no Bronze Age burial mound is safe: unless it is protected by the kind of rules Osborne now wants to dismantle.

As for stimulating the economy, it’s hard to see how the UK can win the race to the bottom to which he appears to have committed us. If this country tries to compete by tearing up the rules protecting workers, the unemployed, the environment and our quality of life, it will be worsted by China and 100 other nations with cheaper labour and laxer regulation than ours.

This seems obvious to everyone except ministers and officials. UK Trade and Investment – the government body which promotes this country to foreign investors, boasts that “compensation costs [ie wages] in the UK are less than most of the Western European countries.” It has “one of the lowest main corporate tax rates in the EU, generous tax allowances and … low social welfare contributions.” And “the UK’s labour market is one of the worlds’ most flexible.” Come to Britain, where you can treat your workers like dirt.

In the wake of this autumn statement, perhaps UK Trade and Investment will now seek to entice investors away from Guangdong with the promise that there are tax breaks for the biggest polluters, no planning laws worth their name, and special access to ministers if you want to trash England’s beauty spots.

Even if foreign investors can be persuaded that the rules are slacker in the Republic of Gideon than in the grimmest export-processing zones of the developing world, what does “winning” look like in these circumstances? A bit like winning a nuclear war? “Yes, our nation has been reduced to a charred desert. But we’ve come out on top*. Rejoice, just rejoice!”

(*Customers should be aware that when, in the previous clause, the government states that “we” have come out on top, it is in fact referring to a subset of the population: namely those possessed of sufficient means to have invested in underground bunkers. The government cannot be held liable if the rest of the population experiences alternative results. If you are not fully satisfied with this outcome, please contact your nearest mortuary assistant).

In reality, the autumn statement, like much else that Osborne has delivered, has little to do with stimulating economic growth. It’s about transferring even greater powers and resources from the rest of us to an economic elite, the kind of people Osborne hangs out with on Nat Rothschild’s yacht. They are the only winners of the Chancellor’s pyrrhic victories.