Some nations are more sovereign than others. Self-determination and flag waving only gets you so far until Russia turns off your gas, which is why “Take Back Control” won more votes than anything before or since. Communities scarred by deindustrialisation wanted real control, a strong standing army, jobs brought back, and order at the border. Boris knew it, he capitalised on it at the election, and won a landslide.
It was no accident that Boris canvassed alongside Gisela Stuart in Sunderland, committing to state aid. By and large, in the seats that abandoned Labour, there was an expectation that fishing would boom, factories would reopen, and wages would rise.
Perhaps we ought not to be surprised that Boris Johnson would confound expectations and go back on his commitments. Yet somehow, I do find myself surprised by the speed of the UK’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis into the fabled Singapore-on-Thames, more digestibly known as “Global Britain”.
The (re)emergence of Global Britain
There were warning signs. The UK-Vietnam deal had the whiff of grapeshot about it. In it we agreed (or more precisely, Liz Truss agreed) that tariffs on a swathe of Vietnamese exports would be wiped out. Then came the real blow, the Australia deal.
In her eagerness to score a PR win, Truss signed a deal that confounded even the Aussies’ best expectations. In fifteen years, all tariff and quota protections on British beef will be yielded, and this to a nation whose advantage is so absolute not even the US will trade their beef freely. This ‘deal’ is a surrender document which heralds devastation for farmers. But then we will be able to eat Tim Tams, so there is that.
What began as tragedy is now descending into a farce. There is now a recommendation by the government’s Trade Remedy Authority that protections on fifty percent of British steel be dropped, including on steel used for the production of Royal Navy ships.
The TRA’s mission statement is to “help defend UK economic interests from unfair international trading practices.” Clearly, it seems that the TRA has forgotten its own mission in pursuit of this new Global Britain. Luckily, the Prime Minister has resisted this latest siren call from free-trade ideologues, but whether he can continue to keep himself tied to the mast is anybody’s guess.
It could be that the Cabinet are suffering from a bout of Covid-induced amnesia. Evidently, they have forgotten the lessons of Thatcherite deindustrialisation, whose spectre returned to haunt us when our weakened manufacturing and chemicals industries failed to make ventilators or produce tests in our hour of need.
What’s worse though is their apparent and alarming short-term forgetfulness regarding one of the greatest successes to emerge from this mess: namely, the vaccine rollout. Onshore manufacturing paid dividends in saved lives, and now looks to bring soft power as we move to become a vaccine exporter.
A tale of Tory hubris
If not the result of amnesia, then the government’s actions must surely be hubris. Global Britain seems the brainchild of a Conservative party stuck in the early 20th century.
It is a fact to say that our steelworkers, our farmers, and our fisherman cannot compete in the global marketplace, particularly against third world countries with a propensity to dump their produce. Nor should they have to.
Britain has the second cheapest food in the world, a viable steel industry, and thousands of miles of coastline. We didn’t spend two hundred years fighting for rights in the workplace only to be pitted against Communist regimes.
Yet that insulation is being stripped in a Faustian pact that would see our economy further concentrated in the City of London. The inevitable result of abandoning these tariff and quota defences is unemployment, and the undermining of our strategic capabilities. When the next crisis comes, let’s not pretend to be surprised about our chronic lack of preparation.
The Prime Minister won his mandate not by promising to spike our own guns, but by promising to level them up. That mandate was awarded by millions of Red Wall voters, whose communities were decimated by the kind of policy now being pursed in their name. Liz Truss has the brass neck to claim that her Norway deal, which to the delight of Norwegians dropped protections against fishing imports, would be good for Grimsby.
The truth is that by dismantling our protections, this government is not taking back control, but giving it away. Sell-out deals which would make retirees of our farmers don’t strengthen us, they kneecap us. If we had a viable opposition, these mad axemen might not be so easily able to finish what Thatcher started. But the so-called opposition, Labour, would at the first opportunity re-shackle us to the failing European Union.
So, it’s a choice between a Tory party, whose idea of levelling up involves banning fracking and making pensioners replace their boilers, and a Labour party who are fighting tooth and nail against British coal, unconcerned as they are by our dependence on Putin’s Russia for fuel.
Ditching the delusion
The levelling up agenda is not quite as hollow as the Northern Powerhouse, or the long-term economic plan. The new Gigafactory in Sunderland was secured through government investment, for example. But we need another seven, and fast. The green industrial revolution remains a mirage on the horizon, while here and now bread and butter strategic industries are being gutted. Both major parties know the price of everything yet understand the value of nothing.
While trade should be positively encouraged, it must be conducted on a level playing field and with nations and people’s whose standards are in line with our own. The reality is that the government knows full well that British workers cannot compete with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They know that farmers will go under, as they fight against imports of hormone treated beef.
But they don’t care. We’ll get some wind farms, a high street fund, and a Freeport to pacify us, but the aim of the game here is to export and expand financial services. Global Britain is a dangerous fantasy, and those of us who lent our votes need to speak up before we suffer the consequences of entertaining it for too long.