We will seize the opportunities of our departure from the EU, said Theresa May, back in the honeymoon days of her leadership when she still said things “to forge a new role for the UK in the world”.
Too much time has been wasted, by me at least, on open-mouthed outrage at the ludicrousness of this presentation, with the EU as our boring boyfriend, standing in the way of us playing the field. A more accurate analogy would be that, previously, we were on the field as part of a team. Now we’ve left the team and seek to play on our own, but that will necessitate changing all the rules, with no evidence that anyone else playing the sport is remotely interested.
It’s time to focus on what this new role will be. The overwhelming likelihood is that nobody has a clue, yet that lacuna where a plan should be won’t stay empty for ever. Each time May or a member of her government makes a statement conveying intent, even on the hoof and only hazily determinable, the position hardens. The campaign group Global Justice Now has been trying to map the new territory: a lot of the information so far looks more like a dead end than a waypoint, but it’s all we’ve got to go on.
Item one: whatever the question is, free trade is the answer. The trade minister Mark Garnier wants Britain to become the “truly global leader in free trade”. It is unclear what this would look like in practise, unless it means “we want to be the country that nurtures its domestic industry and protects wages the least”. Free trade is “a glorious joy”, according to Liam Fox: “Ask yourself whether there has been a greater emancipator of the world’s poor than free trade,” he commanded the World Trade Organisation in September.
That’s the trouble with Fox, he only asks himself. Asking anyone who knows anything might result in a more complicated picture, in which the governmental nurture of homegrown industries – mainly by shielding them from foreign competitors – has always been a major element of emancipation from poverty. Nonetheless, this is the basket where they have all their eggs.
Who do they want all this free trade with? So far, the countries mentioned or visited by trade ministers as potential close trade partners include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Turkey, Israel and China. Tack this on to the Brexiters’ obsession with establishing a “prosperity zone” of North America, Australia and New Zealand (an alliance known, until the ideological ascendancy of pathetic liberals, as the “white Commonwealth”), and we have a slightly clearer idea of what they think trade is: the judicious export of hardware needed by regimes who want to subdue their people, plus intense friendliness among nations who speak proper English.
In real life, our weapons market is greatly exceeded by our export of paper: brochures alone account for 10 times more income than all arms combined. If we really wanted to maximise our assets, we would be visiting nations with a vibrant fringe theatre scene. Our other growth area is services, where – even leaving aside travel, banking and transport – the export value grew by 2.1% in 2014, mainly accounted for by a boost in demand from the Netherlands. Meanwhile, our export of higher education continues to thrive, and will do right up until the hard Brexiters have to make good on their foolish immigration promises by reducing student visas.
On to foreign aid: Priti Patel, the international development secretary, spelled out that “British soft power is exactly where DfID and our aid and other relationships around the world come together to deliver in our national interest, and deliver for Britain when it comes to free trade agreements but also life post-Brexit.” This is a bizarre new interpretation of the purpose of aid, which was conceived not to further the national interest, but to alleviate hardship. That’s why it’s called “aid”, rather than “PR” or “strategic nest-feathering”.
Yet only by Patel’s definition would it ever make sense for rival ministries such as that of defence to be bidding for slices of the aid budget. The MoD wants to spend aid money on body armour and naval patrols, notoriously helpful apparatus in the fight against poverty.
More chilling is the call of Admiral Sir Phillip Jones, the first sea lord, for “the armed forces to more closely support the UK’s prosperity” – and his pledge that “the Royal Navy stands ready once again to be melded and aligned for best effect with our nation’s growing global ambition”. It is a strange “free trade” that needs a gunboat to support it.
Underneath all the silliness, the sabre-rattling, the crowd-pleasing scorn for all things European, the narcissistic nationalism, there is a fundamental, unifying error: they have confused “liberalism” with “morality”. With the established liberal order collapsing everywhere, they gleefully seize the opportunity to repudiate its values. Yet many of these values are just as much part of the conservative self-fashioning as they are of the liberal. Trading peaceably and cooperatively, helping those in need, defending the weak against the strong: if these principles belong to the vanquished left, that would come as news to the Women’s Institute and the Rotary Club.
The Tories holding the reins may only be essaying this grandiloquent imperialism as a way to mask the absence of any meaningful strategy, but they trash human decency at their peril.