March 2023. First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford MS: “I am pleased to confirm the Celtic Freeport in Milford Haven and Port Talbot and Anglesey Freeport have been selected as Wales’s new freeports.” Michael Gove MP, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities and minister for intergovernmental relations: “I am absolutely confident these new freeports will be transformational for Wales, helping to grow the economy, level up, and spread opportunity.”
Drakeford has effectively just sold parts of Wales to private investors. The free zone is not and never can be the Welsh community’s friend. It is not the protector of the environment, it is not the source of collective decision-making, and it does not have livelihoods or workers’srights as a priority. It is turbo-capitalism, a post-Brexit wrecking ball that will lead to an economic boom for the investor classes but will absolutely eviscerate and impoverish those entrapped in ‘the zone’.
Network of liberty
Those promoting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s freeports and their surrounding investment zones are quick to trot out the same old tropes of growth, prosperity, environmental friendliness, and a brighter and more sustainable future. Each time I hear these sorts of phrases now, the reverberating echoes of Boris Johnson’s maxim “take back control” appears in my head against a discordant drone of Wurlitzers and blurry visuals of merry-go-rounds. If the post-Brexit litany of catastrophically fiscally illiterate mayhem, law-breaking, and abject societal failures are anything to go by, the next stages of the reconfiguring of the welfare state and “restructuring of sovereignty”, obstinately going where no free marketeer has gone before, should be cause to hit the panic button.
There is a dearth of understanding, due caution, or lessons learned about the very real dangers inherent in spaffing out contracts to the mostly private sector, including in and around Sunak’s freeports. Now outside of the EU, third country UK is becoming an international pariah, with panicked level-headed investors responding to Truss and Kwarteng’s recent economic debacle by balking at the risks that a deregulated free market independent territory is prone to experiment with.
Despite the reaction by the markets last year, there is not so much a levelling up as there is a doubling down. An economic war is being waged by a transatlantic “network of liberty” (Liz Truss’s phrase) who view Brexit as a gateway drug to forming a new offshore tax haven in the UK. They know Sunak’s freeports and Truss’s investment zones – recently and quietly picked up by Jeremy Hunt despite Sunak saying he’d scrapped them – aggressively trump democracy as an alternative to law-abiding, human rights-supporting societies. Region by region, each zone will expand outwards from each freeport hub to be run under a separate body of laws as corporate territory beyond the reach of democratic oversight and accountability. The little trade deals and MoUs crowed about are performative in comparison.
Faustian Welsh freeports
British chartered accountant and political economist Richard Murphy describes the true features of freeports in stark terms:
“Exemption from tariffs gives a tax subsidy to products sold from a freeport if (and this is critical) they are exported. That means that this benefit goes to other countries, and not into the UK market … Reduced employee protections are also common, again putting workers at risk. Environmental standards can also be waived in freeports. So too might other standards – e.g. on money laundering – and other measures intended to prevent crime … A freeport need not be a port. It can be a single warehouse to a whole geographic region that a government declares to be outside the scope of ‘normal’ regulation.”
Drakeford signed a Faustian pact with the UK government, in which the small print details a familiar colonialist mindset at play. Freeports are a direct threat to democracy. For direct parallels to historical examples of what free trade in enterprise zones inflicted on surrounding communities, we typically point to countries outside of the ‘protectionist EU’. Nomenclature is key; the old ‘company towns’ now go under the Orwellian moniker of ‘investment zones’, birthed by a plethora of pseudo-academically named right wing think tanks: the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Heritage Foundation.
‘The zone’ is the next post-Brexit weapon in the arsenal of libertarians like Sunak, Truss, Frost, Rees-Mogg, Badenoch, Mordaunt, and Baker, and their transatlantic ‘network of liberty’. Special Enterprise Zones (SEZs) are founded on an ideology that began with colonialism, dating back to 1600 with the East India Company, which lasted until 1874. To further understand what lurks within the methodology and logistics of the zone, we can look to other examples from history, back to the British claiming of Hong Kong in 1842 during the Opium Wars, when 80+ freeports brought legalised lawlessness in the form of the drug trade to the island.
In more recent times, we see the dismantling of the very state, “the transformation of post-war democratic capitalism from a system of wealth-creation to one of wealth extraction”. As part of this, the UK has ‘zone fever’, with huge swathes of public land being handed over at bargain basement prices to property developers with connections to local ‘democratic’ structures. This constitutes another wave of public wealth transfers to the private investor classes. “Today, the libertarian right sees Enterprise Cities, Charter Cities and Freeports, able to set their own rules on everything from labour law to codes on corruption, as central to its vision, aggressively pursued by well-funded and well-connected think tanks, like-minded politicians, academics, media and business tycoons,” as Alastair Campbell put it in response to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s dad’s book.
With Wales still subject to Westminster, despite naiveté or the best of intentions, it is a tide pulling us along with it, devolution as detritus. There are no easily available maps of the two Welsh freeports so we can know what and how much of our land is taken up by them: the UK government website of ‘UK freeport maps’ says ‘applies to England’ in smaller writing, further down. Wales, as ever, invisible except when seen as exploitable.
Did you vote for this?
Freeports are part of a process through which libertarian ideologues are installing a global push to reconfigure nation-states, to reverse and dismantle democracy in the 21st century. The zone is a harbinger of offshoring wealth with no checks and balances, no rights, just raw corporate hegemony. This is an experiment which, according to libertarian Tom Bell, “may or may not work”. It goes like this: break up a nation, subdivide the land, invite foreign venture capitalists in, and hand over powers of governance to them while reducing elected government oversight. This means tailoring private laws (as opposed to the often negatively-framed ‘statist’ laws) to corporate demands, legalising the breach of hard-won rights and freedoms. In short, right wing libertarians believe that a democratic society destroys a free economy.
Freeports were a 2019 Conservative manifesto item. Most of Wales didn’t vote for that. Drakeford himself said as much. Gove has been quietly busy, handing out £26mn here, £24mn there, of government funding to freeport bidders across the country. At the same time, Sunak’s government is intent on a bonfire of ‘retained EU law’. His freeports provide an excuse to ‘correct’ the ‘regulatory protectionist burden’ that comes with a stable democracy, overseen by an extremely powerful transatlantic billionaire network of fossil fuel magnates and property developers who are pooling their resources … for what? To tip UK democracy into further crisis by stripping it of assets and offshoring its profits.
The benefits of freeports are as illusory as those of Brexit. Take this analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: “The government and the freeports appear to be much more optimistic: for example, the English freeports themselves expect to create more than 200,000 additional jobs between them. The government has, to date, not published a full assessment of the effects it expects freeports to have, which makes it difficult to scrutinise and evaluate these competing claims.” Read that last sentence again.
The English freeports further ahead than those in Wales show the dangers that lie in wait. There is much more stress in Wales on the ‘green’ nature of its two new freeports. Perhaps the Welsh Government thinks it can take this feral libertarian construct and make it something more genuinely egalitarian, that can make Wales a Net Zero powerhouse and a world leader in ‘reskilling’ the workforce. There is much talk of wind farms and rebuilding trade bridges. But its very desperation to get involved in freeports, its fear of being left out or left behind, leaves me in no doubt that the freeports will be business as usual. Until they’re something even worse.
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