By Steven Hill, Guardian, August 13, 2011
Few countries need a reality check as much as Britain. From leading Europe into the disaster of the Iraq war to killing off financial reform, the UK has been more destructive than Greece
Few countries need a reality check as much as Britain. Leading British political figures are still rattling their sabres and demanding that the UK withdraw from the EU. And a recent poll showed that 50% of the British public want out as well. But, looking at Britannia’s performance in recent years, a case can be made that the EU shouldn’t wait for Britain to leave: it should kick Britain out instead. The UK has been more destructive to Europe than has Greece. Let’s look at the record.
No country did more to lead Europe into the disaster of the Iraq war than the UK, led by Tony Blair. The loss of life and military reputation were not the only casualties: there were also the loss of government integrity and the shattering of European unity. And it drained the public coffers besides, leading to more debt and the Cameron government’s austerity measures. Way to go, UK.
Right behind the United States, the UK’s banks and collapsed housing market led the world to the brink of global Armageddon. Along with their American counterparts, British hedge funds and banks such as Barclays, HSBC and RBS unleashed financial cluster bombs known as derivatives, credit default swaps and other exotic investment vehicles that blew up in the world’s face. The UK bears major responsibility for turning banks away from their social mission and into gambling casinos. Touché, UK!
Killer of financial reform
Not content with contributing to economic disaster once, the UK has been one of the worst foot-draggers when it comes to reforming the financial sector to ensure that disaster doesn’t strike a second time. This has taken many forms, including trying to limit the powers of the newly launched EU supervising body charged with monitoring the financial industry, and fighting an EU watchdog that would keep an eye on the activities of the chancellory and treasury ministers (it will do this for other European member states as well). Considering how well those UK offices have functioned in recent years, this commonsense proposal should be welcomed by any sane person. But British leaders apparently want no oversight or accountability.
Indeed, recently, treasury minister David Gauke said the UK would not even support plans for the creation of a publicly owned European credit-rating agency to replace the corrupt, private, US-based ones. These are the same rating agencies that gave AAA ratings to mortgage-backed securities that they knew were filled with garbage loans. They gave AAA ratings to Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Enron and other failing companies right until the end, because they are paid by the same entities they are rating. And now the rating agencies keep destabilising certain eurozone countries with downgrade after downgrade, ignoring many solid economic fundamentals. Yet Gauke wants to block Europe from creating an alternative to this corrupt system. Go, Team Cameron!
Economic sick man of Europe
Struggling under the heel of David Cameron’s austerity measures, the British economy remains in a nosedive. It’s growing more slowly than just about every other economy in Europe, including Poland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and France; in fact, its growth rate is the same as Italy’s. Cameron’s policies have not only failed to revive the economy but also resulted in widespread looting and arson by a distressed population of young people, just like in France in 2005. Good show, Britannia!
Return to Charles Dicken’s Britain
Reacting to the stricken economy, the Cameron government wants to turn back the clock on European-style social capitalism. Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron’s strategy director, has mooted the abolition of maternity leave and all consumer rights legislation, which would put Britain at odds with EU norms. He also has suggested that the UK should ignore EU labour rules on the length of the working week and temporary workers. Poor houses for Britain, here we come.
Opposition to the EU speaking rights at the UN
On the one hand, British leaders have rightly criticised the EU for its chronic disunity on foreign policy. Europe is still trying to answer that famous Henry Kissinger question, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” So when the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Lady Ashton, moved to secure speaking rights for the EU at the United Nations, did the British government support this effort? Not at all. Instead, foreign secretary William Hague did everything possible to obstruct the bid. Wrong way, UK!
Since the rise of Reagan-Thatcherism in the 1980s, an Anglo-American economic philosophy has dominated the global economy. This “Washington consensus”, as it was sometimes called, often featured snide, sarcastic lectures to “socialist” France, Germany and Sweden about how to produce economic growth. Yet all of those countries are now doing far better than both the UK and the US. The UK-US economic axis was so blind to its own shortcomings that it led to disastrous results for the global economy and their domestic economies.
So has failing so miserably resulted in a bit of British humility? Apparently not. Instead, well-heeled lobbyists have joined forces with the nationalists to work the parliamentary back rooms to kill or water down any kind of reform that would harm the goose that laid the lead egg. British leaders are willing to risk another economic collapse in order to coddle the favoured financial industry, and at the same time those leaders are further stoking euroscepticism with a sneer.
Certainly the UK has given many positive benefits to the world – the Magna Carta, representative democracy, an Enlightenment sense that the human condition can be improved, and heroic perseverance during two world wars. But that was years ago. What has the UK contributed lately?
No, Britain is becoming the type of partner that Europe can do without – a long-faded empire with a failing track record, and a nation of whiners and complainers besides. Especially as so many EU decisions are made by consensus, having bratty Britain constantly sulking in the corner will only obstruct any forward move.
Enough is enough. Instead of Greece, the EU should evict Britain, saying: “Here’s your rebate – now get out!” Let the UK go it alone with its “special relationship” with the US, and the Brits will see how special they really are to the Americans. Or Britain can be an island unto itself, secure in the knowledge that it is heading for mediocrity – all by itself.
But a better course would be for petulant Britain to drop the attitude, admit its mistakes, humbly roll up its sleeves and re-engage with this European project, which is so crucial to the future of this 21st-century world.