Two things jump out when I look at the government’s anti-strike proposals. First, curtailing an individual’s right to withdraw their labour frames workers as assets. Not in the “benefit” understanding of the word, but as “property”. And second, I wonder if these attacks are part of a wider push by libertarians towards charter cities?
The idea pushed by Rishi Sunak, reported in The Guardian, that the “right to strike has to be balanced with the right of the British public to be able to go about their lives without suffering” is government doublespeak, code for employers having the right to profit, no matter the cost or suffering of workers.
Similar rhetoric was used back in 2016, during the Junior Doctors dispute, by the then Health Secretary, our current Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt. I remember lots of talk about poorer outcomes for patients at weekends, and a demand for a seven-days-a-week health service. The NHS has always been a seven-days-a-week service.
The government’s plan, Hunt’s endgame, was to make the contracts more palatable in a private sector takeover of the NHS.
Caroline Molloy has written a detailed and damning account of Jeremy Hunt’s time as Health Secretary for Open Democracy. She includes this quote from his contribution to Direct Democracy, a 2005 book where he outlines his ambition “to break down the barriers between private and public provision, in effect denationalising the provision of healthcare in Britain”. Hunt thought then, and my guess still thinks, the NHS is “no longer relevant in the 21st century”. I think he’s wrong, universal healthcare is not a cost it’s a benefit?
The dispute with the Junior Doctors was eventually resolved. Hunt got what he wanted, a five-of-seven workforce. They’re the same conditions expected of retail workers. No overtime for working unsocial hours, weekends, or bank holidays. You work five out of every seven days, regardless. It’s brutal, and takes its toll on the mind, body, and soul, of anyone forced to endure it.
Attacks on workers rights, rolling back pay and conditions, is always framed as a desire for efficiencies. It’s not about efficiencies. It’s about getting more for less. More work for less pay. Meaning more profit for employers, even in the public sector, because as we have seen the difference between public and private is being broken down. I fear the reason for these attacks, on all of our rights, is a wider push towards the model of England as a collection of charter cities.
I’ve been reading about charter cities since the referendum. When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and Rishi Sunak was his Chancellor of the Exchequer the idea seemed to gain traction. Everything I read about them makes my jaw clench, triggering all kinds of dystopian scenarios in my hyper-vigilance. I can imagine a future in which Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland seek independence from England. Each for their own reasons but primarily because they’ve had enough of the colonial attitudes of Westminster. If they go, it’s possible the historic regions of Northumberland and Cornwall will follow.
I’ve written about the dissolution of the Union before, way back in March 2021. I haven’t seen much since then to change my understanding, that “the Conservatives will use these cries for independence as a crisis. One that lets them calve up England as if they were the ancient Kings of Wessex or Mercia”.
The way I see it, a much reduced England will “be transformed into a series of charter cities. Regions that will claim to be hubs of enterprise and entrepreneurship. When in fact they will be islands of tax avoidance, shell companies, and post office boxes that hide wealth”. In the worst imaginings of this dystopia, I fear the average person will be forced to swear fealty to the cities and the “sovereign individuals” who rule them. We’ll have to take the knee for a job and place to live.
Some argue that charter cities are the reason for Brexit. I think the reasons for Brexit are many and varied. I view their implementation as opportunism. Libertarian think-tanks have been singing their praises for years. The chaos of Brexit is giving them a chance to put that theory into action. Chris Grey in his 15 August 2022 article in the BylineTimes, argues that concerns about charter cities are a conspiracy theory, and warns us to be cautious about making hyperbolic claims.
On the flip side George Monbiot in his 17 August 2022 article offers a compelling argument that freeports, embryonic charter cities, “deliver nothing but harm” and “attract organised crime, money-laundering, drug-trafficking and terrorist finance, while bringing minimal benefits to the nations that host them”.
Despite Grey’s warnings, and in the spirit of hope for the best plan for the worst, I lean towards Monbiot’s understanding of charter cities. Whoever turns out to be correct, attacks on workers rights, all of our human rights, will continue under this Conservative government. And if we’re not careful, the worst excesses of libertarian free-market thinking will have us tugging our forelock in feudal deference.