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24 June 2020

First Thoughts: Trade deals after Brexit, Vera Lynn’s bluebirds, and the know-nothing right

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss says talks with Australia and New Zealand will pave the way for “a global Britain”.

By Peter Wilby

Historic talks have opened with Australia and New Zealand, Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, announces. They will pave the way for “a global Britain”. That’s a relief. We probably won’t sign a trade deal with the US because it would allow food imports that don’t meet our hygiene or animal welfare standards. Nor are we likely to make a deal with China’s aggressive dictatorship. We shall probably get a deal with Japan, but nothing better than the EU got last year. As for the EU itself, ministers seem determined to refuse any offer that denies privileges we enjoyed as members.

Deals with Australia and New Zealand, according to calculations by Truss’s department, will increase our GDP at most by 0.03 and 0.01 per cent respectively. Truss also said we may join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though, when I last looked, we weren’t anywhere near the Pacific. That could increase GDP by an eye-watering 0.4 per cent.

Oh, happy days! The estimated GDP loss of a hard Brexit is between 1.2 and 4.5 per cent. 

Rhodes must fall

Whether or not it is right to remove Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oriel College, Oxford, it is wrong to portray him as a friend of black Africans, as many of his defenders do. Daniel Hannan, a former Tory MEP, claims Rhodes “opposed the attempt to take away the vote from black men in Cape Colony”. But when Rhodes became premier of the colony in 1890, any man who owned property worth £25 or more was entitled to vote. Rhodes raised the threshold to £75, disenfranchising most black voters. Later, he limited the scope of black land ownership, laying an early foundation for apartheid.

In 1894, he also vetoed the inclusion of a non-white fast bowler in the first South African cricket team to tour England. Hannan and others quote the conditions under which Rhodes established Oxford scholarships: “no student shall be… disqualified… on account of his race”. Rhodes wasn’t thinking of black people, but of South Africa’s white, Dutch-descended Boers, then often referred to as a race.

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Magical tinkering

In a “magical” moment, the Daily Mail announces, it has overtaken Rupert Murdoch’s Sun as Britain’s bestselling paper. Though Murdoch’s papers no longer publish sales figures, the claim hasn’t been denied.

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Instead, the Sun claims 39.8 million monthly readers, making it “the UK’s number one newsbrand”. This figure is for “brand reach”, a paper’s total monthly readers including phone, digital, desktop and print. Only a fraction of those readers pay. Another Murdoch title, the Times (along with the Sunday Times), claims “a record 16 million readers”. It doesn’t mention that, with an online paywall, its brand reach is barely half that of any other national daily. On the contrary, it claims to be “the most popular quality daily”. How come? If print readership alone is counted, it beats the Telegraph and the Guardian.

Truly, “magical” is the word for what newspapers do with their sales and readership figures.

Blackbirds over Dover

“There’ll be bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover/Tomorrow/Just you wait and see” went the wartime song from Vera Lynn, who has died aged 103. We waited in vain. Bluebirds are American, never seen anywhere in the UK. 

The songwriters were two Americans who had never been here. Why didn’t somebody insert blackbirds or swallows instead? Well, swallows look quite blue and RAF uniforms were blue. But the most likely explanation, to my mind, is that, with continued US involvement in the war still uncertain, the British thought bluebirds would persuade Americans to keep fighting alongside us.

Forever clueless

The latest Mail on Sunday has a picture spread of students, including Boris Johnson and David Cameron, looking posh and smug at Oxford in the 1980s. They were following American advice “to fake it until you make it”, explains a commentary by Toby Young, another fervent right-winger of that generation. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Young writes, “and many of us still don’t.” Indeed. 

This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football