On Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn revealed 451 pages of documents detailing secret talks between the British and American governments over a proposed future trade deal.
The documents lay bare the state of play as Britain prepares for the possibility of negotiating trade with the US post-Brexit. Britain comes across as the sub to America's dom, asking nicely if it's allowed to put anything about climate change in a trade deal, being told "no", and generally being told how things are going to go.
The documents first came to light in a heavily redacted form during the ITV leaders debate, when Jeremy Corbyn held up some of the documents – black lines struck through them – claiming they showed Johnson wanted to "sell out our NHS to the United States and big pharma". Johnson called this "a total nonsense".
At a press conference on Wednesday, Labour revealed the full documents, un-redacted. Corbyn said the documents prove that the NHS is "for sale" and shows the election is "a fight for survival of [the] NHS", prompting denials from the Tories.
The documents – in both their redacted and then their unredacted forms – came to light having been sent to the campaigning organisation Global Justice Now, which has been working to reveal the dark and all-encompassing reach of modern trade deals for a long time.
I spoke to their director, Nick Dearden, about how he got his hands on the documents, what they are and what they mean.
VICE: For people who don’t have time to read 451 pages of unredacted documents – what are they?
Nick Dearden: They are the summary minutes of trade talks that have taken place between US officials and UK officials over the last three years, which are supposed to be laying the groundwork for a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. They started in July of 2017 and the last one was in July this year.
We all want to know how you got them, how they came to you and how you went about revealing them.
About 18 months ago we made a Freedom of Information request to the Department for International Trade, because we knew that talks were already underway with the United States – Liam Fox, the then-trade secretary told us that in Parliament. We said, "Well, we want to know when they’re happening and where they’re happening, we want to know what the government is putting on the table and roughly how they are going."
They wrote back to us and said, "Absolutely not, you can't have any of that information. This is about discussions with a foreign power, therefore it’s diplomatically sensitive and some of the stuff might be commercially sensitive too." We appealed because we said, "Look, there is a public interest case here – it's really clear that trade deals today affect society in such profound and widespread ways that it cannot be right that you negotiate this behind closed doors." MPs were asking the same questions in the House of Commons and were given the same answer as us: you can’t know anything.
We appealed that and the information commissioner came back to us earlier this year and said, "OK, you’ve got a point, we were a little bit over-zealous, and we can give you something." We were very excited when we got the documents in our inbox. It looked like there were hundreds of pages, except that when we actually started looking through we found that virtually the entire bundle was redacted – a black pen had been through the whole lot.
Are those are the documents that Jeremy Corbyn held up in the debate with Boris Johnson?
That's correct. We had them for a while and they hadn’t really been picked up on, but when the Labour Party looked at it and found out about them, they said, "Well, that looks pretty serious." Remember that this is in a context where the government had given Parliament or the public no set of objectives, no red lines, no negotiating principles, nothing. So as far as we were concerned, everything was on the table and was being discussed, and the evidence is in those documents and they wouldn’t show us that evidence.
The Americans have actually been far more transparent than our own government has and have published their negotiating objectives, as they always do when they go into trade negotiations with other countries. There have also been various think-tanks here working with various think-tanks there – the Legatum Institute, the Adam Smith Institute, the Heritage Foundation, think-tanks very close to government – putting together their model trade deal and what that might look like. And all of this rang massive alarm bells.
You got the redacted documents earlier this year. When did you get the unredacted documents?
We only saw them for the first time a couple of days ago. Somebody basically emailed us saying, "Look, I’ve seen the work you’ve been doing on this, I’ve seen the secret documents, I have the real things and here they are," and they pointed us to them.
Are you allowed to tell us who this person is?
Well, I don’t know!
So they emailed you from a secure email, with no name?
That’s right. And in fact we even tried to email back and it wouldn’t let us email back, so it was clearly an email set up for the purpose of distributing these documents.
Did you get nothing else from them?
That’s it, that’s all we got. And then we looked at them and there’s no way someone could sit down and make up trade documents like that, and we compared them against our redacted documents.
It now turns out that someone put them on Reddit…
My assumption is that’s the same person and that they probably overestimated the reach of just putting something on Reddit. I guess they had seen Jeremy Corbyn on the leaders debate holding up our redacted documents, and I think they sent it to the Labour Party as well, because the party phoned me to ask about them and it seemed as though they had seen them already.
So what do these documents show us?
They basically give us an idea of what the US wants out of a trade deal, what the UK wants and where agreement is likely to be found. One of the most interesting things is how clearly these papers show where power lies in the room, and power lies with the US negotiators.
US officials were furious with Theresa May’s Chequers plan for Brexit because it kind of tied us into EU standards in the long-term, and for US business that was a complete disaster because they said, "No, no, no, we want to sell you the chlorine chicken and all the other food we can’t sell you under EU standards, and we wouldn’t be able to do that under the Chequers plan."
The last meeting happened in July, and one of the only things Boris Johnson’s deal changed is precisely this issue of long-term alignment with EU standards, so it gives you a clue as to where the push for an ever-harder Brexit is coming from.
Jeremy Corbyn has led with the NHS on this. In terms of opening up markets and lowering standards, what does this mean for the health service?
There's one bit where it says something like, "Let's not talk about specific entities now, that’s for discussion later."* I mean, they clearly don’t want the NHS to be talked about in these documents, precisely because if someone does a Freedom of Information request or the papers get out.
*Editorial note: Here, Nick is referring to P53 of the documents relating to the third meeting: “Wouldn’t want to discuss particular health care entities at this time… this would be something to discuss further down the line.” Channel 4 'Dispatches' found that civil servants have been told to use different language when talking about British healthcare, in order to make it immune to Freedom of Information requests.
What we do know is that, on medicine pricing, the US government basically views the UK and every other government in the world as freeloading off US medical research, and that medicine prices in this country should be decided by the market. Introducing a market-based system for drug pricing would absolutely bankrupt the NHS, or would simply mean people would have to privately purchase medicines.
Secondly, the NHS is a service, and one of the big things being pushed by both sides is services liberalisation – that means all manner of services, from financial services to telecommunications to railways being opened up to market penetration by American multinationals, giving overseas American investors a right to invest in those industries… Bits of the NHS that have already been contracted out, those are the bits of the service that the US wants to be included in services liberalisation.
It isn't the case that the US government is going to come in and buy the NHS; they won’t be allowed to do that, clearly. But it is the case that there are various elements of this that pose an existential threat to the NHS if they were carried out.
There seems to be some scepticism in the press that this is as big a deal as Labour are saying. When you saw Corbyn’s press conference, did you feel like he was telling the truth?
Yeah, absolutely – of course it was always going to be the case that, when journalists looked at these documents, they weren’t going to see the NHS listed on every page.
Right – some seemed to be hitting Control-F "NHS", only finding a few mentions and concluding that there wasn’t much to worry about.
Yeah, and I know some people have been doing that because I’ve been trying to respond to them on Twitter! Clearly that was never going to be the case. The problem with trade deals is the way they can affect a service with various disciplines and constraints. What modern trade deals do is prevent governments from being able to regulate in the way they want to regulate, because that might discriminate against overseas capital and foreign investors and big corporations.
Our worry is that when it comes to public services it's not that the Americans are going to come in and buy up the NHS wholesale, but that they will make attacks to the system that will fundamentally change the way the NHS runs and push it in a more market-driven direction.
There’s also mention of climate change in these documents. Or, rather, it talks about how the UK is not allowed to mention climate change.
It's extraordinary. There is a line from an official saying we cannot talk about climate change or greenhouse gas emissions in this trade deal – it has been banned, and that ban will not be lifted any time soon.
Is there any indication as to why that might be?
It looks to me like it comes directly from Trump, who is a climate denier. Some people might ask why you would mention climate change in a trade deal, but there is an enormous potential in modern trade deals for the rules contained therein to accelerate climate change.
There are things called energy neutrality clauses that make it more difficult for governments to discriminate between fossil fuels and renewable energies. There are things like corporate courts, which are giving powers to energy companies to sue governments that are taking environmental action. A fossil fuel company is suing the Netherlands for daring to say that it will outlaw coal use by 2030.
So for all these reasons, it's really important to have stuff in trade deals to say that nothing in this deal will override your climate commitments, and the US won't even mention the term!
What else is in there?
Food standards are a big issue, and on standards and regulations more generally the Americans are keen on self-regulation and voluntary standards, rather than government taking action. On food, the words "chlorine chicken" are actually in this document. We know the British public are deeply sceptical about American food standards, and the Americans have actually offered to help the UK to sell chlorine chickens to a sceptical public.
The Americans see as hard a Brexit as possible as being best for them because it means they will be able to change British standards to the greatest degree possible, which means there is more scope for low standard American food products coming into our markets.
When the US and the EU were trying to negotiate the TTIP trade deal, one of the main things was about regulatory standards and the US wanting to bring European standards down. Now we have the UK potentially outside the EU, at the mercy of the United States, and so it seems almost a guarantee that standards will drop.
Yes, and the Americans show in these documents that they are not afraid to throw their weight around. They know where the power lies. They actually use the word "horrifying" to describe negotiating with the EU. They are clearly beside themselves that, with the EU, they actually had a negotiating partner that wouldn't roll over and give them whatever they wanted.
With Britain, the Americans say again and again that they don't want anything like that. They don’t want Britain tied to the EU.
One problem here is that we know that many people at the head of the current British government actually think exactly the same way. They want a more deregulated model of economics, more liberalisation and privatisation, and they've spent their lives fighting for this.
And the Americans are also giving the British lines to take on certain issues. So much for taking back control…
Exactly. So, "taking back control" actually means handing over control to Donald Trump. Which is why we say these documents show Boris Johnson dancing to the tune of the American government and American multinational corporations.
The full documents can be viewed here.