It is only four years since Britain voted for Brexit, but that era already feels very, very distant. Cast your mind back. After seven years of Barack Obama’s presidency the transatlantic relationship looked, if not perfect, then solid and uncontroversial. Britain’s relationship with China had entered what officials dubbed a “golden era”. Global trade and growth were picking up while Europe, still mired in the migration crisis and the aftermath of the eurozone crisis, looked stuck in a rut. It was a world in which much was taken for granted.
Artefacts of that time survive in buccaneering Brexiteer quotes, pre- and post-referendum, about the prizes to be won by sailing out on to these calm waters. As Boris Johnson blustered, post-Brexit Britons could be “even better and more valuable allies of the United States” and could build a “distinctive” (chummier) alliance with China. And as Liam Fox claimed, today’s “post-geography trading world” made Britain “much less restricted to having to find partners who are physically close to us”. The 2020s would be the era of pick-and-mix international relations, a tangle of bilateral trading and security relationships rewarding the footloose and the flexible.
You did not have to be pro-Brexit to see the appeal of Global Britain. It offered Britain – the country that had lost its empire but not yet found its role, perched at the crossroads of various alliances – an attractive vocation as the pioneer and standard-bearer of this new age. So much more invigorating than the rival, Remainer vision: cautious continuity as a semi-detached European player.
Four years on, Britain is out of the EU and looks likely to leave the transition period on 31 December. The two sides have agreed to intensify talks next month but a no-deal exit remains a serious possibility. The economic pain of such an exit, government sources suggest, could be helpfully blurred into the costs of Covid-19. Britain is now beginning trade talks with Japan and Australia and entering the second round of talks with the US.
Yet it does so against a completely different backdrop from the one that was anticipated. Not only did Donald Trump go on to win the 2016 presidential election but the early notion that clever-clever British leaders could steer and moderate him looks retrospectively ridiculous. Even if Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, the US’s primary focuses will remain its internal problems and its intensifying rivalry with China. (Meanwhile, in Whitehall, talk of a golden era in Sino-British relations has long been buried.)
Elsewhere, chill global winds are driving countries into the security of alliances: the EU has emerged from its crises as a moderately more credible geopolitical player, at least in areas such as data and trade, while Britain’s allies in the Indo-Pacific are clubbing more closely together to contain Chinese power. The Covid-19 shock is recasting globalisation, with businesses shortening and repatriating supply chains. Geography is back. Spheres of influence are back. Big blocs are back.
The oddity, though, is that a project that rested so heavily on a distinctive analysis of the world has survived the collapse of that analysis almost entirely unscathed. It is true that the British government’s policies are changing: Johnson has launched a “Project Defend” review to look at Britain’s exposure to rival powers such as China, for example. But the vision lives on. The Prime Minister’s exchanges in the House of the Commons on 16 June were marked by MPs’ ire at the abolition of the Department for International Development but also by his 2016-vintage odes to the Commonwealth and Britain’s buccaneering spirit. The Brexiteer elite is stuck in one geopolitical gear and cannot get out of it.
This mismatch is particularly striking when viewed from afar. On 16 June the French politician Nathalie Loiseau, an ally of Emmanuel Macron, despaired: “Global Britain sounded more like a good weather motto and today we are in the middle of a hurricane with international tensions higher than ever.” A senior German official in Berlin concurs: “The world changed and they didn’t notice.”
All of which ought to bother Brexiteers more than anyone else. It is they who see quitting the EU as a historical imperative and they who must make a success of the project. That Global Britain is now stuck in a sort of intellectual rictus does not serve their goals. A swashbuckling trading firm would not head out into the world with a course and a strategy forged in utterly different circumstances. It would update them. Britain should do the same.
That means proceeding with greater humility and caution. Johnson and his ministers could start by levelling with the public about how the world has changed, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, and how expectations of Brexit need to change accordingly. They could shed the theatrics – the race for morale-boosting trade deals at almost any cost – and make the pragmatic case for staying close to the EU’s trade and regulatory regimes in a world of great-power rivalry.
They could embrace joint initiatives on the Covid-19 vaccine; reinsert Britain into Continental debates on neighbourhood security and the Chinese challenge; and they could re-establish the country’s role as a bridge between the US and Europe. They could be honest about the fact that in an already turbulent environment, leaving the Brexit transition period without a deal carries greater risks and the value of compromise is thus greater.
And they could do so – if they want – in the interests of the worldly influence and sovereignty that was meant to be at the heart of Brexit. Global Britain is dead. Long live Global Britain!
This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars