Boris Johnson is one of life’s optimists – it’s one of the reasons why Britons keep giving him the benefit of doubt. And the promise of a ‘Global Britain’ pursuing its new course outside the EU is a suitably grand-sounding project for him. But wishing won’t make it so.
The government’s long-awaited Integrated Review of its defence, foreign affairs, trade and development policy is, once again, long on rhetoric but short on substance. The main message is that the UK is going to shift its focus from Europe to the Indo-Pacific.
It will also spend an additional £16.5 billion on defence over the next four years, take a greater role in NATO, and increase its number of nuclear warheads and champion free trade.
It sounds impressive but moving the focus of policy away from Europe is not new. Labour prime minister Harold Wilson promised to do the same in 1964 but quickly met with the hard reality that, without an empire or economic muscle, the UK lacked the tools to be a world power broker.
A few years later, the UK joined the EEC. Johnson’s promise of a “foreign policy of increased international activism” will face similar realities of geography and cash.
Changing government priorities is also like turning an oil tanker. Since the 2016 referendum, successive governments have created a department for International Trade and merged the International Development department with the Foreign Office.
But the results have been glacially slow. Despite the post-referendum promises of a plethora of ambitious new trade pacts, ministers have focused almost exclusively on rolling over the EU’s existing trade agreements with third countries, effectively maintaining the status quo and nothing more.
The slow pace is unsurprising since the UK civil service had not negotiated a trade deal in over 40 years.
International Trade minister Liz Truss – another optimist – proclaims that rollover agreements have been struck with 66 countries and cover 80% of the UK’s trade. In other words, the UK is in a weaker position in terms of its non–EU trade than it was in 2016.
It is hard to see how this is something to boast about. And many of the rollover deals continue to pose problems.
Last week, the agreement to roll over the EU-Morocco trade deal was halted after the Western Sahara Campaign UK brought a legal challenge to the domestic implementation of it.
On defence, meanwhile, before moving towards any new alliances, it would be logical to think that the UK will need to agree a new defence and security relationship with the EU.
John Maynard Keynes’s remark that ‘in the long run we are all dead’ explains why politicians tend to think only in the short term.
Most grand political plans are abandoned as soon as one government is replaced by another. Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ may well die a slow death. Either way, the search for its voice and role will almost certainly outlast its blond-haired cheerleader.
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]