The Initiative for Free Trade (IFT) styles itself as a ‘non-partisan research foundation’ that ‘makes the intellectual and moral case for free trade, and sees Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union as a unique opportunity to revitalise the world trading system’. Its president is Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, and the members of its advisory and executive boards comprise an interestingly international selection of discredited right-wing politicians and ideologues, as well as some distinctly dodgy ‘business leaders’.
The IFT evidently sees Brexit as the next step in the onward march of ‘free trade’, rather as the UK was used as a test-bed for a more extreme version of ‘free market’ economics in the 1980s.
The organisation’s launch attracted some big-hitting Tory politicians: Boris Johnson and Liam Fox both spoke at it, as did Michael Gove and David Gauke. Johnson was subsequently accused of breaking the ministerial code by allowing the event to be held in the Map Room of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is supposed to be used only for ministers’ official duties.
Several former heads of state serve on the IFT’s advisory board. One is Jorge Quiroga, who was Vice-President and later President of Bolivia during the notorious ‘water wars’ that followed the privatisation of the country’s water supply, which sparked a national uprising. The political struggle was immortalised in the film ‘Even the Rain’ and helped lead to the election of Evo Morales as President in 2006, the world’s first indigenous head of state.
Another is Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia between 2013 and 2015. Abbott distinguished himself in office by his extreme neo-liberal policies, his opposition to same-sex marriage and his determination to prevent any measures to tackle climate change. Since leaving office he has called for Australia to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change and given a speech for Nigel Lawson’s climate denial outfit the ‘Global Warming Policy Foundation’, in which he described climate science as ‘absolute crap’.
As Prime Minister of Spain between 1996 and 2004, IFT board member Jose-Maria Aznar ‘gave free rein to conservative, neoliberal, pro-United States policies’ until being forced from office in the wake of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which Aznar had falsely claimed to be the work of Basque separatists. Since then, he has focused mainly on his own personal wealth, amassed through positions including membership of the board of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. In 2016 he was found to have falsely declared personal income as company income and ordered to pay fines and back taxes of €270,000.
Another IFT board member is Ruth Richardson, former New Zealand finance minister, who was responsible for the shock tactics that removed regulatory protection from that country’s economy in the early 1990s, sometimes dubbed ‘Ruthanasia’. Her period of office was characterised by swingeing cuts to social welfare programmes and the Employment Contracts Act, which decimated NZ trade unions. Union leader Ken Douglas described the latter as ‘a natural outcome of the ideological propaganda of rugged individualism, of self-interest and greed and the appeal to individuals that you could find better for you by climbing over the tops of your colleagues, your mates, and so on. Ruth Richardson was very clear, very blunt, very honest about its purpose. It was to achieve a dramatic lowering of wages, very, very quickly.’
IFT board member Ben Sasse is the Republican Senator for Nebraska. An anti-abortionist endorsed by the gun-lobby, Sasse is also opposed to same-sex marriage. He is a strong opponent of public health provision and enemy of President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act.
Also serving on the IFT board is the notorious Brexit Bad Boy Jim Mellon, a major bankroller of of Leave.EU. Mellon owns an offshore bank with Arron Banks and is now known to have been offered – and taken – a stake in a Russian diamond-mining company at below market value a few days after the Brexit referendum. Banks, who had multiple meetings with Russian officials in the run-up to the referendum, was offered similar ‘business opportunities’.
Also representing ‘business’ is Lord Digby Jones, former chair of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and a proponent of the most extreme form of hard Brexit. In July 2017, Jones tweeted: ‘So that’s trade deals with both the US and Oz in the bag. Remoaners must be hating this.’ This was entirely false, and Donald Trump has since initiated a trade war that makes such deals seem an even more remote prospect (even supposing a deal with Trump were in any way desirable).
Drawing on talents such as these, it is abundantly clear what the IFT is seeking to accomplish with its ‘free trade’ agenda. It seeks a world in which the economy is operated in the interests of the wealthiest of the global elite, and to remove any protections against the exercise of these interests that are currently enjoyed by the rest of us.
Needless to say, the IFT does not disclose any details of its funding. These, however, are not hard to guess.