I must not laugh at Theresa May’s dancing. I must not laugh at Theresa May’s dancing. Okay, I admit it. I laughed at her dancing. I tried not to watch and yet I’ve now watched the version set to drum and bass and even rather enjoyed the dub version.
But, apart from tentatively throwing some shapes, what is Theresa May doing in Africa?
The press release states the purpose of the trip is to bring the ‘transformative power of private sector trade and investment from the UK’ to Africa. The problem is, the ‘power of private sector trade and investment from the UK’ is alive and well in Africa. It just hasn’t generally been a force for good. Or at least, not for Africa.
We’ve spent the last 70 years claiming we have been trying to help African ‘develop’ when many of our policies have had the opposite effect. In his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney sets out in detail what this ‘development’ has looked like; forced labour, low wages, land grabs, control over shipping and banking, unfair taxes, the list goes on. All this was happening in the colonies at the same time we were setting up the welfare state in the UK. While we celebrated ideas of social justice in Britain through the foundation of the NHS, we were also forcing people off their land and into detention camps in Kenya.
One of the most troubling things about Rodney’s book, first published in 1972, is how much of it is relevant today. For example he wrote about the mining concessions granted to De Beers, the South African company set up by Cecil Rhodes, that has had a near monopoly on the diamond trade. Companies like De Beers (now mostly owned by Anglo-American mining) have expanded their reach. If you look at the map drawn up by War on Want in their report The New Colonialism you can see that, although the colonisers left, big mining companies cleared up.
Some things have changed. There used to be colonial marketing boards where Britain set prices and meant we could buy commodities from Kenya and Nigeria at prices much lower than we would have done on the open market. Britain could buy palm oil for around £17 a tonne and sell it on for a price five times higher. There were conflicts of interests all over the place. For example, John Cadbury (yes, that Cadbury) was chair of the cocoa marketing board, so he could fix prices, then benefit from buying cocoa for his company at these low prices.
These colonial marketing boards have gone, as has the independence of the company John Cadbury set up, bought out by big corporations. But ways of fixing prices are still here. Nowadays, Western governments would never overtly set prices through marketing boards, but we let Western-owned multinationals do the job directly. So much of international trade happens within these big corporations they are able to do something called ‘transfer pricing’ where they manipulate prices paid between their own subsidiaries. This is how companies like Starbucks and Caffe Nero managed to avoid paying corporation tax in the UK, and there are estimates that around $700billion could flow out of developing countries in this way. In this report researchers at the University of Manchester look in detail at the way De Beers use their power to determine prices in the diamond trade.
Countries in African aren’t just losing out on tax. Billions flow across borders through bribery and corruption. In one recent case UK banks enabled $800million to be paid to a convicted money launderer in a dodgy oil deal with Shell in Nigeria. The citizens of Nigeria did not see a penny of this money.
It’s no coincidence that many of these companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange or that the money passes over the balance sheets of UK banks. Tony Norfield has described the City as Britain’s new, invisible empire. At its heart is the UK’s leading role in financial markets and British ownership of many of the world’s major corporations.
If you look closely you will see the power of the City stamped all over May’s trade visit. The Lord Mayor of London, Charles Bowman, heads up the City of London corporation and is a key member of the crew that May took out to Africa. As I’ve explained before he is not elected by the public but has the same powers as a cabinet minister and goes with the PM on all important foreign visits. When he is not being Lord Mayor, he is also a partner in the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who have had to answer their own questions about their role in tax avoidance.
The more I learn about the City, and Britain’s reliance on finance, the more scared I am. It would be easier if I believed the conspiracy theories that all these people that work in the city are evil lizards, bad people. But I’ve met many of them who are as concerned as I am about the direction of travel we are on. I’ve also met people who seem to genuinely believe that this, finance, is the only thing Britain is capable of.
The argument is that this is the route our economy has been steered towards and we must keep going. It doesn’t matter how choppy the waters are looking, keep going, drag more people with us on this journey. We plough onwards, covering up the debt we owe to Africa, with the delusion of finance.
It’s like Theresa May’s dancing. She must have realised within the first couple of seconds it was a mistake, she didn’t have to do it, nobody wanted it. But once she had started she kept going, she went further, she threw in some robot moves. Please can we stop.