Charter Cities: The Real Reason for Brexit and the Bigger Picture

With our economy in tatters and the frightening roll back of our democratic rights now beginning to expose the true nature of Brexit, some leave voters are even beginning to question what Brexit was all about. However, it is not that way for everyone involved, some truly are about to get their Brexit benefits. Namely the American billionaire-funded corporate-fascist networks and the Russian state/Putin circle that both heavily financed it. The Russians were buying the general corruption and weakening of the UK state, the erosion of a once formidable opponent on the geopolitical stage, and of course they were protecting and enhancing their money laundering operation via the City of London too. The American corporate-fascist network, historically backed by the heavy industry tycoon Charles Koch and hedge-fund manager/Artificial Intelligence (AI) pioneer Robert Mercer, and now bolstered by the new age Tech billionaires finance and insight were more interested in Charter Cities up and down the UK. Not just for the unfettered exploitation of the UK’s people and natural resources, that is undoubtedly part of it, but they have their sights set on more than just taking our money.

What are Charter Cities? Exactly what the name suggests, privately owned and operated cities where everything from healthcare, education and the police force to the legislature and judicial system are ring fenced from the host country becoming a privately operated fiefdom. All these institutions and more are operated by a private company that is accountable to nobody else. There is no independent or legal oversight of these cities, just the rules that they set in their privately owned legislative bodies and enforce with their privately owned judicial system.

Paul Romer (professor and mentor to Rishi Sunak who is now spearheading the UK’s Charter Cities plan) first proposed the Enterprise City model, which differed slightly to the Charter Cities plan being rolled out across Britain now. Romer’s Enterprise Cities model was to establish these cities in underdeveloped countries, making a post-Brexit Britain with its rising inflation and collapsing living standards the perfect testing ground. This calls into question the true motives for the various current crises in Britain too, has the “levelling-up” agenda been an intentional ploy to drive down our living standards and erode our rights, not only to force through the project under the radar but also to push us all to the point of willingly accepting that these cities may offer us the economic prosperity their proponents allege? Crucially in Romer’s model decision making was to be transparent, each city would be backed by a developed nation and adopt the legal code of that nation. Romer officially distanced himself from the initiative following a distinct lack of transparency in deals with private companies in the thwarted first attempt to establish such a city, or ZEDE (Zone for Economic Development and Employment), in Honduras. This eventually snowballed into an adoption of the more extreme private Charter City model and was only recently halted after significant protest by the local population.

Babson Global Inc, the commercial arm of Babson college, embarked on a new mission in 2013 to introduce a worldwide network of Charter Cities. The heavy industry tycoon Charles Koch is one of many notable graduates of Babson college, his Heritage foundation has active members serving on the board of Babson college and he is one of the central figures in this story. Another important figure is Shanker Singham, a London born dual national who often refers to himself as American, who headed up this new project at Babson Global Inc as the Managing Director of Competitiveness and Enterprise Cities Project. During his time there Babson Global offered packages for e-City installation to potential host countries, offering integrated support at every level. Their name for this desired global network of enterprise cities where laws are seen as services that businesses demand, was the World Operating System. Singham officially left Babson Global in 2015, however he has remained a major proponent of the idea ever since. He originally made his name in the privatisation of the English electricity market in the 1990’s and now lists his experience of privatising national assets as a key skill in his biography page for Competere Ltd. As reported by Baker Street Herald, Singham was a key figure, alongside Erik Brimen and Dr Barbara Kolm, during their time at Babson Global, in reshaping Romer’s original state-backed Enterprise cities idea into the fully privatised Charter City model now being peddled in Britain.

It is argued by the advocates of Charter Cities that this idea will unleash unrivalled economic growth and raise the residents of such cities up out of poverty. However, there is little if any evidence to support this theory and conversely, there is a mountain of evidence detailing the exploitation, corruption and lawlessness that similar arrangements cause.

The idea for Enterprise/Charter Cities is like that of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), of which there are many different examples around the world. Some SEZs are popularly cited as successful examples that we should be trying to emulate, such as Shenzhen, Hong-Kong and Bangladesh. These examples are commonly touted by proponents of the idea as shining examples of what all Charter Cities could become. It is true that they have all been hugely successful in delivering economic growth for their areas. While each of these was a public-private partnership that had specific circumstances both locally and globally that made them successful, they also took years to find their feet. What the proponents of this idea fail to mention is that these circumstances, most important of which was access to cheap exploitable-labour in a booming global economy, were fundamental to the success of these SEZs and are unlikely to be replicable now in other places.

Honduras was a key battle ground for the modern Charter City initiative prior to Brexit. Following Romer’s failed attempt and a subsequent change in legislation by the Honduran Supreme Court to outlaw ZEDEs, a new government bowed to another initiative that was launched for a fully private ZEDE. Erik Brimen, formerly of Babson Global, returned with the financial backing of American billionaires including Peter Thiel, CEO of Palantir and co-founder of PayPal with Elon Musk, to try again. Brimen came incredibly close to realising the first truly privately operated city in Honduras, forming his company/town Prospera and attracting a significant amount of investment before ultimately the project imploded. The neighbouring town of Crawfish Rock was connected to Prospera’s water supply at Brimen’s direction, following issues with their own system. He then went on to use the water supply in a power play during a dispute with the residents of Crawfish Rock and eventually cut the town off. He continued to aggravate locals in a series of heated public exchanges over their concerns about the true intentions of his project and a lack of transparency over plans for future land acquisition. Following a significant period of protest Honduras elected a new government who promptly repealed the ZEDE legislation that permitted Prospera’s existence and the project eventually collapsed. The example of the water supply in this situation is a basic yet clear example of how private companies, particularly those led by dangerous idealogues, will behave when given complete control of a territory.

Charter Cities in Britain will be no different, due to the sheer scale of the project it will likely be far worse than can be imagined now. In short shrift, there will be no public services to speak of and everyone must abide by the laws set out by the corporate owners or face the punishments that they also define. Such an arrangement will only lead to massive human suffering and the enrichment of the few individuals who are pulling the strings. The first step will be the complete deregulation of everything within the boundaries. Not this light touch deregulation we are seeing across the UK now, but the complete removal of all regulations surrounding workers’ rights, environmental protections and of course their own business and tax obligations. Everything will be privatised and these Charter Cities will operate under the rules defined by the Peel Group in Liverpool, DP World in London and the other private companies that now own the rest of the sites. If you can’t afford to pay for healthcare, education or a private security force with the meagre wages that your 7 day-a-week, 12 hours-a-day job, in appalling conditions provides you, then too bad. That is your fault.

How did we get to a point where the UK government are about to give away entire cities up and down the country to private companies? As with most of the joy in Britain these days, it starts with Brexit and if you follow the money, you get a good idea.

Matthew Elliott, the former Chief Executive of Vote Leave and founder of the Tax Payers Alliance and Big Brother Watch, is recognised to have been instrumental in both the successful yet legally-questionable campaign to leave the EU and the subsequent huge shift right that British politics has experienced since. In a speech to a US think-tank in 2017, Elliott announced that he had been coming to the US for >14 years to learn campaigning techniques from the highly influential libertarian lobbyist Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform group. It was during his time working with Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform that he met his wife Sarah, an avid Trump supporter and prominent right-wing Republican lobbyist. Since then, they have both worked for powerful Koch-funded think-tanks/lobbying groups in the US and have openly sought to import the increasingly successful right-wing lobbying strategies to the UK. Desmog carried out a detailed investigation into the dramatic push for environmental deregulation post-Brexit and concluded that Matthew and Sarah Elliott had been a vital bridge in the Transatlantic network of lobbying groups and think-tanks backed by Koch and Mercer and the subsequent push for deregulation orchestrated by these same groups. Some of which are the same groups now advocating for Charter Cities.

The decision to leave the EU was always about getting away from the democratic regulatory framework and international rule of law that prevented such arrangements on the basis that they are exploitative, environmentally dangerous and function as both tax-havens and hot-beds for a raft of criminal activity, much like a Mafia state would. The vote to leave the EU has now been widely reported to have been influenced by several highly-questionable and potentially illegal factors. From allegations of Russian finance and influence and the illicit overspending and coordination by Leave campaign groups to the controversial use of AI-driven “data-scraping” from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica, it seems it was far from a fair and democratic vote. It is of note that some of the leave campaign groups were reported to have met with Steve Bannon, Trumps campaign manager, a key figure at Cambridge Analytica and a central figure in this wider ploy; and that Peter Thiel was a long serving board member at Facebook. In this post-truth world, the UK has a lot to thank Carole Cadwalladr for. Her investigations and reporting have been essential in highlighting to the public the various elements of alleged corruption flowing through the leave campaign. The year-long investigation into the role and potential influence of Cambridge Analytica on the Brexit vote should have been a tipping point to opening official investigations into the results and all the allegations that have been reported. Yet with the figurehead of the campaign to leave the EU now sat in Downing Street, changing laws at will to protect himself, there seems little hope of that happening soon.

Robert Mercer, a major financier of Trump’s and a pioneer in the early days of AI development, was reported to have directed his data-analytics firm Cambridge Analytica to provide support to leave campaign groups. Using technology that was originally developed for military applications to harvest massive amounts of Facebook data on UK citizens they were calculating who would be susceptible to targeted advertising in the run up to the vote. These services also appear to have been an undeclared expense or gift of support provided to the leave campaign groups that facilitated massive amounts of targeted advertising being delivered to undecided voters in the final few days before the referendum. Mercer has always denied any undeclared support or work for Leave EU, however, Cambridge Analytica soon closed after the story broke and multiple whistle-blowers have provided corroborating information on the story since.

The American-billionaire financing of the Transatlantic right-wing, free-market extremist think-tank network has grown extensively in the last couple of decades. These corporate-fascist networks now gaining a foothold in the UK political landscape have been growing for decades in America. For those members of the network based out of Tufton Street, it has enabled them to buy themselves an alarming amount of power and proximity to the government. With their ideology rooted in the controversial Austrian-American economics and philosophy of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Freedman and Ayn Rand, they have pushed this extremist world view right into the heart of the UK government. The Tufton Street think-tanks, including the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) London, the Tax-Payers Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies and of course the Leave campaign groups in their day are all tightly interwoven into an international network with their US counterparts, largely funded by Charles Koch, Robert Mercer, and a network of other billionaire empires. There is a coalition of >500 billionaire funded right-wing extremist “think-tanks”, known as the Atlas network, that has a stranglehold on both governments and is increasingly dictating the policy agenda on both sides of the Atlantic. Several familiar faces from the Brexit-Imperialist gang are prominent members and influencers in the US organisations, Matthew Elliott, Daniel J Hannan and Steve Baker among others, all hold prominent roles in various think-tanks in the Atlas Network. The Cato institute is another Koch-funded lobbying organisation separated from the atlas network, that has a significant role in knitting together and funding various right-wing free-market think tanks from both the US and the UK.

Primarily with the aim of obscuring their sources of funding, these organisations all make frequent donations and grants to one another. Under the guise of supporting “policy-research”, millions of dollars are spent annually per organisation on donations to other members of the network. The true extent of the financing of these organisations is further muddied by their hiding behind charity status in the UK. This means they have no obligations to pay taxes or to publish certain financial records that companies would usually be expected to with multi-million $ balance sheets and has facilitated the anonymous purchasing of our democracy. However, the true sources of the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into these organisations is now well documented to be mainly coming from Charles Koch, Robert Mercer, the oil and gas sector and a few other hedge-fund and Silicon Valley billionaires.

These think-tanks are not free-thinking institutions genuinely researching novel policy ideas for the benefit of the increasingly impoverished people of Britain. They and their financiers all have agendas that they are trying to push. For some, the agenda is realising Charter Cities in the UK. In the context of Charter Cities, one member of these think-tanks warrants closer inspection, the IEA.

The IEA are the most influential think-tank in the UK in 2022, with 14 of their alumni sitting in Boris Johnsons’ first cabinet and many more publicly crediting the IEA with shaping their highly-questionable ideology that is now being exposed daily. They are moulding the future of the country outside of any democratic oversight from Tufton Street. Interestingly, Alexander Temerko a director of Aquind with alleged links to the Kremlin, serves as an advisor to the IEA, alongside Douglas Carswell formerly of UKIP and now also serving as president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. However, another of their members has had an important role this story already, Shanker Singham.

Singham, previously of the Babson Institute and latterly the Legatum Institute, which was the last think-tank dictating the agenda in the UK, was appointed as Director of International Trade and Competition to the IEA in 2018. His departments’ “alternative” Brexit plan published in 2018 was roundly criticised for proposing a general roll-back in regulations to make post-Brexit Britain more appealing for foreign trade deals. He is now listed as a Fellow of International Trade and Competition on their website, presumably to avoid a conflict of interest with his current government position. He has held multiple government positions since 2018, officially advising on trade. Having resigned from his first advisory role under May after being caught out with a conflict of interest, Johnson could not wait to bring him back into the heart of government and reappointed him in 2020. He reportedly held several unminuted meetings with members of both May and Johnsons’ cabinets and it is likely that he personally influenced the decision for the ultra-hard Brexit we find ourselves with now. Singham was also competing for a £200m government contract related to post Brexit border checks down the Irish sea, having published papers in his time at the Legatum institute that led to the adoption of the policy in the first place. Being in the running for a £200 million contract for which he was partly responsible for creating is one of his Brexit benefits, but Shanker Singham has more to play for than a few million pounds. This is an ideological battle for him, free-market fundamentalism is his ideology, where the only value that anything can ever be ascribed is financial. The way to bring his ideology to the world is via Charter Cities and his new World Operating System, starting with the UK.

From his time at the Babson Institute through to present day, Singham has been present in almost every chapter of this story, with the latest instalment now unfolding before us in Britain. Having provided commercially available products at Babson Global Inc. for governments to buy one-stop installation packages for Charter Cities, he went on to devalue the concept of government and promote Euroscepticism and right-wing free-market fundamentalism within the conservative party before, during and after the Brexit vote through his various think-tank roles. He now sits as an unelected bureaucrat at the heart of our government, apparently advising on trade, but enjoying “unparalleled access” to the Brexit process and senior government ministers, including several cabinet members and head of the European Research Group (ERG) and religious fundamentalist, Steve Baker. At every step down this sorry path, Shanker Singham has been there guiding our way. Now that the full extent of the government’s plans to unleash the chaos of privately owned Charter Cities on their unwilling and unknowing populace is coming to light, remember who has been whispering in their ear and pushing them on to realise his dream.

There is scant information publicly available as to what the government’s plans are with these Charter Cities in the UK, or freeports, as they duplicitously refer to them to downplay the sheer scale of territory being given away. This lack of transparency has been key to get these plans so near to completion. There is little chance that anyone would have voted for Brexit if they were warned before the vote that they were voting to scrap their own rights and to subjugate themselves to corporate-fascist overlords. We know there are eight sites already tendered out in England with the bidding process ending on 05-Feb-2022. These areas are the East-Midlands Airport including Derby, Nottingham and part of Leicester; Felixstowe and Harwich; Humber including Hull and Lincolnshire; Immingham and Goole; Liverpool City; Plymouth and South Devon including Dartmoor; Solent including Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight; Thames, incorporating DP World’s London Gateway and Tilbury ports, Thurrock, Havering and Barking and Dagenham; and Teesside.

Each area is permitted to have a diameter of up to 45km initially (although some are significantly larger), as stated in section 1.2.2 of the government’s bidding prospectus. Sections 4.2.2–4.3.2 go on to define how bidders (existing port owners) are to be responsible for and must include plans in their bid for security services and governance structures. The prospectus further elaborates in section 4.3.5 that the UK government are open to any degree of formality and legal structure in a freeport’s proposed governing structure as long as it is effective. All other stipulations around governance structures for the residents already living in these cities are mere recommendations that do not have to be followed by the bidders. Finally, the list of minimum effective functions that the bidders must maintain as per the prospectus are largely concerned with the profit-generating ability and marketability of the sites. So much for reclaiming our sovereignty.

With eight sites already given away, the British Ports Association immediately began lobbying the UK government to consider granting freeport status to some of the unsuccessful bids, meaning it is highly likely that more swathes of UK land and people will be packaged up and gifted away soon. Scotland has also agreed to two “green freeport” sites, so called because of the environmental and workers protections that have been built into the bidding prospectus for these sites. These sites are yet to be decided and will likely differ little from the eight English sites. Something the former Secretary for Scotland, Alister Jack, was happy to go on record in opposition to.

As this plan has been unfolding in the UK, there has been a simultaneous sustained attack on American democracy occurring too. Thiel was a key financier of the Trump campaign and a close advisor to him in government. He has now pumped in around $20 million to the campaigns of even more right-wing fundamentalists seeking election at various levels of government in the coming years. The attempts to overthrow the government in the US and new moves to install a natural successor to Trump are intrinsically linked to the UK’s decision to willingly gift large swathes of its land and people to private investors. There are several other companies and projects around the world looking to start their own charter cities too, two of which are also backed by Peter Thiel.

In 2019, Thiel invested $9 million in Pronomos, another company pushing the charter city idea. Together they are backing Bluebook Cities and are in talks with African and Mediterranean countries looking to secure territory for their projects. He was also the cofounder and main financier of the Seasteading Institute, a group looking to build independent floating cities. Their original project in French Polynesia never fully materialised but they are now actively engaged in developing 7 other sites around the world. There are other billionaires looking to establish similar projects too, Elon Musk has his own plans for a Charter City, dubbed Starbase, attached to his SpaceX launchpad facility in Texas.

Overthrowing the government in the US, either by force or from within, the UK Charter City nightmare and these other projects around the world are all connected. The main aim is to establish a network of strategically placed, fully independent cities around the world, that will not only engage in a race to the bottom of standards for their residents but will also exhaust the natural resources of their surrounding areas. They will be parasites on the countries and communities to which they are attached, leaching everything from them while contributing nothing, never mind the fate of those unlucky enough to have been trapped within their boundaries. This will ultimately lead to the establishment of a powerful cooperative trading-defence partnership between the world’s biggest businesses that have no desire other than to protect their own interests. Controlling trade routes around the world with private security forces, financed by a never-ending supply of tax havens and exploitable cheap-labour, even has the potential to massively upset the global balance of power. If a trading and defence cooperative of billionaires and their exploitative businesses can achieve this goal, it will be the realisation of a dream decades in the making. Wealth and power unchained, ending democracy once and for all.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Cormack Lawson

Cormack Lawson

Scottish writer focused on UK politics, making sense of what is going on behind the scenes and isn’t being written about in the main stream press