The country – be it families, neighbours, newspaper editors, cabinet ministers, shadow ministers, or nations – appears ever more divided by Brexit. And for once, there’s a public division between members of the one-percent, with their two different approaches to global capitalism – one based on business, and one on risky, speculative finance.
Leading the charge against the European Union for the latter is the Legatum Institute.
The institute appears to be steering the Conservative-led Brexit talks to a remarkable degree. Former EU negotiator Miriam González Durántez commented this summer that Legatum has “unparalleled access to [David] Davis and Theresa May…and that seems to have been at the origin of some of the preposterous positions on Brexit taken by the government so far.”
The Mail on Sunday reported earlier this month – and again this weekend – that Legatum may be involved in a “plot to hijack Number 10” as it reportedly helped write a private letter from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to Theresa May demanding a hard Brexit.
The paper also claims “the pro-Brexit European Reform Group of Tory MPs...is using the institute’s resources to provide a ‘shadow civil service’ on Brexit”. A spokesperson for the institute commented: “The Legatum is politically neutral, and has never provided funding to the ERG.”
Shanker Singham is the director of Economic Policy and Prosperity Studies for the grandly titled Special Trade Commission of the Legatum Institute. He read chemistry at Balliol College, Oxford and became a trade and competition lawyer before working at Legatum.
Singham reportedly holds regular meetings with Davis and international trade secretary Liam Fox. He was the only think tank representative to attend an event with Davis and 33 business leaders at Chevening House in June this year, according to The Times. There’s more on Singham – and the other key players at Legatum – in this new piece just published by openDemocracy.
But what do Legatum actually believe? What is this message that the Brexiteers are so keen to hear?
Singham is the lead author of The Brexit Inflection Point: The Pathway to Prosperity. The report was launched last week at Legatum’s salubrious offices in Charles Street, Mayfair, in the company of Baron Howell of Guildford, George Osborne’s father-in-law, who served as a minister under Margaret Thatcher and more recently.
The Legatum report makes it clear that the Brexit division centres on regulation, such as the limits placed on finance capital and on the destruction of the natural environment. Speaking to each other, they are clear that this is about profit making.
For example, it states: “Much EU regulation, across sectors, has been damaging to trade and competition and needs to be reviewed by the UK outside the constraints of the EEA. However, this does not mean advocating deregulation – the UK would still look to regulate these policy areas, in most cases with the same overall objectives and goals, but with less distortion, in a more pro-competition, pro-consumer manner, in ways that better suit the UK market.
“The recent trend however shows that the UK is being outvoted more frequently in the European Council and being compelled to accept regulation that the government does not consider to be in Britain’s best interests but is unable to amend or reverse.”
Legatum’s report continues: “The regulatory opportunity therefore requires the UK to be able to adopt a regulatory system based on outcome- and effects- based regulation, not the prescriptive rule-book approach of the EU.
“The former approach to regulation is more in line with common law jurisdictions, allowing economic forces to prevail and for markets to find their customer welfare-increasing equilibrium. A prescriptive rule book approach however is agnostic about economic effects and is more likely to lead to anti-competitive outcomes.” (Emphasis added).
Brexiteers want bespoke solutions…
The paper goes on to examine the “global regulatory agenda”. It states: “The challenge is how other countries look at the UK – and the likelihood that it is sufficiently in control of its regulatory choices to be a proper partner, capable of agreeing and implementing its own measures on technical barriers to trade and services regulation.” (Emphasis added).
The report notes that the EEA Agreement “restricts members’ regulatory reform”. It adds that for post-Brexit Britain, “[I]n areas like industrial policy and agriculture, this must mean a much more open, liberal economic environment than the EU. This is good for Britain, and will make the country a better trading partner for others.” This section concludes: “[I]n services, the EU is moving in a negative direction.”
Singham was even more explicit in his talk, and in answering questions. He argued that Britain - because of Brexit - found itself in a unique space where its regulatory and trade regime was currently identical to the European Union.
However, the government could now strategise a “divergence” that would allow trade with the EU to continue but would allow Britain to remove specific regulations. This would make it more attractive to financial institutions wanting to sell services from the UK.
The prophets of corporate power
He also argued that Brexit could break the European Union’s regulatory regime across the continent. “Talking to those countries, there is great appetite for this because the world of trade has been slowed and because the levels of output have been down since the crisis [of 2007].
“We are in a very bad place. The percentage of trade in GDP is going down. We [globally] are not in a good place and there is an appetite from those countries to negotiate with the UK”. He concluded: “The trade policies are moving forward...this is very much on a razor’s edge and we have to move forward now.”
The conflict is over a single issue: regulation. How much power should the nation state have to regulate and control actors in the marketplace? Should the finance sector be restricted in the invisible products it can sell? Should the car manufacturer be able to build SUVs that pour pollution into city centre streets?
Chaos and confusion ensues because different factions of capital sit on each side of the conflict. Ranged on one side of the debate is the capital represented by the institutions, agencies and bureaucrats of the European Union. The chief executives and shareholders who value stable rules and regulations across an entire continent.
The EU was a Thatcherite project. In other words, it was neoliberal, and reduced regulation and broke down trade barriers as much as practicable. But it was also pragmatic, and with an eye for public relations. The EU may have effectively banned the national ownership even of natural monopolies like the railways, but it also introduced health warnings to cigarette packaging.
High risk, right here, right now
Some among the very wealthy want European governance that is strong and stable. This may be because they include the chief executive who wants its product line to remain saleable, or the property tycoon sitting on a significant portfolio, more interested in staying rich than someone else getting rich. It may be a philanthropist funding environmental campaign groups because her attention has turned from current profits to sustainability, to future survival.
Ranged on the other side the debate is finance, and its closest associates. Finance is interested in immediate returns, high risk, right here, right now. It appears to despise all regulation, especially regulation of finance itself, and resists and sabotages the institutions that regulate.
The Legatum Institute appears to be at the forefront of the financiers' advance. Where does its money come from? Christopher Chandler is an “intensively private billionaire” who “turned a family inheritance of $10m into $5bn”, according to Private Eye. He owns Legatum, a hedge fund based in Dubai. The fund gives millions to the Legatum Foundation, which in turn provides the money to run the Legatum Institute.
Breaking the EU
Finance capital is clear about what Brexit is for. It is to transform Britain into a low regulation state, and in turn break the semi-regulated cartel that is the European Union. This is necessary because capitalism right now is almost flatlining, and is not going to save itself. It needs to be fed, and your pension, and your planet, is its feed.
All this is of great concern to people within the environment movement. Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "Legatum's demands for deregulation after Brexit, and its full-throttled support for letting the market loose, raise questions about who is trying to profit from the Brexit process. People who voted ‘leave’ were urged to do so to 'take back control' - not cede control to a shadowy network of think-tanks and backroom lobbyists."