Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” fantasy cannot disguise the UK’s decline

We are, in truth, the “Little Britain” that left the world’s biggest free trade area and is cutting foreign aid. 

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The G7’s landmark agreement on a minimum global corporate tax rate was largely Joe Biden’s initiative, and Britain’s role in securing it would have been in no way constrained by EU membership. But that did not prevent Chancellor Rishi Sunak bragging about it. 

The accord “demonstrates that we as a country can play a leadership role,” he declared. “Various people have asked ‘What does the UK do after Brexit? Has our standing in the world diminished? Do people listen to us?’ I think this is one of hopefully numerous examples of the UK unquestionably playing a leadership role...I hope people feel proud the UK has stepped up and done this.”

With the US president arriving in London on Wednesday, and a three-day G7 summit starting in Cornwall on Friday, we can expect a lot more in that same vainglorious style this week. 

There will be much talk of “Global Britain”, unshackled from the EU’s corpse, regaining its rightful place as a leader of the free world, of it becoming a “convenor of international coalitions” and “a problem-solving, burden-sharing nation”. Boris Johnson, blessed with the good fortune of chairing both the G7 and November’s climate change summit in Glasgow, is grandly demanding an agreement to vaccinate the entire world against Covid-19 by the end of 2022, and has set the UK the world’s most ambitious climate change target (to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035). 

As ever with Johnson, his words should be taken with a giant pinch of salt. He has turned the making of bold, headline-grabbing, long-term promises for others to fulfil (or not) into an art form. He is brilliant at saying one thing while doing precisely the opposite. He is a master of Orwellian doublespeak, with the trite phrase “Global Britain” being the single most egregious example.

For proof of that his G7 counterparts need look no further than the present dispute over foreign aid. In a shameful abrogation of the UK’s claim to any sort of moral leadership, and in a cynical nod to his new “Red Wall” supporters, Johnson seems determined to renege on the government’s legal obligation, and the Conservatives’ solemn manifesto commitment, to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on helping the world’s poorest people at their time of greatest need. As Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, rightly states: “This is not who we are. This is not how ‘Global Britain’ acts.”

Johnson’s “Global Britain” is no more than a branding exercise. We are, in truth, the “Little Britain” that voted, five years ago, to pull up the proverbial drawbridge by leaving the biggest free trade area and most ambitious experiment in multi-national collaboration the world has ever known. In doing so, we have sundered relations with our former friends and allies in Europe, and squandered our usefulness to the United States. 

From Cornwall, Biden will fly on to Brussels where, as he wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post, “I’ll meet with the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Council to discuss how the US and Europe can work in close coordination on global challenges. We will focus on ensuring that market democracies, not China or anyone else, write the 21st century rules around trade and technology. And we will continue to pursue the goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace.” Britain will be conspicuously excluded from those meetings.

“Global Britain” is a country whose previous prime minister, Theresa May, declared: “If you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”. It is a country that has spent the last five years navel-gazing. It is a country struggling to prevent its own disintegration. It is a country that has forfeited the trust and credibility of other nations by breaking international law. It is a country whose government regards immigrants with ill-disguised hostility, and desperate asylum seekers as invaders to be repelled. 

“Global Britain” is a country now powerless – by itself – to prevent China trampling on Hong Kong’s democracy, to constrain Vladimir Putin’s Russia or to intervene in Syria’s endless conflict. It is a country that has undermined its much-vaunted “soft power” by merging the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, that plans to close 20 British Council offices overseas, and that is actively undermining another British institution which enjoys global influence and respect – the BBC.

It is a country whose prime minister has precious few friends amongst the world’s other leaders, cosied up to the unspeakable Donald Trump, and happily invites Viktor Orbán to No 10 when Hungary’s disgracefully authoritarian premier should be treated as a pariah.

Britain is still a nuclear power. It still retains a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and remains a leading member of Nato and the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. It still boasts world-class universities, scientists and technologies. But the sad truth is that it is economically, politically and diplomatically diminished, a middle-ranking state that no longer has a supranational “bloc” to amplify its influence, an increasingly parochial country hampered by nostalgia for its imperial past.

Johnson can dispatch an aircraft carrier strike group to the Far East, or paint his plane red, white and blue, or commission a new royal yacht as a symbol of Britain’s “burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”. But that is so much window dressing, and nobody should be fooled by the Prime Minister’s inevitable posing and posturing on the global stage this week.

[See also: The new royal yacht is the embodiment of Boris Johnson’s hollow patriotism

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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