Whoever enters the two terms “Brexit+Empire” into Google will be rewarded with 37 million hits. A search refined by “nostalgia” results in “approximately” 459,000 hits. Further combinations, such as “Brexit Empire delusion” or “Brexit Empire 2.0” are available from the search engine.
Is this how the Brexit fog lying over the United Kingdom will lift? Not in the sense of a solution to the British withdrawal from the EU, but in the search for possible causes that led to the British misjudgement.
Picture: By unknown
Yesterday the fear of migrants, today the dream of a Global Britain
Boris Johnson raved about “Global Britain” in his first speech as foreign minister in December 2016 and as prime minister at the end of July 2019. However, the word played no role in the election campaign before the EU referendum on 23 June 2016. Then why now?
At that time, the Brexiters, led by conservative MPs Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, preferred to rely on the fear of the British of an alleged superstate “Brussels” that would consume the last remnants of British sovereignty, or of an alleged imminent influx of millions of Turks to the island.
Compared to that, “Global Britain” sounds much nobler, almost like a vision. Or are we rather dealing with the vision of nostalgics, looking ahead back to the Glorious Empire 2.0? After all, as minister of education, Michael Gove incurred the wrath of teachers and university lecturers when he presented a national curriculum in 2013 almost entirely focused on English-British national history. Local, not global was the thinking behind it. Gove had completely to revise the draft under protest.
Johnson raving about free ports and free trade
Talking about Global Britain, Johnson likes to speak enthusiastically and rhetorically about the countless free ports on the island (good for jobs, less for the trade balance) he wants to open after the Brexit, or about free trade with the whole world, with occasionally making mention of the Commonwealth.
There will be no “Singapore in the North Sea” with the EU, MEP Guy Verhofstadt now harshly declared. The prospects for all these great trade agreements with the entire Commonwealth and, of course, the United States are shrinking, even without Verhofstadt’s veto, on closer examination.
A post-Brexit-Britain could end up in Singapure’s league
Australia’s largest trading partner? China, not the UK. Canada’s largest trading partner? Its neighbour south of the 49th latitude, with three quarters of all exports and two thirds of all imports. The EU’s biggest trading partner? The USA, China, Switzerland, in that order. Post-Brexit Britain could possibly find itself on a par with – Singapore, 1.8 percent trade share (which is quite impressive for Singapore and its 5.6 million inhabitants).
As early as 2016, Oxford professors Sally Tomlinson and Danny Dorling warned of illusions, “Of the over 100 former colonies, protectorates or dominions once ruled by Britain (depending on how you count them) 52 eventually transformed into the Commonwealth, although 31 are not that significant for trade. They still have populations of less than 1.2 million. Persuading former colonial countries to sign trade deals might be difficult. The Trans-Pacific Partnership recently sealed between the USA, Japan and ten other Pacific Rim countries included five Commonwealth countries. Canada has already done a deal with the EU. The UK would have to negotiate separate trade deals with its larger former colonies, if they were agreeable.”
By Unknown – Alfred Caldecott: English Colonization and Empire. John Murray, London 1901., Public Domain,
“Persuading former colonies to sing trade deals might be difficult”
“Von den über 100 ehemaligen Kolonien, Protektoraten oder Herrschaften, die einst von Großbritannien regiert wurden (je nachdem, wie man sie zählt), verwandelten sich 52 schließlich in den Commonwealth, obwohl 31 für den Handel nicht so bedeutend sind. Sie haben immer noch weniger als 1,2 Millionen Einwohner. Es könnte schwierig sein, ehemalige Kolonialländer davon zu überzeugen, Handelsabkommen zu unterzeichnen. Die kürzlich zwischen den USA, Japan und zehn weiteren Ländern des Pazifischen Raums geschlossene Trans-Pazifik-Partnerschaft umfasste fünf Commonwealth-Länder. Kanada hat bereits ein Abkommen mit der EU abgeschlossen. Das Vereinigte Königreich müsste getrennte Handelsabkommen mit seinen größeren ehemaligen Kolonien aushandeln, wenn sie einverstanden wären.“
Over salmon and risotto, the penny finally dropped
I wonder if Boris Johnson knows. What he didn’t know, however, and what the Financial Times smugly reported from Luxembourg on Wednesday (immediately denied by London) was the obvious ignorance of Prime Minister Johnson about border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland after a Brexit. His counterpart, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, is said to have told his Brussels counterparts after his lunch with Johnson that the Prime Minister had, probably for the first time, understood the importance of the EU’s internal market in this conversation.
“EU officials also described a lunch in Luxembourg on Monday between Mr Johnson, Michel Barnier, and Mr Juncker as the moment the ‘penny dropped’ for the prime minister on the complexities involved in replacing the Irish backstop”, the Financial Times wrote on 17 September.
And so, like Johnson, the United Kingdom continues to stagger between claim and ignorance, fear and a sense of optimism. By the way, with a big British bookmaker last week the odds for a Brexit this year were 1.44 for a no and 2.5 for a yes. But then, Boris Johnson had not yet eaten risotto and roasted pollock with Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg.
By Chelmsford Museum Service – Chelmsford Museum Service, CC BY-SA 4.0,