Since September, discussions between Forth Ports, owner of the Port of Dundee, and Dundee City Council have progressed plans to establish a ‘freeport’ in the City.
Companies operating in this freeport could defer the payment of tax until their products are moved elsewhere, or avoid tax altogether if they bring in goods to manufacture in the port before exporting them again. This would allegedly motivate businesses to develop industry in the area, since companies will prefer to avoid taxes cutting into their profit margin, and produce on site.
The Conservative Party manifesto of 2019 proposed the creation of up to ten freeports in the UK to help avoid tariffs and boost trade in the aftermath of Brexit, in the vain hope to reinvigorate a British capitalism that is already on its knees with the current pandemic and economic crisis.
This plan for Dundee has already aroused the hawkish attention of some business owners. Greig Coull, the owner of the Michelin Scotland Innovation Park announced hopes that the freeport would cover the park complex, and claimed that companies were “wide-eyed with the prospect of advantage”. This “advantage” consists in free reign over working and environmental conditions in a reckless race to the bottom.
Dundee City Council is not the only local authority to be seduced by the freeport policy. Highland Council have also revealed intentions for a freeport bid in the Moray Forth, as part of an ‘Opportunity Cromarty Forth’ project.
Signalling openness to the freeport plans, SNP Dundee City Council Leader John Alexander commented that “It’s sensible that we explore any and all opportunities and the Dundee public wouldn’t thank us if we didn’t … We’ve never shied away from making our elbows felt and the city is working across the private and public sector to explore every opportunity for jobs and investment.”
This opportunistic spin is significant for Dundee. Unemployment stands at 5.4% in the city, well above the UK average of 4.8%. This number will likely rise in the coming months as redundancies continue.
Councillors displayed their support for freeport status at the SNP Conference, but were met with concerns about the consequences of tax avoidance. Despite party resolutions, John Alexander concluded that it wasn’t a decision to be taken by the Council anyway, but by the private owner of Forth Ports.
150,000 jobs are estimated to be produced by the Dundee Freeport scheme, but this figure covers up the reality that employment in the freeport would be on the basis of precarious terms and conditions, adding to underemployment and job insecurity. Moreover, this optimistically inflated figure does not take into account the compounded effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to 2019 Scottish Government statistics, 40,000 out of Dundee’s 150,000 residents live in poverty; 26.7% of the city’s population. 36.6% of Dundonians live in areas that are classed in the top 20% most deprived areas of Scotland. These figures, of course, reflect conditions before the pandemic. The freeport scheme will not improve, but contribute to these statistics.
Dundee Trades Union Council chair Stuart Fairweather expressed concern over the contribution of the freeport to Dundee’s drug crisis, arguing that allowing uninspected ships to bring chemicals into a city with the highest rates of drug deaths in Europe “isn’t necessarily the cleverest idea”.
The response of the trade unions to this plan raises some eyebrows. Unite the Union previously welcomed the plans to create the Michelin Innovation Centre, as the rhetoric of employment opportunities hit the soft spot of the local leadership. So far however, Unite have been criminally silent on the freeport plans, which could be taken as implicit consent.
The Dundee branch of the Radical Independence Campaign called a ‘No 2 Freeports’ meeting to address the question of the port. Present were Stuart Fairweather, the economic policy analyst Miriam Brett, and Green New Deal policy advisor Katie Gallogly-Swan.
While opposition to the freeport was mainly denunciatory, positive initiatives of forging local alliances of trade unions and campaigning groups were raised, as well as conversations on the port in the community with an alternative vision.
Gallogly-Swan rebuffed those who say an economic alternative will be outside the means of an independent Scotland, stating “the conversation about how we are going to afford things is very much a red herring”. This is too dismissive, however, of the very real class politics of government debt and spending. The money certainly exists in society for huge investment in the priorities of the working class, but this wealth is hoarded and controlled by the banks and big business. They are not trustworthy creditors for the working class.
While we support increases in public spending that benefit working people, systemic problems like deindustrialisation cannot be solved by Keynesian measures paid for by growing the national debt. The destructive mechanism of the market that spreads poverty to former industrial cities like Dundee needs to be abolished, and a national economic plan introduced under the control and supervision of the working class.
The austerity policies being implemented in Britain and by capitalist governments across the world are not merely “ideological” acts of cruelty, but an economic necessity for the crisis-ridden system. As Lenin wrote, “politics is concentrated economics” — the economic condition is primary, and will decide the politics of any government that remains within the limits of capitalism. In the current epoch, and especially after the coronavirus pandemic, this means the politics of austerity.
This includes, of course, the government of an independent Scotland. Only through a radical break with capitalism and the creation of a Scottish Workers’ Republic can the limits be overcome and a real alternative proposed.
Revolutionary policy on freeports
Action should go beyond pressuring the SNP-run council to simply reject the freeport plans, and consider the national picture. Fairweather mentioned that the position of the Scottish Trades Union Council is the nationalization of Scotland’s ports. This is a commendable demand. We don’t need to look very far back for a precedent.
Last year, the failing Ferguson shipyard at Port Glasgow was nationalized by the Scottish Government after falling behind on building schedule. Nationalization shows a way forward for industry — with the qualification that it should be overseen under workers’ control.
Workers’ control in the ship-building industry inevitably poses the question of ownership over other key levers of the economy. Nationalization should not just be a measure taken for individual cases of financially crippled firms. We need a strategy to expropriate the commanding heights of the economy, and to place them into the hands of the workers, and run according to a rational plan of production.
But this will not be viable on a purely national level. An isolated socialist Scotland will be boxed into a corner at every move by surrounding capitalist powers through sanctions and pressures from the international banks.
Thus, it is our duty to the international working class to lend our full solidarity to their struggle. Their future is our future. A socialist federation of Britain, as part of an international socialist federation will be the only means of ensuring that the destiny of a Scottish Workers Republic is held in firm hands.