Progressive Protectionism – seeing off Brexit and right-wing solutions

Transcript of a talk by Colin Hines at PCF’s “Values for the Future” seminar held in Birmingham on Earth Day, 22 April 2017.

Susan Miles: Our third speaker is Colin Hines. I’m sure many people will know Colin or know of him. He’s been in the environmental movement for decades, campaigning on population, food, new technology and unemployment, nuclear proliferation and on the adverse environmental and social effects of international trade. He was the coordinator of Greenpeace International’s economics unit, having worked for the organisation for ten years.

This broad background resulted in his position that the only way to solve these problems was by replacing globalisation’s open borders with ‘progressive protectionism’. He’s been ahead of the game in three areas central to this approach. He has published reports and books calling for green protectionism since 1990, and he was one of the few on the left and active in green politics who foresaw the need and political centrality of curbing inadequately controlled permanent migration. Finally, he coined the term ‘Green New Deal’ and convenes the group of the same name which has campaigned for green quantitative easing to help provide the enormous funding necessary for a nationwide green infrastructure programme. This would result in increased environmental protection and provide jobs in every community.

I could add that many years ago when I was doing a lot of policy work in the Green Party whenever we wanted some sound policies on economics, I think we drew very heavily on Colin’s advice.

Colin: That’s why you are in so much trouble!

Susan: It’s because they ignored it!

Colin: Exactly, exactly so.

Susan: And anyone who’s a Guardian reader will see that he’s one of the few people who manages to get controversial letters published in the Guardian, by which I mean letters disagreeing with the Guardian‘s views on things. They obviously know you’re not a dangerous fascist or something. Anyway, Colin is going to talk about Progressive Protectionism.

Colin: Thanks very much for the kind words and thanks Woody for inviting me and thanks Barbara for putting me up and showing me Bournville yesterday which was so enjoyable As you get from what Susan was saying I’ve been a sort of eco-bandwagon-jumper with a limited attention span. I mean I do a few years on population and then – I set up a pressure group called Population Stabilisation in the 1970s, campaigning for ‘stop at two’ and Free Family Planning. I took part: I was a pregnant man at pregnant man demonstrations. If we got pregnant you’d have family planning on every corner. I dressed up as a rabbit outside Downing Street – I have no pride!

Eventually the birth rate began to go down, and in those days there were more people leaving Britain than coming in, so migration wasn’t even an issue. And so I moved on to food issues, both nationally with Friends of the Earth, setting up food co-ops, but then got very interested in the international food system, so I wrote a book called Agribusiness in Africa, so I very much agree with what you were saying this morning about that the grip of multinational companies on agriculture. And I did some work on automation and unemployment, another book I did because I could see that the whole automation debate was likely to come up big. But throughout doing all those things – and I worked a lot on anti-nuclear power and anti-nuclear weapons proliferation and that’s how I started working with Greenpeace.

But all of the time, through all of those years – decades – it became increasingly evident to me that it was open markets and the lack of ability of the nation state to control its own destiny and how much power ever-decreasing controls nationally gave the big business, multinational companies, big finance etc, and as you were talking earlier today the deification of international competitiveness. I always say Moses – this comes as quite a shock to most economists – Moses did not come down from the Mount saying ‘the eleventh commandment shall be thou shalt be internationally competitive. Thou shalt depend on export-led growth.’ You know, it’s nonsense. But it’s been very cleverly, particularly with its most pernicious pusher Margaret Thatcher, who left the most ghastly four-letter legacy that I can think of: TINA, there is no alternative. They’ve barrelled this through for decades and our side, with the notable exception of the Greens, swallowed it. There was no alternative, finis, and you’ve got to try and make it kinder and gentler.

And so the whole thing began to get very, very difficult, and for me – I think I wrote the first pro-protectionist tract since the 30s in 1990, called Green Protectionism: halting the four horsemen of the free trade apocalypse. Snappy little title, shot off the bookshelves – not. But everyone was ‘What?! Protectionism?’ The economists were holding out a cross, waving garlic: ‘You can’t talk about protectionism. Look what happened in the thirties, the end of the world. No, no, no, we’ve looked at it but you’ve got to have a kinder, gentler, greener open borders because there’s no alternative. Mrs Thatcher told us that.’ And so then a hapless friend of mine, Tim Lang, who’s a professor of food policy, he and I wrote a book called The New Protectionism, which went into much more detail of the arguments but also some of the policies. But then people said ‘don’t use “protectionism”’. So I then wrote a book called Localisation, which went into even more policy details. But all this time people said to me ‘well, where’s this happening? Cuba, but otherwise you know this is you going against the trend of the world, this is madness.’

Cut to today and this is my major point I want to make. We are now in a completely different world, where for the first time people in democratic rich countries were offered a voting opportunity to reject losing jobs to relocation, and who voted to reject large-scale permanent migration. They had for the first time an opportunity to do that, first with Brexit, mostly the migration question. But also later those on our side who suddenly woke up “My God, people voted for Brexit, oh yes the left behind, oh yes there’s all these poor folk, who haven’t got any job, got a life of insecurity. Maybe we should do something about them next time.”

And then you’ve got Trump. He understood, and Bannon the guy behind him absolutely, that people were really hacked off about economic insecurity and hacked off about the fact that they were losing jobs abroad. So up comes ‘America First’. Also there was a lot of unease about the number of Latin Americans coming into into America: in the millions, or there had been. And therefore ‘Build that wall, build that wall’. Now our side said: ‘The man’s buffoon. I mean you’ve got to be kidding me. He doesn’t know anything. He’s ignorant, surrounded by climate deniers, for God’s sake. He’ll never get anywhere. Hillary Clinton knows this stuff. There’s this strange Sanders chap seems to speak sense. But anyway it will be all right.’

And of course it wasn’t all right, because the Democrats made the same mistake that Labour and many liberals made during the Brexit debate: they were cosmopolitan and condescending and dismissive of the concerns of the majority about the scale of migration, and the majority were hacked off with it. They did not want Gordon Brown calling a lady who raised a perfectly sensible concern of the large number of people coming in this country as ‘that bigoted woman’. As soon as that came out I knew Labour had lost. There was no way you could say to working-class people that your concerns are because you’re a bigoted racist. But that’s what the cosmopolitan elite told everybody.

So then you have also the situation of the glories of the open market eventually leading to the crash of 2008. Now I was working with some people: there’s a friend of mine Richard Murphy who does a lot of work on tax and Larry Elliot in the Guardian and Ann Pettifor, Caroline Lucas. These people and I’d been talking about, we could see, there was a big crash coming. And so I’d be doing a lot of work on what Roosevelt did with the New Deal and so it seemed obvious that the answer in the climate era was a green new deal, and so we set this group up and produced reports and so on. And when the economy collapsed in 2008 there was what I call the ‘Keynesian year in the sun’. Gordon Brown, despite being stupid and wrong calling him that lady a bigoted woman, did blow the dust off his Keynesian economics memories and did save the world economically. I’m absolutely convinced of that. In the short term, massive money in, you keep the whole thing going.

And the United Nations Environment Program brought out a report called the Green New Deal. Even Gordon Brown talked about the Green New Deal. ‘We can see this is work, plus it’s a good thing to do’ was the thought, but then slowly the cliff edge receded a bit because we’ve had this Keynesianism and then people start thinking ‘oh it’s not so bad’. And then the powers that be started to whisper ‘TINA! TINA! We’ve got to get back to the good old days: open borders, export-led growth. This is the only way to claw our way out of the mess. Yes, the bankers were a little bit silly and they’ve been slapped, and now everything’s going to be OK.’

And so we’re now where we are, except that politically things have changed a lot because the ever-astute mentally agile right wing understands exactly how to play on people’s insecurity. They pretend to address people’s concerns as a smokescreen to get elected and then bring in their policies of lower taxes, deregulation and the agenda of big business, which is what Trump’s done brilliantly. He got in by saying he was going to help people to get jobs and he was gonna build that wall. He’s in. Of course he’s given all his mates massive tax breaks, he’s a climate denier as we know, got the Exxon people running the Environment Protection Agency. Very grim.

So my plea really is for what I call ‘our side’, what might be called environmentalists and socialists and I would answer that small-c conservatives as well, so don’t see this as just left and right. We’ve got to broaden out. Just start to think ‘hang on a second’. Did Moses bring down this eleventh commandment? Do we have to be internationally competitive [with] export-led growth and accept that, because historically there’s always been migration, that it must continue. No, I don’t, because I personally think that that is not going to enable us to see a kind of environmentally and socially valid future.

Which is why I wrote Progressive Protectionism. Now this exercise in incredible vanity publishing is an e-book. If you look up progressive protectionism on the web you can, for the princely sum of two cups of coffee, six quid, you can download it on Amazon, or if you’re like I am, lazy and poor, you can read the summary on the website.

But what the essence of progressive protectionism is is to say that – I should get a T-shirt with this on it – ‘the state is great’. A very important thing to understand: the right wing has managed to infuse in people’s minds on the back of TINA and that sort of thing :‘Oh! The nanny state! Oh, we don’t want that. That’s not efficient.’ And people have swallowed it. You still hear Labour people talking about ‘Oh no! We’re not the nanny state. We’re entrepreneurial, competitive, export-led growth-inducing state.’ And so the thing that’s important to understand is that groups of nation states together – and this is why I’ve worked with Caroline Lucas for years when she was an MEP because we always felt Europe was crucial in this – they’re a big enough bloc to take on transnationals and private finance.

And so the policy should be a rejection of international competitiveness and export-led growth and the reintroduction of border controls: border controls on the flow of goods, border control on the flow of services, border control on the flow of capital. Now, most people on the left and greens go ‘Right on! Yes! Goods, yes. Capital, even more yes. Services, yes, I don’t like the gig economy’. Fourthly, people. ‘Oh! What did you say? You said control the flow of people? No! We’re not going to have this person writing articles in this paper and that paper, never.’ Except the Guardian, and occasionally the Financial Times who let me grumble and rant in to their letters page. Because you cannot have heresy in the Guardian or the Times or the Telegraph. They have their set lines, and it’s very difficult to barrel through. Except of course if you are Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen. They know exactly how to barrel through because they address people’s worries. We condescendingly dismiss so many people’s worries, and the majority of people therefore aren’t interested in us because we’re not saying anything that’s going to relate to them.

Hence my feeling that the progressive protectionism concept of enabling nation states to reintroduce controls on goods, services, people and capital – in order to protect, nurture and rebuild the local economy, the sort of thing we were hearing about this morning – is going to increasingly gain traction and indeed has gained traction. It’s why Trump was elected. It’s why Le Pen is doing well. That’s exactly what they talk about. They talk about controlling the flow of people and they talk about controlling the flow of goods and money in order to protect domestic jobs.

What does our side say? The Greens – I’m ashamed of the Greens, because they have an ‘open borders for people’ policy. It’s unbelievably un-environmental. I mean it’s shameful, and I would say to green friends: look, take a couple of statistics. If we carry on with the numbers of people coming into this country that we are at present, in the next (15) fifteen years, there will be nearly eight million more people in this country. Now Greater London is only just over eight million. So we are talking about in fifteen years having to build houses for, schools, hospitals, eight million more as well as trying to deal with the inadequacies of the conditions for the people we’ve got here. Now, what does our side say when you talk about it? ‘It’s nothing to do with migration. It’s austerity. It’s austerity that’s the problem.’ Now, that’s an insult to people’s intelligence. They know austerity’s a problem. They know it’s one of the causes why they don’t have adequate social [care]. But ‘you are telling me that eight million more people in fifteen years is not going to make it worse – don’t insult me’. Nigel Farage doesn’t insult them. Trump didn’t insult them. Le Pen didn’t insult them. We have to understand how behind the ball we are on this thing Both talking about the need to protect local economies and reintroduce barriers. Virtually nobody on the left talks about that. They’re still banging on about international competitiveness.

The whole debate about Brexit now is ‘My God, how can we keep in the single market?’ Even the Greens do it. ‘The single market is the God we have to clutch onto.’ I mean it’s amazing. The single market to me in terms of environment is a catastrophe… There was a wonderful little thing about a two thousand mile Mini engine block. This engine block is cast in France; it is then sent off to Britain where it is drilled; it is then sent to Germany where the rest of the engine is put in; the rest of the engine is then taken back to Britain where it’s made into a car; and if they sell it to Europe it goes back again. Two thousand mile journey of an engine block. Environment? Come on! No, what we have to say is we have to transition – and of course he can’t change everything overnight – we have to transition from the single market to the protected market.

And in the book I’ve written a chapter called ‘changing the Treaty of Rome to the Treaty of Home’. Because the Treaty of Rome has been turned into, particularly in the 80s and 90s, a neoliberal programme of open borders, and it’s got to stop. Now interestingly, and I don’t think this will happen, on Monday morning you could wake up with the third biggest economy in Europe having a competition between the left-wing protectionist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and a right-wing protectionist, Marine Le Pen. Hey, that’s interesting. I think what you’ll have is a Blair lookalike, Macron, who will probably – because everyone will go ‘No, not Le Pen! Vote for this man.’ and then he will wreck the French economy because he’s another neoliberal banker. Then Le Pen will be back hard and fast, really in power in five years time. Because the only opponents are either a Blairite, or a very nasty ‘shrink the state’ low-tax extreme right-winger called Fillon, or Mélenchon, who’s basically a left-wing protectionist who says ‘protect our jobs, put up barriers, change the whole way the EU’s organised’ – I like that man. Now these are huge tectonic shifts. Very interesting: last Sunday I was listening to BBC news and they were saying: “Oh! There’s someone called Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who we haven’t actually covered in our news at all because, you know, he’s a left-winger. But he seems to be tied third! He’s a protectionist! Christ, he wants to tax the rich! The bond market is furious!” So you know he’s on to something. But of course the status quo will be coming in hard to crush this. You do not want people elected, whether they’re left-wing or right-wing, who want to protect their inhabitants against the neoliberal system that benefits the rich and the powerful and the big companies and the big banks. You do not want that. The national media doesn’t want that.

So we’re in a very interesting time. Now personally I’m always rather chirpily, drearily chirpily, optimistic, but I have found, I must confess, Brexit and Trump a tad distressing, putting it mildly. But always being a campaigner I think ‘OK, this is what’s happening, what you learn from it and how you try to get our side to utilise it well?’ Because the serious thing about progressive protectionism and the protection and rebuilding of local economies is how incredibly environmental it is. You were discussing earlier the whole concept of ‘no growth’. I mean I’ve had rows with environmentalists for decades about this. Do not say ‘no growth’. Do not say ‘degrowth’. Do not talk about that. Talk, as I think you did, about ‘economic activity’, economic activity which reduces the throughput of raw materials, which encourages recycling and reuse, which decarbonises. Suddenly people think ‘Hey, I might have a job here. Hey! This might be somewhere to put my pension money in. I like the sound of that’.

That’s what the Green New Deal was about. We’ve proposed a fifty billion a year programme. I remember when we brought it out, a Guardian journalist said ‘£50bn a year? You’re crazy. That money is never going to be available.’ Come the crash and quantitative easing, people say there is no magic money tree. Oh yes, there is. It’s called the Bank of England. They have printed 435 billion pounds, which has gone into asset inflation in the stock market and property. Now Caroline wrote a letter to Mark Carney saying ‘why don’t you invest in jobs locally, in energy efficiency, in new build that’s energy efficient, in renewables, in dealing with floods, in local transportation systems? Plus your QE is crap – it’s an asset inflator.’ So he wrote back: ‘My QE is not crap. Economists know.’ But then most interestingly he said: ‘should the government want it, we could spend the QE in different assets.’ Now we tried to hustle that in the media and get that out far and wide, because we were then talking about green quantitative easing. Remember they have printed seven thousand pounds for every man, woman and child in Britain, and peed it away in the stock market and property. This has not done anything to protect the environment to really galvanize local economies, but it could do.

And so now here we are back to an election, my worst nightmare. I was praying that Theresa May would be so busy with the nightmare that will be Brexit that she would keep her word and not have a snap election. How naive of me: the Tories after all are the ultimate historical winning machine, and they smell the grovelling weakness of Corbyn, they know the economy is never going to be better than it is now and they know Brexit’s going to be a nightmare. So they’re coming in hard now: you know, vote Brexit, Brexit is inevitable, Brexit means Brexit. My attitude is, let’s imagine for a second, I know this will fill you with horror, Le Pen wins. What’s Le Pen going to do? She’s immediately going to say the EU must put up barriers to uncontrolled migration. And people here are going to say ‘well that’s why I voted to leave Europe, because they don’t do that. But if Europe did to that, maybe I mean why leave? They’re actually beginning to do what was the reason we decided we’d leave them or one of the reasons.’

And this whole business about controlling migration is not just the extreme right. There are leaders all over Europe beginning to realize that it is democratic death not to address their populace’s concern about migration. Because you have to realize, two things have happened that are historically different. As I said right at the beginning, the first thing is that in democratic countries which are now the recipient of most migration from poor countries to rich countries, something like between two-thirds and three-quarters of the population growth in the rich countries is because of migration and the children of migrants. It’s not just old ‘population stop-at-two’ stuff, it is also migration. There’s a very chilling survey of half a million people all over the world, which found that about six hundred and fifty million of them, if they could, would leave their homes and permanently come North. Forty million of those would want to come to Britain. One hundred and thirty eight million want to go to America. This will not carry on. Now this is something our side never even discusses, because it’s so horrible, so against everything – we’re internationalists, we’re democrats. On the immigration thing, not to have border control is anti-democratic. Consistently roughly seventy to seventy-five percent in all the polls show they want that, and I’ve said earlier, as soon as they get a chance to vote for it, they do. It is anti-internationalist. The idea that you will steal the brightest and the best, the doctors and the nurses from all the other countries in the world below, rich and poor – that strikes me not to be internationalist, that strikes me as the reverse of internationalism. And of course environmentally it’s terrible, because most people come from poorer countries migrate to rich countries, their lifestyle goes up, bang the environmental consequences go up, and for this specific overpopulated island we live on, that can’t produce more than around fifty or sixty percent of its food, in a global future where food security is going to be a big issue… Are we happy with eight million more people in fifteen years’ time? Do we have any cognisance of what that will mean socially, environmentally and politically? So that’s one important thing we have to discuss.

The other important thing we have to discuss is the Left has got to become rampant protectionists. Co-operative protectionists, all over the world, in order to protect and rebuild their economies.

And the most important and very final point I’ll make. This is no good whatsoever if it’s a ‘pull up the ladder, bugger everybody else’ – excuse my language – concept. You know: ‘poor people, we don’t care about them’. Because in Europe, for example, we are north of a continent of 1.2 billion people whose population by 2050 is going to double to 2.4 billion people. If things stay as bad as they are in poor countries of course they’re going to continue to come. Therefore, the most radical thing I feel about the growing understanding of governments in the North because of the democratic pressure of their people, the most crucial thing, will be to minimise migration. How do we do that? We have to ensure that conditions do not get worse in the countries where people are coming, predominantly poor countries. Suddenly all the hand-wringing campaigns we’ve all been nobly working on for years – Campaign Against the Arms Trade, stop tax havens, don’t rapaciously increase climate change – all of these things suddenly become sensible because if diplomatic policy, if economic policy, if aid policy, if trade policy was all geared to improving conditions where most people live, then you’d be in a position where most people would not want to leave permanently.

Final sentence is: in progressive protectionism – and I know I’ve talked about the most contentious bit at some length, but it’s because that’s what we’ve got to discuss, otherwise we’re nowhere, but to me what we should be aiming for is no new permanent migration. And when you unpack ‘no new permanent migration’, ‘no new’ means that anyone who is here legally is welcome to be here and stays. So this disgusting pawn business, of people being used as bargaining chips. I’ve got Polish friends of mine who live nearby. I went there and took a bottle of wine the next day to say ‘Look, I haven’t voted for this, I wanted to stay, but I wanted to remain to reform’. I wanted the Treaty of Home. And they were stunned by Brexit; they said they had no idea it would happen. It’s a huge problem for all these people, the insecurity inherent. So ‘no new’ means: you are here, it’s fine.

‘Permanent’ means if you’re a student, fine, you’re unlikely to be permanent. If you’re coming to learn skills and then take them back to your country, fine. If, as shamefully will have to happen for some years because we don’t tax ourselves enough, we still steal doctors and nurses and other vital social staff to prop up our underfunded system: now that has to change, and therefore we still will need some of those people, but again why should we steal them permanently from their own country. So ‘no new permanent migration’ has to be, I think, the way forward.

And the old idea that ‘well, humans have always migrated’: we’ve never had 7.4 billion people in this world. And in the book – if you do look at it – the two chapters I write on immigration and population. I make the point that there’s a lot of complacency about population. A few years ago: ‘oh well, it’s sort of going up to ten billion and then it’ll sort of slope down.’ It’s not. In the last four years, the U.N. has projected that the world’s population will not be ten billion and flattening, it will be eleven billion and carrying on increasing. The fertility rate’s higher than they thought. This is still a huge problem. If you’re an environmentalist you’ve got to be a populationist. If you’re a if you’re a left-winger [or] if you’re a small-c conservative you’ve got to be a populationist. But all of that I think, personally, because I’m a an arrogantly-certain-I’m-right kind of person, for all of those reasons, the Progressive Protectionism policy globally to me seems to be the only way out.

‘Our side’ has got to stop talking about the problems and has got to start providing solutions that the vast majority agree with. The vast majority will agree with the Green New Deal if it generates work, investment opportunities and business. ‘Helps the environment? I like that too.’ But as we all know, the environment only does well when the economy’s doing well. As soon as it begins to go bottom-up then people start thinking about other things: their own security. And that’s why it’s so crucial to provide a sense of security through progressive protectionism which then enables green policies globally to deal with all of the things we heard about this morning. So that’s my rant.

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