When the COVID-19 era is finally over, a lot of the infrastructure it has made obsolete will have to rebuilt, with very little money. As ever, we will be treated to dreams rather than substance. We will be told to forget about the small print and concentrate on the big picture, i.e. the ones the politicians want us to hear.
We have been here before. After World War Two every developed country experienced the Golden Age of Infrastructure Projects. Owing to their scale, all these new building and transport schemes had to be signed off by national governments, and implemented on a national level rather than locally, from the bottom up.
Consequently national level politicians took an increased interest in “reforming” local government. Local government systems had developed over long periods, and consisted of many different layers, and each with different responsibilities. This meant national level planners had to deal with a range of authorities with different powers, whose legal status or existence now made little sense.
The UK had a system of counties, whose boundaries had barely altered in centuries, and a range of boroughs, districts and oddities. After previous proposals had encountered fierce resistance the 1972 Local Government Act abolished some counties, invented new ones and changed the boundaries of most of the others.
The preamble to that Act clearly stated that these new boundaries were purely administrative- the “traditional” counties and their boundaries had not been touched. But no one had read the small print. All the official maps in the UK are created by the Ordnance Survey, the government mapping agency. By law, it is only allowed to mark administrative boundaries, not others.
So whether the 1972 Act intended it or not, the “old” counties were wiped off the map, and no one knew where they were from any more. This aroused a deep and smouldering anger which has never dissipated. Consequently most of the old counties have been reinstated in different guises, and most of the new ones abolished, even though the mistakes these actions corrected happened nearly fifty years ago.
This pattern of action and reaction is not confined to this issue. Hidden clauses, the “small print” of any contract, annoy anyone who thinks they are getting something different. This has made consumer protection a huge international industry, but time and again we see people thinking they are being defrauded by something that wasn’t explained to them, and getting more angry about this than anything else.
Small print draws blood. When you hear the impending news about Brexit, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Only When It’s Gone
Trade, like radiation, goes on all the time without us noticing it. If your local shop starts sourcing its products from a new supplier, no one would care if it called a press conference and made a big announcement. It’s the way the world works, what’s so special about it?
Yet when trade deals between countries or groups of countries are announced, the podiums come out and the presidents wear their best suits, shake hands for a large gathering of assembled press and make important speeches. Each of these deals is simply a souped-up version of the local shop changing suppliers. So why all the fuss?
There are two main reasons. Firstly, few people ever read a trade deal, and even if do, don’t understand what they have read. Negotiators draw them up, while the politicians who sign them generally only see the bare outlines and executive summaries, and the ministers and civil servants who have to implement them get selected extracts by request, when they are interested.
All the show is to pretend to the world that nations have made agreements, even though the general publics in those nations will never see them, or be able to stomach reading them and working out their precise implications if they do. The politicians are leading us to who-knows-where, but it is our fault if we don’t like it, because we are responsible, not them.
The second reason is that, for those few minutes of the signing and announcement, those countries concerned are calling the tune. It isn’t the fact that they are there, but that other countries are not there, which is important. Those countries have set new rules which exclude others, like the freemasons, and in some small way can claim victory and wallow in the sun.
Why are those countries so proud of this? Because every international trade deal has one vital piece of “small print.” It is a clause which states that if either party does anything to hinder the agreement, they will face punitive penalties which make it not worth bothering to try.
This seems sensible, if you really intend to do what you’ve agreed to do. But the effect is that if you are buying X amount of a certain commodity from your new trade partner, you can’t buy any of that commodity from another country unless you keep buying X amount from the partner you have signed the agreement with. Hence the show: we are bound in eternal friendship because we not only keep each other supplied, but make sure nobody else can do it without our say-so.
This is why Third World countries, many of which have significant resources, allow companies from developed nations to exploit those resources. These countries remain underdeveloped because they don’t get the market prices for those resources and the exploiting countries do. But if they tried to sell them themselves they couldn’t, because the developed countries have the trade deals.
It is more profitable for Third World countries to get a fraction of the market price for their resources, as a third party supplier, than it would be to try and sell them themselves. Unless demand for anything they have greatly exceeds the supply agreed to in existing trade deals, they have no markets for even the most vital goods. Africa has uranium, industrial diamonds and many other things vital to the military-industrial complex of the developed world, but the developed countries have signed supply deals for them amongst themselves, so those resources simply intensify national beggary.
The difference between the developed and developing worlds is precisely this: not GDP, but how many trade deals they have. If you have no trade deals, and no supply of goods which can meet significantly increased demand, all you can do is sell everything off at a fraction of the price and become dependent on the fortunes of the countries, and individual companies, you sold it all to.
There are two terms used to describe such a country. One is “banana republic,” a designation applied to Honduras when its entire economy was dependent on the fortunes of a single American fruit company. The other is “Brexit Britain.” The small print of international trade will make the UK a Third World country overnight, and when people realise it, they will react like the mobs in the corrupt Third World dictatorships they think they are superior to.
Written in the Guts
In 2017 people were told that a UK-EU trade deal would be “the easiest deal in history”. Much was made of the UK now being able to negotiate deals as an independent country, not one part of the EU, which negotiates its deals as a single entity and prevents its members signing them independently.
Anyone who had read the small print would have known that whatever the UK has to offer other countries, it can only trade with them independently if it can offer something over and above that covered by any existing trade deal. Those same people have been asking ever since Brexit was proposed: what is that?
Have you heard an answer? I certainly haven’t. The service industries on which the UK economy is now based owe their very existence, let alone their prosperity, to the fact the UK was part of the EU market. Financial firms, often regarded as the main driver of that economy, are beginning to move out to places which still have that advantage, taking British jobs with them, as their present employees no longer have the freedom to relocate as of right to other EU countries
The UK still hasn’t agreed a trade deal with the EU itself, and is threatening to walk away without one. If that happens, it will have no trade deals with any other country in its own right. It hasn’t signed any new ones, it is back of the queue wherever it goes, and the British public, whatever their views on Brexit, can see that.
There is a longstanding British resistance to being lectured by the US, a hangover from colonial days rather than the product of any real hostility between the two nations. The same people who support Brexit would rather do a deal with the French, traditional enemies, than with the Americans, whose cultural influence seems to spread inexorably over the UK at the expense of anything native.
Now the UK is running to the US desperate for a post-Brexit trade deal. Having seen the way Americans operate, British people are asking: what about the lower food standards? What if they want to buy the National Health Service? What they are really asking is: how have we put ourselves in a position where we have to accept everything the US wants, when everyone knows we object to that on principle?
It’s the small print that did it. The small print no one told you about before you voted. The small print you assume is written by unscrupulous crooks out to manipulate you when you are a victim of it – but which you can only blame on the same deals you lived off for generations, and a world so big you have no one to blame but yourself.
The Smaller the Print, the Bigger the Deal
Like those big trade deal signings, Brexit was all about noise designed to detract from the very concept of substance. No one knew what it meant, but those who backed it never wanted anyone to think there was any small print at all, in case they saw the small print of existing agreements which would have told them what it meant.
The UK parliament wanted more time to examine the Withdrawal Agreement, which set out the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU. Brexiteer MPs prevented that happening, arguing that wanting to read the small print was antidemocratic, and it was forced through parliament.
Now Iain Duncan Smith, one of the chief proponents of that agreement and of not giving MPs more time to read it, is complaining about the small print in that same agreement, saying it means the UK won’t really leave the EU. Now small print matters. He has seen his about turn met with derision, but apparently he cannot see that millions of people are going to react to small print in exactly the same way he did.
If something else was going to turn the UK into a Third World country, the public reaction to it would be different. Many times people have voted for openly proclaimed policies, then decided they were a bad idea and voted out those who promoted them.
But in such circumstances, people generally take a share of the blame, even if they won’t admit it. They didn’t understand their implications, but they know they heard the words. When they are damaged by things they didn’t know about, electors everywhere react with visceral anger. Look at how Germans see the hidden actions of the Nazis they once supported, or how Americans revile the same Warren Harding who died in office, deeply loved, when the corruption of his administration later came to light.
Brits don’t do revolution. But they do public outrage—scream foul, when they finally find out the truth, and then everyone piles in to attack the hate figure of the day to exonerate themselves. Having their lives and their country wrecked by small print no one wanted them to know about is not something they will forgive and forget for generations, perhaps centuries, to come.
It is inevitable that Brexit will eventually become associated in the global collective consciousness with a major nation casting itself into oblivion by not knowing what it was doing. So will British people. Would you want to be known for that?
If you were surprised by Black Lives Matter tearing down monuments, wait till you see what happens to the politicians who once wanted to claim credit for what everyone will come to understand is a morally indefensible con, committed in their name.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.