Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The worst of both worlds 5: trashing Britain, and scaremongering about the NHS

Continues an occasional series of posts which highlights some of the worst points put on both sides of the EU membership referendum debate ...

I supported David Cameron in promising the people of Britain a referendum from 2013 onwards because his arguments in a speech that year convinced me that the political establishment could not carry on ignoring the opinions of the British people and the only way to resolve the question of our relationship with Europe was to let the people decide.

I still think that was the right thing to do, but by heaven, I am heartily sick of the nonsense coming from some people on both sides of the argument. And this week it has hit a new low. By now there are quite a few people on my mental list of individuals for whom the best thing they could do for their preferred cause would be to go and lie down in a darkened room between now and the day after the referendum. (And in some cases long after that!)

I noticed a long time ago that there is an inverse relationship between the skill at their job of any member of the acting profession and the probability that if they say something about real-world politics it will make any sense at all. (Michael Caine and Rowan Atkinson being among the very rare exceptions.)

Emma Thompson, a brilliant actress, illustrated the point perfectly with her comments this week about Britain. She argued in an interview reported here that "Of course" she would vote "Remain" in the forthcoming referendum, and that

"We should be taking down borders, not putting them up."

Her piece de resistance was to describe Britain as

"A tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island."

None of the reports I have seen have given the context for this comment and it would not surprise me in the slightest if, were we told that context, her comments might not be quite as unforgivable as they appear without it.

But it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that this insult to Britain was a gift to the pro-Brexit media, and was plastered over the front pages of several newspapers such as The Sun to damn the "Remain" cause. If the comment had been made the week of the referendum I suspect it would have been worth a couple of million votes in the "Leave" box.

One might almost imagine that Emma Thompson is actually a "false flag" secret Brexit supporter who was trying to bring the "remain" camp into disrepute.

As Grant Tucker wrote in today's Times TMS column,

"I'm not sure the remain camp will be changing their name to Misery-laden Britain stronger in sort-of-Europe any time soon."

So that's this week's most egregious piece of idiocy by a proclaimed "Remain" supporter. What about the "Leave" side? Well, the award for the past week's most ridiculous and misleading scaremongering from supporters of Brexit has to go to Leave.EU attacks on TTIP (the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade deal) such as this ...

and particularly the suggestion that TTIP might lead to the privatisation of the NHS such as this

My first problem with this argument is similar to the point that the "Leave" side themselves made over suggestions that Brexit might affect the 2003 Le Touquet agreement which is a bilateral agreement between Britain and France.

If we were not part of the EU Trade negotiations with the USA it would be absolutely essential that we held bilateral negotiations with the USA for a trade treaty, which indeed is what both the rival "leave" campaigns have said a UK which had left the EU should do.

It is immensely probable that we would then have exactly the same arguments about the terms of the hypothetical bilateral Britain/USA trade deal which we would then need to negotiate as we are currently having about the proposed EU and America TTIP deal. To suggest that Brexit would magically resolve all the issues we may have with trade deals with the rest of the world is either duplicitous or catastrophically na├»ve.

More to the point, the suggestion that TTIP has opened the way to involuntary privatisation of the NHS, which originated on the bongo-brained anti-Globalisation anti-trade and anti-capitalist left but has been swallowed whole and regurgitated by Brexiteers despite their being mostly pro-capitalist free-traders, is a falsehood and scaremonger of the worst kind.

As I wrote here during the 2014 European elections, the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) aims to tackle market access issues and technical barriers to transatlantic trade. It has been estimated that the deal could bring an extra £10 billon to the UK annually. That is equivalent to an extra £400 to every UK household. This would both help to restore living standards, badly squeezed during the economic downturn, and make more money available for schools and hospitals.

TTIP has not yet been signed so it has not already "opened the possibility" of anything.

Free trade agreements similar to TTIP have already been negotiated between the EU and South Korea and between the North American countries. Neither the EU-South Korea FTA nor the North American Free Trade Agreement included or resulted in the additional privatisation of publicly funded health services.

The BMA has expressed concerns about the impact which TTIP might have on NHS procurement and whether it could affect the reassignment of medical services which had ALREADY ben outsourced. These concerns were passed on to the EU's negotiators by Conservative MEPs.

Similar concerns were raised in parliament. The issue was discussed during an excellent debate on TTIP in the House of Commons in 2014, which you can read in full on the Hansard website at

During that debate the minister who spoke on behalf of the government - Ken Clarke - responded to those who were asking whether TTIP might lead to additional privatisation of the NHS as follows:

"I can assure the hon. Lady that nothing in the agreement would open up access to the national health service beyond what is already permitted, and what was permitted under the previous Government. Overseas suppliers are already able to offer hospital services and health-related professional services through a commercial presence here. The important thing for anyone who engages in the provision of professional health services and health care companies in this country is that they have to comply with UK standards and regulations in just the same way as British health care providers, and, as I say, those standards will remain under the sovereignty of this country."

The EU has published some details of their negotiating position on TTIP and the details they have published online here relating to how the agreement might affect public services includes the following:

  • Every EU trade deal comes with solid guarantees which fully protect public services. TTIP will too.

  • These guarantees mean EU governments can't be forced to privatise. They remain free to keep public services public – even if they open up other services to foreign competition.

  • Governments can decide, or change, who delivers a public service at any time. This means there's no so called 'ratchet clause' for public services.

  • TTIP won't affect governments' ability to: operate public monopolies or grant exclusive rights to a particular private supplier; decide how to run water distribution services, or publicly-funded education, health or social services; or subsidise these services.

  • These guarantees work. EU trade deals have protected public services for 20 years.

  • There is no realistic possibility that TTIP or any other EU trade agreement will force a British government to privatise a part of the NHS, or any other public service, that it did not wish to privatise.

    Hence the "Leave.EU" graphic above suggesting that a vote to remain in the EU might result in additional  privatisation of the NHS is as bad as Emma Thompson's remarks attacking Britain.

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