Sunday 2 April 2023

The Class Politics of the Tory Pivot to Asia

Rishi Sunak has decided to play the sensible game. At the beginning of the year, he announced he was going to become Mr Delivery. Putting distance between himself and his calamitous, chaotic predecessors, the high foreheads on retainer have advised more briefcase, less headcase is the passage to voters' hearts. Especially when his opponent is the epitome of administrative politics. On this score, Sunak has had a good few weeks. Northern Ireland has been solved, even if the DUP are running out of toys to throw out of the pram. The ERG threats and a Boris Johnson-led rebellion were brushed aside, and Jeremy Hunt's budget carried forward the do-nothing logic of "Sunakism" while not upsetting too many people. And now there's another feather in the cap: the UK's admission to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Yes, it does seem a bit strange. We've flounced out of one trading bloc - the world's largest - that happened to be on the country's doorstep and traded it in for another about six thousand miles away. But good headlines for Sunak as the government clinches another trade deal. It, apparently, shows the "real economic benefits of our post-Brexit freedoms". Oh good, guess that means we're all quids in as the beleaguered British economy gets a boost. Actually, no. The government's own briefing suggests CPTPP will increase GDP by 0.08%. That's right, by less than a tenth of one per cent. Or the equivalent of the average family's food shop these days. Seems ridiculous? It is. Trying to big it up, Kemi Badenoch suggested this was a down payment on the future. It's about potential: "40% of the world's middle class is going to come from that region". Nice to know, considering how Britain under the Tories is such an exporting powerhouse. And there's the rest as well. The fact we already have free trade agreements with 11 of CPTPP's 13 members, and how it hammers British farmers. Something the Tories are well practised at. What's the point?

We have to think about the core class component in the confluence of forces the Tories draw together: commercial and finance capital. As explained before, the City cannot be disentangled from the Tories - as Number 10's current resident reminds us. But when it came to Tory divisions over Brexit, the guff about sovereignty was partly about statecraft, of granting the Tory class interest untrammelled political power without limit in its home territory to shape British capitalism and manage its labour force as they see fit. And it was also about commercial opportunities and projecting the global influence of the City. Some city slickers, probably a majority, were happy with the status quo, while others thought their (note, not the country's) best interests were served outside the EU so London can consolidate itself as the global clearing house for laundering dirty cash, parking capital, and networking between commercial elites for future opportunities.

This helps us understand the Tory enthusiasm for CPTPP. Badenoch is right. Asia is on the rise while the EU, no matter how much it grows, is in long-term relative decline. The City needs to be where the action is at. Second, CPTPP is set to grow. China has applied to become a member. The UK is nowhere near as successful at trading with China as other West European countries, but as a CPTPP member with application veto rights the Tory government now hav a say over its terms of entry into the bloc. The naive might celebrate this as a chance to remind China about human rights and democracy. It also puts the UK in a strong position when it comes to the strengthening and enforcement of intellectual property rights, which are notoriously disregarded, unofficially of course, in China. This gives the government leverage and puts them in an advantageous position to extract concessions. More Chinese money in the City? Better (preferential) access for British finance? More opportunities for UK services? And also, the City could become even more of a conduit for Western capitals looking to profit from China's rise. Especially American capital.

All told, even if Badenoch's dreams come true we're not looking at more than a few percentage points on GDP. But that's not the point. Projecting the City is what matters, helping secure the UK's role as a global player is what matters, and ensuring the interests the Tories have traditionally articulated and served have long-term profitable futures are what matters. The UK's membership of CPTPP offers the electoral equivalent of a nice photo opportunity, but as with all things Tory it only makes sense in the context of the interplay between class politics and commerce.

Image Credit


Duncan said...

It all plays well with deregulation, as product standards are lower in this agreement - presumtion of proof that products traded causes harm rather than proof it causes no harm (the standards the UK is used to up to now). Hence potential extra barriers for trade with the EU. (A 'win' for the ERG nutters then). Plus the mind boggles that trade in a climate breakdown world should be closer to home, and not involve more flights, more fossil fuels. Oh, and the Tories have just slashed aviation fuel tax for domestic flights 'to increase connectivity within Britain' - utter madness. Thather always said trains were a 'socialist form of transport'.
At least contrary to what the Tories say, leaving CPTPP is far, far simpler than EU - to leave it it requires written notification to the secretariat and other members, and after that it ends six months after that.
Geography does matter.

Dave Levy said...

... when it came to Tory divisions over Brexit, the guff about sovereignty was partly about statecraft, of granting the Tory class interest untrammelled political power without limit in its home territory to shape British capitalism and manage its labour force as they see fit.

So few words, that say so much

Zoltan Jorovic said...

The accelerating move away from rationality towards policy based on fantasy is enshrined in the UK joining the CPTPP. The idea that the UK will have a veto on China joining is hilarious. If China wants in, and the rest want them in, UK aren't going to have any option but to allow them. The boot is entirely on the other foot. So, as a rationale for joining, it seems plausible, but it doesn't stack up. Look at what trade China does with the rest of the world, look how much we do...

Instead , its about the fantasy that Brexit represents. The idea that we were great, but somehow brought low by getting too cosy with those losers on the continent. Ignoring the truth, that we gave up our industrial and manufacturing strength, and swallowed the story that services, principally finance would replace them. This is another step in the long history of those in power screwing the rest. Feudalism, Enclosure, Clearances, taking the 'surplus' people off the land then exploiting them in factories. Industrialisation worked until Unions started to tilt the balance slightly, so get rid of Industry, and of unions. Services where people work as individuals don't provide a fertile ground for collective action. Each step was to defend the interests of those who were in control. But now, the only game in town is based on a virtual product - money. That is heading for oblivion because the supporting structure is built on cheap surplus energy. That is going. SO we find them flailing around in delusional pursuit of something, anything, while the rest us slowly sink into the decaying institutions and failing businesses that supported us.

JN said...

Honestly, simple geography: Europe is very near; Asia and Australia and the Americas are quite far away. Is that too difficult for the government of the UK to understand?

Dipper said...

@ JN - A free trade area and a federal superstate are not the same thing. Is that too difficult for you to understand?

JN said...


Yeah, I think I can understand that, but economically, is Britain ever, under any political circumstances, going to trade with parts of Asia/ Australia/ the Americas the same way it could with the rest of Europe? Because, and let me emphasise this: Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain... are quite close to Britain; Australia, Japan, and the USA are very far away.

Dipper said...


The UK, as we are constantly reminded, got rich through having an empire in places like India and Africa, not next door in Europe. Distance, in that case, did not appear to be an obstacle.

Most of our manufactured goods come from China, or the Far East. Again, distance not a problem.

What the UK brings to the partnership is, amongst other things, top banking and legal systems. This is a good earner for us.

And we do have a trade agreement with the EU already. And part of the UK is actually in the EU still for trade and commercial purposes.