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Splendid self-isolation. The lack of realism infecting British foreign policy

April 26th, 2020

Play it again Sam. The piano is battered but the tune is very familiar. This time it is China that is the focus of the hostility. It’s too big, too powerful, too inscrutable and too responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic. The John Bull tendency has decided that there must be consequences. There must be boycotts. China must be made an international pariah. The Huawei 5G contract assuredly must be ripped up. There must be a reckoning.

You must remember this refrain. Those furious with China now were in many cases furious with the very concept of the EU. Britain has made a collective decision to make trading with the EU, the world’s second biggest economy, harder. Now voices are pressing to pull up the drawbridge with the world’s third biggest economy.

Actually, Britain is going for the hattrick. It has made desultory attempts to negotiate a new trade deal with the USA, the world’s biggest economy.  Those seem to be foundering on a combination of resisting private healthcare access to the NHS and a horror caused by chlorinated chicken.  No trade deal looks likely to emerge any time soon.

Britain has sanctions in place against Russia and Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Brazil are also on the naughty step for many. How extravagant we are, throwing away potential trading partners like that. Someday they may be scarce.

Many Brexiteers argued that leaving the EU would enable Britain to enter into new trading arrangements with other countries more easily. Whatever the theory, this does not seem to be Britain’s proposed course in practice.

There are many problems with the hard right vision of Britain becoming Singapore-on-Thames. One of the biggest is that no one is prepared to get their hands dirty when specific choices need to be made. It’s all very well making the case in the abstract for being a buccaneering trading nation, but no one is making the case in the concrete for improving trade with individual countries that one way or another fail hygiene tests for many people.  

As a general rule, those on both the left and the right who talk most of internationalism are those who are most prone to attaching preconditions for their amity. The self-image of many Britons is that they are running Rick’s Bar, amorally working with everyone. The reality is closer to a monastery.

Britain should look afresh at how comparable countries deal with the imperfect behaviour of potential trading partners. For if they can stand it, so can we.

Every country wrestles with where to set the balance between open trading and not condoning state delinquency.  Every country draws the line in the place best suited to it. Britain seems to be talking itself into a particularly purist stance, driven by a toxic combination of anti-corporate animus and good old-fashioned chauvinism.  

It doesn’t help that many in Britain seem to overstate considerably the amount of heft it has. Britain’s economy is a sixth or a seventh the size of that of each of the EU, the USA and China. That’s considerable. It is not, however, going to be anything more than a competing consideration. It’s not that others despise Britain. If they gave it any thought they probably would.

Britain’s direction of travel forms part of a wider global trend. Britain is not the only country going through a bout of blaming China. Plenty of politicians in both the EU and the USA see that as a fruitful approach just now. Negotiations between EU and the USA for any kind of trade deal have ground to a standstill and they have instead ratcheted up an escalating tit-for-tat round of targeted tariffs, a feud that has not been halted by anything so trivial as a pandemic.

The trend worldwide is away from globalisation to regionalisation, to closed blocs and promoting national champions. Covid-19 looks set to cement this trend. You must remember this did not work particularly well in Britain when it was tried in the 1960s and 1970s. This leads inexorably to the Austin Allegro. (It didn’t work well elsewhere either – few mourn the Trabant.)  

As time goes by, horizons are shrinking around the world. This has happened before. The world economy was very open before the First World War. It took 100 years for the world economy to become as open again.  Perhaps it will be another 100 years before we get back to the levels of globalisation we saw till recently.

What next for Britain then? If the buccaneers have been keel-hauled by reality, something else is going to be put in its place. With Britain having left the EU and no one being able or willing to make the case in detail for working together constructively with other countries, Britain is drifting into the reactionary insularity that Nigel Farage has been advocating his entire career, steadily getting relatively poorer and less relevant year by year.  This is what the Conservatives have now signed up to deliver in government.

While Covid-19 continues to dominate all our thoughts, no one will particularly notice.  But one day, we’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of our lives.

Alastair Meeks