Brexit and bills of rights

When the 2017 STUC Congress opens in Aviemore on 24 April, it is likely to be in the aftermath of Theresa May’s epistle to the European Council announcing, under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU. It will also come just weeks before the proposed state visit to the UK by US president, Donald Trump. These two events reflect domestic and international political developments and will mark 2016 out as a watershed year and be marbled throughout the Congress.

The debates and decisions of the 400 or so union delegates to the STUC Congress may appear to some of a cynical disposition to be largely irrelevant in the face of turbulent global events unfolding around us. On the contrary, in that they reflect the lived experiences of workers and the considered, evidence-based, policies of their unions, they are an essential contribution to the analysis of the manifest impact of these events and the responses required to them. The debates and decisions of this year’s Congress are as important as they have been at any point in the STUC’s 120 year history.

Amongst the most disturbing characteristics of recent political discourse has been the attempt by some, most notably rightwing Brexiteers and Trump machinists, to disparage considered political debate of the sort that our Congress at its best displays and to demean the value of evidence to justify political decisions, particularly when they do not align with their ideological viewpoint.

During the EU referendum and Trump election campaigns, we witnessed the vilification of the so called ‘liberal elite’ as being out-of-touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary people’ – a charge, of course, made ironically by those whose wealth and power make them very much part of the privileged elite. We saw utter disregard for the truth or for evidence to underpin policy decisions and a desire to make a virtue out of ignorance. 01_stuc_rally_megaphone

It is a perennial tactic of the powerful to limit access to knowledge of those who might use it to challenge their power. Knowledge and education are great liberators. That is why the union and labour movement is so passionate about the pursuit of them. To repress political debate and disparage those seeking educational advancement or dedicating themselves to enhancing our understanding through research and study and presentation of evidence because they threaten to expose the vacuous nature of one’s arguments is contemptable.

It’s not that all academic research is credible or not open to challenge. Much of it is, particularly when based on ideologically loaded assumptions. However, our policy decisions will be decidedly worse if we simply ignore or debase the properly researched and considered evidence with which we are presented.

Similarly, our media has a critical role to play expanding our common body of knowledge as well as in holding politicians to account. In Britain, it is a role it has largely abandoned in recent years. Much of the British media is populated with unfounded opinion passed off as fact, vox pop presented as perceived wisdom and superficial coverage of profoundly important events. While Trump’s deprecation of the media as ‘fake news’ is part of a cynical and intentional strategy to neuter opposition, it is understandable his rantings about the media resonate with many.

This is no way reflects on the professional integrity of often hard pressed journalists, but on the nature of media ownership in the UK. While fault can be found with the BBC for one, we would certainly be a lot worse off without it.

During the EU referendum campaign, it was derelict of the media – broadcasters in particular – not to force ‘leavers’ to define what leaving meant. With only a few notable exceptions, the media simply wasn’t geared up to hold ‘leavers’ to account. Consequently, their absurd, contradictory and dishonest arguments were not exposed. It is now patently clear that either they had no idea what the implications of a ‘leave’ vote were or were more stupid or dishonest than they appeared. If they had been properly scrutinised by the media, the outcome may well have been different.

The implications of Brexit will feature in Congress debates on the economy, union and employment rights, migration and anti-racism. They will undoubtedly reflect the uncertainty that abounds over what might emerge from the negotiations between the UK Government and the EU, including the response to the Scottish Government’s differentiated (and compromise) option of Scotland remaining in the UK and the EU when the UK exits. It’s difficult to envisage negotiations producing anything like a positive outcome and one that does not impose significant detriment on the Scottish economy. STUC

The overwhelming consensus in the long-term is Brexit will be bad for jobs, growth, labour supply, trade, wages, household income (and its distribution), research, innovation and productivity. Nobody should be fooled by the apparently mild reaction so far. Brexit hasn’t happened yet!

In line with a number of other commentators, the Fraser of Allander institute, commenting on the impact of different Brexit scenarios, predicted that ‘the stronger the economic integration with the EU, the smaller the negative impact’. Given the tone and content of the UK Government’s White Paper, strong economic integration does not look like a political objective it wishes to achieve this, principally as a consequence of its obsession with the issue of the free movement of people and the widespread disinformation that it and parts of the media have deliberately promoted.

The economic consequences of leaving the EU are likely to be severe and to have most impact upon working class communities. The consequences for our employment, union, consumer and environmental rights look similarly bleak.

The First Minister’s Standing Council on Europe has proposed three principles to unpin the Scottish Government’s approach to rights and social protections in the negotiations: non-regression – what we have we hold; that we do not fall behind progressive future developments in the EU or under the European Convention on Human Rights; and that Scotland continues to take a progressive approach and seeks to be a leader in the field, working with others to address common challenges.

I’d like to say that I’m encouraged by the Brexit White Paper commitment that workers’ rights will not just be protected but will be enhanced. I’m not. It is a commitment that comes from the same Government that introduced the Trade Union Act and has already pledged to pursue further deregulation if the EU plays hardball in the negotiations. We also know that some Tories would like to see a sunset clause inserted into the Great Repeal Bill, the effect of which would see all EU laws, including those that underpin many workplace rights and other social protections, automatically expire after five years.

It is a commitment that also comes from a Government whose leader, Theresa May, has signaled a desire to have the UK withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the UK’s participation in the ECHR stems from its membership of the Council of Europe and not the EU, outside the EU and the membership requirement to ratify the ECHR, the UK Government will have a free hand to pursue the objective to withdraw and to free itself from the obligations of international conventions, courts and institutions.

Of course, Brexit does not necessarily mean that hard won employment and human rights will be lost. Unions, progressive employers, NGOs, civil society organisations and sensible politicians will do all that they can to ensure that does not happen.

However, if we abandon the EHRC and the authority of the European Court of Human Rights, all our rights and fundamental freedoms will be subject only to the determinations of the UK Parliament and judiciary. Even if we have a UK Bill of Rights, who will protect the citizens of the UK from its own government – one elected on the votes of a minority – and from a class biased judiciary? That is the purpose served by international conventions and institutions which will be weakened as a result of Brexit along with our fundamental human rights.

We will also face a significant challenge in keeping up with new progressive developments as well as the enforcement of the exiting rights that we are assured the Great Repeal Bill will enshrine at least at the point of exit.

For the last forty years we have relied on the heavy lifting on these matters to be done by the EU. It would be naïve to think that a UK Government committed to shrinking the public sector and to deregulation will be willing to invest much of the resources repatriated from the EU into enhancing the civil service or regulatory capacity necessary to enforce the rights we have, let alone keep pace with progressive EU developments.

It would be similarly naïve to think that a trade deal with Trump’s US would be based on anything other than lower standards of consumer, environmental or employment protection than we currently enjoy. Trump might claim to have opposed TTIP. His objective for a UK trade deal will be TTIP turbo charged.

Does all of this make a second referendum on Scottish independence more likely? While this is not part of the formal Congress Agenda, it is inescapable background noise. The Scottish Government is right to attempt to ensure that the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland in relation to the EU are respected. Its differentiated option is a compromise which would see Scotland, in effect, abandon the cause of independence in favour of remaining in the EU. It’s an approach not without economic, political, legal and diplomatic complications and would require substantial new powers, including over employment and union rights, to be devolved to Scotland.

If the UK Government is resistant to this option, another independence referendum is inevitable. And, if there is a majority in the Scottish Parliament in favour of such a vote, it should not be blocked by Westminster. It’s likely to be an eventful year ahead. I expect the 2018 Congress to be equally interesting too!

Grahame Smith is general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC)