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Strong on rhetoric, weak on substance – so much for the ‘vision’ of Global Britain

Will Hutton
·5-min read

Global Britain is a catchy slogan. There is the delicious hint of recovered greatness – though this time not imperial but global. It also neatly deflects the charge that leaving the EU is rampant little Englandism; instead, it is the EU that is made to seem parochial and inward-looking. What’s more, it represents ambition.

Global Britain will be a great power as we used to be – cutting trade deals with the world, sending our fleet east of Aden again to project naval power as part of a pivot to Asia; and taking the lead in upholding democracy and the rule of law. The wartime entertainer Bud Flanagan can rest easy. “Who do you think you are kidding, Remainers, if you think old England’s done.”

The government has the country locked in a Dad’s Army mindset – Boris Johnson as Captain Mainwaring and his cabinet of Stupid Boys orchestrating our global advance against the Remainer naysayers. Witness he jubilation last week over the US lifting punitive tariffs on scotch whisky trumpeted as victory for post-Brexit Britain – as embarrassing as it was ignorant.

A day later, the US suspended all punitive tariffs on all EU exports for a four-month truce in the bitter Airbus/Boeing trade dispute during attempts to reach a settlement. In any case we are on the EU side: Airbus and its supply chain are six or seven times more valuable than whisky exports to the US. Moreover, if Airbus retreats from the UK, we lose one of our last remaining big-company stakes in high tech, and a potential champion in the fast-growing space industry. But facts must not get in the way of the Global Britain fairytale.

This month, the government is to publish its much-delayed integrated review of how Global Britain’s new-look foreign, defence, aid and trade policies will hang together. Captain Boris gave a preview in a speech to the Munich security conference last month – again embarrassing. He argued that the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden 20,000-nautical-mile-voyage was emblematic of a recovered independent great power ready to shore up the depressed west, complete with 35 borrowed American F-35s and flanked by a US destroyer.

There may be a virtue, a sign of agility perhaps, to be the first to impose sanctions, say, on Belarus – but for President Alexander Lukashenko that is a pinprick. What matters is EU sanctions, which Britain has lost its capacity to influence. Further, appealing to Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron to abandon joint EU foreign policy to revive with Britain and the US the old cold war “quad” was the delusion of a madman – especially as all the other leaders had been talking about refashioning joint EU-US relations.

I too read Ryder Haggard, RM Ballantyne, CS Forester and GA Henty as a schoolboy – a world of gallant Brits beating down foreigners (mainly the French) and natives as they painted the globe red with British colonies, dominions and protectorates. But at the same time the news bulletins were full of British troops dying in Aden and Borneo for no obvious purpose, and the futility of white settlers’ unilateral declaration of independence in Rhodesia. Harold Macmillan was right to talk about the wind of change – and Harold Wilson to abandon a defence presence east of Aden. It was obvious that Britain’s pretensions as a global great power had to be recast. What those novels represented was already history.

But it’s not history even now to those Brexiters for whom the essence of Britishness is to dominate, show the way, do down Johnny foreigner.

To be the force for good it could and should be, Britain had to be more modest, casting itself as an honest broker

Ed Balls, former Labour cabinet minister, recently paid the Dad’s Army brigade the honour of taking them seriously in a paper, Finding Global Britain, written with colleagues at Harvard’s Kennedy Centre. Britain was not going to remake the world trading system, reinvigorate the west and advance the cause of liberal democracy by itself, he argued. To be the force of good it could and should be, it had to be more modest – casting itself as an honest broker and an alliance builder – and above all stay friends with the EU, whose power we have to leverage to get anywhere.

Sane, levelheaded stuff – but sanity and modesty are not why we’re in the daffy place we now inhabit. Even basic arithmetic eludes Johnson’s gang. Trade minister Liz Truss parades the advantages of a trade deal with the US (worth an additional 0.16% of GDP over 15 years if it can be pulled off) and of becoming a Pacific power by joining the Trans-Pacific trade partnership, which is worth even less. These are meant to compensate the estimated loss of up to 2.92% of GDP from leaving the EU customs union and single market. Shallow trade deals in goods – even in the glamorous Pacific – do not make up for the loss of deep trade arrangement encompassing services we have trashed with the EU.

Nor is HMS Elizabeth a latter-day Nemesis, the British gunboat that sank Chinese war junks to win the first opium war and thus Hong Kong. The Chinese have long memories and will make the unfortunate connection even if we don’t. They are also astute judges of power. They know that the projection of military force with borrowed planes and no economic backup is an expensive farce. No less laughable is boasting about soft power in the wake of coming swingeing cuts in UK aid programmes to some of the poorest countries in the world – exposed last week in a leak to Open Democracy. If only the destitute and dying in Yemen or Somalia lived in Tory marginals, they could have expected much better.

Brexit is an act of self-defeating folly. Our long-run growth rate, declares the Office for Budget Responsibility, has now sunk to 1.7%. We report today that the introduction of customs checks on EU goods in April and July is to be deferred because of fears of food shortages. Trade flows between the UK and the EU are in crisis. The country does have the capacity and values to be a force for good, but this Global Britain is a hoax. The home guard that Dad’s Army so wonderfully lampooned were at least honourable men. The same can not be said for the army in No 10.