Britannia rules only the airwaves

Tories’ “global” brand is aimed just at the home market, writes Jonathan Lis

Boris Johnson with France’s President Macron during the G7 Leaders summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall PHOTO: SIMON DAWSON

To analyse any country’s relationship with the world, first you turn to its neighbours. John Donne’s line that no man is an island applies just as well to countries. That is, no nation is either truly isolated or truly global, set apart from its political or geographical neighbourhood. Even North Korea has good relations with China.

Britain’s relationship with the world starts in its relationship with Europe. The next few years, like the last few, promise to be turbulent. Relations with Brussels are likely to be marked by frequent public rows. Economic ties may stagnate or further decline. Northern Ireland will be a running sore.

This is not about settling scores from Brexit. It is, at heart, a question of trust.

The last five years have been defined by Britain’s bad faith. After the referendum, the UK government refused to rule out deporting EU citizens and blackmailed Brussels with no-deal. As soon as the UK government signed up to the Irish backstop it tried to renege on it, while ministers threatened Ireland with food shortages. Boris Johnson initiated plans to break an international treaty not once, but twice.

The saga of Northern Ireland reveals the hollowness of “Global Britain”. Never mind continental buccaneering: the UK government can’t even be bothered to understand its own territory. And yet the problems of the Northern Ireland Protocol threaten to sour Britain’s relations with its neighbours for years to come. Johnson shows no intention of sticking to the agreement he negotiated, signed and campaigned for; and the EU will not prioritise Britain above Ireland. While both those statements remain true, Britain cannot enjoy normal, cordial relations with its closest allies and trading partners.

Here, too, is the truth of Global Britain: despite Brexit, the EU is and remains our greatest source of trade. The UK can sign all the deals it wants, but it cannot alter the gravity model of trade or the basic way in which goods are exchanged. The problem is not simply geography, but power. The EU is still larger and richer than we are and still doesn’t need us more than we need them. That imbalance can no more be wished away than the European continent itself. As such, when political or trading conflicts arise, Britain will come off worse.

In a healthy country, this would not be a problem, because Britain would do everything in its power to get on well with its neighbours. Britain’s politics are not healthy. Specifically, the government’s calling card is Europhobia. If he were acting in the country’s economic interests, Johnson would develop a UK/EU relationship that befits the reality of our power dynamics and supply chains. At the very least, he’d de-escalate the row over Northern Ireland by harmonising our food and veterinary regulations.

But of course he will not – and that means rocky years ahead. Some businesses will find alternative sources of income while others will collapse. Labour shortages will likely continue. And the bureaucracy so despised by the Brexiteers will become both worse and more visible – particularly when British people begin to travel to Europe again en masse.

The politics of Brexit perpetuates this circle. As Covid recedes and Brexit becomes more inescapable, the government will require a distraction: that will necessitate blaming the EU, perhaps more forcefully than ever. Ministers can get away with this for now – the public is not paying attention to Brexit – but the tactic is dangerous. As we feel the post-Covid economic hit, the government will depend on its friends. In this, the government has authored its own grim irony: the more it needs to improve its EU ties economically, the less it can afford to politically.

The UK is not simply turning its back on Europe. Its retreat from the world stage started before Brexit. When eastern Ukraine descended into war in 2014, France and Germany took the diplomatic lead while David Cameron remained almost invisible. That trend has only deepened with five years of navel-gazing. Britain has not only lost trust, but credibility. A government that has behaved as ours has cannot be taken seriously – and neither can our prime minister. The notion that, in a major crisis, world leaders would call for serious contribution or mediation by Britain’s current leader is self-evidently absurd. That, in modern terms, is unprecedented.

For decades Britain has been defined by postcolonial melancholia, and Brexit was the climactic breakdown. Here is the origin of Global Britain – the answer not to a question but a panic attack

Even if the idea of Global Britain were sincere – which it isn’t – it will always clash with the rest of the world’s steely pragmatism. Other countries will be polite and pose for photo calls, but if they see weakness they will take advantage of it. Sympathy or deference will not persuade any nation to abandon its interests.

Britain’s international politics assumes two basic forms: performance and nostalgia. Trade deals are a key example of both genres. The government needs trade deals with India and the US not for the rise in GDP – easily dwarfed by the loss of the EU single market – but for how they will appear in, respectively, British newspapers and the British imagination.

In the first instance, a government which operates on spectacle alone simply needs paper evidence of a Brexit, and therefore government, win. Few will grasp the specific details of the deals and only a tiny fraction of those will read the text.

The second is more insidious, because it can never be satisfied. For decades Britain has been defined by postcolonial melancholia, and Brexit was the climactic breakdown. Here is the origin of Global Britain – the answer not to a question but a panic attack. Theresa May invented the slogan to justify her version of Brexit. Johnson subsequently instrumentalised it to cement his only real goal: advancing his personal interests. That is, to be the “world king” he’s always dreamed of being. And in the process, appealing to people who might vote for him.

A case in point was the G7 summit in June, hosted by the UK in Cornwall. In substantive terms, Johnson was exposed. Precisely at the moment he was supposed to be “leading the world”, his government announced that it was cutting its global aid commitments from 0.7% to 0.5%, a move which came just months after he abolished the Department for International Development. Many in the international community registered their dismay. Meanwhile, Joe Biden made his displeasure known over Johnson’s antics on Northern Ireland, and a row with Emmanuel Macron over the issue turned into a public briefing war. Here was a country not facing the world, but folding in on itself.

And yet none of it mattered. Johnson got to chair an international summit, enjoy his photo opportunity with the Queen, and receive approving headlines in the right-wing press. The substance was, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant.

The prime minister is not promoting a vision to the rest of the world, but to the British people alone. Global Britain is not about influencing policy-makers in world capitals or around the conference tables of the UN. It is about selling a brand to a select group of newspaper editors and broadcasters who will disseminate the message to would-be Conservative voters.

The deluded part of the British establishment really thinks the world will listen to us, or trade with us, because of who we once were. The cynical part knows the world won’t, and it doesn’t care.

In truth, this is the most insidious element of all. Part of the appeal of Global Britain depends on the world’s hostility: it derives strength not from praise but contempt. That feeds a narrative of both isolation and victimhood, even as it flaunts its imagined supremacy. It also reveals a kind of desperation. Britain was always “global” and always shouted about it. The more it now retreats, the more frantically it must boast.

The story of the next few years will be both ostentation and concealment. Global Britain, a meaningless slogan, is to be endlessly paraded; Brexit, a genuine scar on the country’s economy and global reputation, totally ignored. The Britain of 2021 cares about the world only to the extent it can “lead” it. It disregards the reality of the world in favour of a version produced for domestic consumption alone. This Britain is not global but solipsistic. If Scotland’s government has its way, in less than five years it may not even exist.

Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and the Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio

Current Affairs

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