On 23 March 2023, First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford met in Ynys Môn (Anglesey) with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and others to announce that the area had been granted freeport status. The other freeport status in Wales has been given to Milford Haven and Port Talbot, known as the ‘Celtic freeport’. Also present was Shanker Singham, an England-educated America-linked lawyer little-known in the UK prior to the Brexit era. He now seems ubiquitous as an ‘international trade expert’, appearing on TV, radio, and in journals, newspapers, blogs, conferences, and private meeting rooms all over the world.
Considering how many hits on Google the name Shanker Singham throws up, it’s odd that it was missing from Drakeford and Sunak’s tweets and other announcements from Anglesey on the day. We only know he was there because he tweeted about it himself, which leads you to discover he’s been closely involved in bringing that freeport about. He’s on the team. Given that, and given how much has been made of the ‘prosperity’ and ‘green gains’ the freeport is promised to provide to the people of North Wales, it is instructive to look at Singham’s background. How likely is it that these benefits will be ‘delivered’?
Who is Shanker Singham?
In his own words, Singham is a “fellow of the institute of Economic Affairs … CEO of Competere Ltd, a company which provides trade and competition law and policy advice to governments and companies and is focused on promoting international trade and competition policy throughout the world”. He previously worked as a director at the Legatum Institute and was managing director of the Competitiveness and Enterprise Cities project at ‘entrepreneur education institute’ Babson Global. And so much more. I mean, look at the bio here, it’s exhausting just to read it. Not to mention the time spent being roasted on Twitter.
The bestowing of the nickname ‘the Brexiteers’s brain’ was only natural: he has been Mr Brexit Or Bust throughout the era, deeply involved in driving for the fastest, hardest Brexit possible. He is no less committed to ‘making Brexit work’ now, though it’s unclear how that is to happen. Also unclear, as Buzzfeed News put it, is “how Singham sprang seemingly from nowhere to play an outsize role in the most important policy debate in British politics in decades”.
While at the controversial and Russia-linked organisation Legatum, Singham co-authored a widely-derided report outlining a road map for a hard Brexit that didn’t even grasp how the World Trade Organization works. Its demand for deregulation was said to be “a vision for driving down environmental and other standards in the mistaken belief that this will increase the UK’s competitiveness”. But more than this, he was highly active – along with Conservative Party chair Greg Hands – in “a secret kitchen cabinet charting the course for a hard Brexit, off the books, behind closed doors”. Some might say, a dirty Brexit.
He didn’t deny he was swift to get involved with steering the government direction on Brexit. And after moving from Legatum to opaquely-funded ‘charity’ the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), he was swiftly embroiled in a cash-for-access scandal when IEA head Mark Littlewood was caught on hidden camera saying Singham was “unbelievably well connected” to Brexiteer ministers including Liam Fox, Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson, and could introduce them to a prospective American agribusiness moneybags.
Singham is now on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which examines post-Brexit free trade agreements, advising parliament on alignment with statutory protections for the environment, animal welfare, and plant health. His firm is a partner of, and he is the policy lead for, the Trader Support Service Consortium, a private enterprise helping deliver governmental implementation of post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland, on a three-year contract.
You have to wonder where on earth Singham finds the time and energy to wear so many hats. Surely it puts him in danger of conflicts of interest? But wear them he does, not least to doff them at the idea of freeports. Indeed, it’s not enough to say that he has been guiding or advising the Anglesey freeport bid. He helped to bring the entire project about in the first place. “Singham has been a prominent advocate for freeports for over a decade, credited with encouraging the government to adopt the idea while he was a Brexit adviser to Truss during her time as International Trade Secretary from 2019 to 2021.”
Prosperity prosperity prosperity
Singham was involved in a similar project in Honduras, which was ultimately prevented from development because it was widely protested against, and was found by the country’s Supreme Court – irony alert – to violate its “national sovereignty”. A Honduran elected official “slammed the libertarian philosophy as showing an ‘aversion towards states, their laws and regulations’”. Singham’s history makes the very provenance of Welsh freeports worrying, and therefore also their potential. Brexit is not bringing about prosperity for most, so why would freeports be any different? Yet he doesn’t want to stop with freeports, he wants ‘enterprise cities’.
The use of the word ‘prosperity’ – or Próspera in Spanish – is woven through the Brexit journey like white lines in the middle of the road. A curious think tank called Prosperity UK existed for a time, founded in 2017 “with a vision of moving beyond the referendum and looking constructively at Britain’s future post our departure from the EU”. This ‘Alternative Arrangements Commission’ was moribund by 2019. Singham was chairman of its ‘technical panel’, and gave evidence in that capacity to a home affairs select committee. As well as involvement by the ERG’s Steve Baker, now-Conservative Party Chairman Greg Hands and now-Home Secretary Suella Braverman were co-chairs of that organisation, which tried to replace the Northern Ireland backstop with their ‘alternative’. The British Irish Chamber said their “proposals lacked credibility in the reality of how all-island trade actually works”.
On a similar theme, Singham was publicly supportive of the tax measures Prime Minister Liz Truss introduced, and remained bullish about them after her memorable 44-day experiment. You know, the ones that nearly crashed the economy and sterling and cost her the premiership. He recently crowed about the UK’s accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-pacific partnership (CPTPP), claiming it would be “a seismic geo-economic event”. When, in fact, the UK had pre-existing trade deals with nine of 11 countries in the partnership, and there is only an “estimated gain to the UK of 0.08% of GDP – this is just a 50th of the OBR’s estimate of what Brexit has cost the UK economy to date”.
Is this a man Anglesey and Wales generally should trust with its economy? Northern Ireland wasn’t safe with him; are we? Anglesey Freeport “is a powerful partnership between Isle of Anglesey County Council and Stena Line, supported by a number of other stakeholders which help to form a powerful consortium, driven by a shared goal to deliver prosperity for North Wales”. There’s that word again.
Other, non-Brexit-brain economists have this to say about freeports: “The logic of the mechanism for achieving the benefits of freeports is somewhat opaque. However, the Government recently released a strategy document for Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) of the freeports. It contains a list of 32 “assumptions” which would have to be true if the project is to work. Interestingly, while most of these are described as “high confidence” some of the most important ones are marked “low confidence.” … In essence, these premises need to be realised for the freeport programme to deliver jobs that are high-quality and actually additional (not just displaced) [from elsewhere].”
“The logic of the mechanism for achieving the benefits of freeports is somewhat opaque.” I’m just repeating the phrase because it’s strangely familiar somehow.
In the green zone
On 23 March, the leader of Anglesey County Council, Llinos Medi, said the new freeport status would be “an important driver in securing a brighter future for the people of Ynys Môn and indeed North Wales”. The freeport is said to be focusing on marine energy technology and low carbon energy, with the aim of attracting £1.4bn in investment and creating 3,500 jobs or more. There is huge stress being placed on the word ‘green’ in connection with this freeport, far more so than with English freeports.
Singham has never publicly stated a position on climate change per se, that I’m aware of. But what a tangled web we weave when we’re as busy and in demand as Singham. We should remember that he has been in and in some cases remains closely involved with such climate change-denying or minimising think tanks as the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), and the IEA. The latter, where he still works, “published its own report on the UK’s future trade deals, which called on the UK to drop “restrictive” regulations, including environmental protections. The IEA was later forced to withdraw and reissue the report for breaching charity commission guidelines on political neutrality.” The report’s author? Shanker Singham.
The IEA and Singham’s so-called ‘Plan A+’ was part of a set advocating what the Guardian called “a bonfire of tariffs, quotas, and anti-competitive rules”. It argued that all government services and procurement should be open to international competition, including that “protections designed to avoid workers being exploited or undercut by cheap migrant labour, which, for example, limit the number of hours people can be asked to work, or require parity of pay with local workers for those posted abroad, should be removed”. It was said by columnist John Crace that the A+ in Plan A+ stood “for idiocy”.
Plan A+ claimed that if the UK continued to strengthen its regulatory environment, it would lead to “wealth destruction” and “push people into poverty”. Singham’s paper pointed to environmental protection rules as an area where EU regulation was “moving in an anti-competitive direction”. He argued for ditching the EU’s precautionary principle, which underpins many rules on the environment as well as food. There is an excellent map of his connections to American dark money-funded climate change denial organisations over at DeSmog. The company you keep, hmmm?
Is this a man Anglesey and Wales more generally should trust with its environment? He still has a deregulation obsession. Singham has said of himself, “Either I’m a deluded Walter Mitty fantasist or I’m meaningfully influencing the government’s thinking at the very highest levels. Pick one”. What worries me most on Wales’s behalf is that he may well be both.
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