Margaret Thatcher’s eventual championing of the Single Market in her 1988 Lancaster House speech was fulsome: “Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people. Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.” That’s the vision that still resonates. But, of course, it fell within Thatcher’s ideological leanings towards privatisation and free markets, and it is this that ham-strings Jeremy Corbyn – his belief that the Single Market defaults against renationalisation and State control. It does not do so explicitly, though the way its fudged language (“fair access to third parties”, “liberalisation”, “collaborative economy”) is interpreted can make it seem that way. Interpretation is shaped by the dominant narrative of the day, and currently that narrative is one of monetarism and fiscal austerity. The Single Market Strategy insists on “market-driven” standards.
The difficulty in coming to grips with the logic and preferences of the Single Market is easily represented in a single statement. “This will deliver a modern, dynamic ESS (European Standardisation System) for businesses, consumers and society at large.” [http://ec.europa.eu/growth/content/joint-initiative-standardisation-responding-changing-marketplace-0_en] The implicit assumption is that a single initiative can serve the interests of business, consumer and ‘society’, whose interests in the real world, in fact, diverge in numerous ways. (This is to overlook the negligent omission of ‘citizen’ – or its subsuming under the economic identity of ‘consumer’.) But such a conflation of interests is unrealistic – just look at contemporary breakdowns such as Carillion and the East Coast Rail network where the interests of citizen, society, business and government clash in multiple ways and at great cost.
Even so, following the European Court of Justice 2012 ruling that public procurement can include “social considerations’, the Single Market, since 2016, allows for ‘in-sourcing’ without competitive tendering processes, within given parameters. [http://ec.europa.eu/growth/content/public-procurement-reform-provides-explicit-rules-public-public-cooperation-0_en]
But, still, there is a two-pronged alternative. One, is for Labour to argue to stay in the Single Market, but to force a change in the narrative (as, of course, they are doing) and, thereby, the interpretive framework; the other is to reconceptualise nationalisation and ‘in-sourcing’ for modern economies – possibly as a mix of municipal control (which the Single Market does allow) with State/private sector partnerships shaped, not by market preferences, but by a public value ethos. We could approach the Single Market without Thatcher’s iron inflexibility but with creative thinking – starting, perhaps, with ditching that tendentious word ‘Market’.