“Fear not, we are of the nature of the lion.”
–Queen Elizabeth I
There was just enough in Theresa May’s speech today to reassure those who campaigned to leave the EU. Crucially, she made clear we are definitely leaving the Single Market and taking control of our borders. She suggested only a great deal would keep us in the Customs Union in some form, a highly unlikely event. Her tone – and such things matter – was forthright and constructive. Blessedly, we all know where she stands.
At one level, all she really did was confirm that we are going to be leaving the EU. But such has been the paranoia amongst eurosceptics about the prospect of some sort of excessive accommodation that just hearing we are going to be leaving will be enough to have Tory backbenchers cheering.
It was a speech long overdue. Having been almost completely silent on the EU as Prime Minister, May had well and truly lost control of the debate. Eurosceptics, dominant in the Tory Party, feared the worst and the media questioned whether she had meaningful plan. As such, despite addressing EU leaders, it was mostly a speech for a domestic audience – designed to assert control over the debate and to reassure Leave voters that she is on their side.
From that perspective, it was a job well done. But it is hard not to come away from the speech thinking that we should be further ahead by this point. When May took over back in the summer, some Leave campaigners were worried that, as a Remain supporter and someone who has spent relatively little time thinking about the future of Britain’s role in the EU and the world, she would not be well placed to help create a new role for Britain.
To be fair, the physical backdrop to the speech called for a “Global Britain”. And there were many points within the speech where she underlined her aspiration for Britain’s global role – not least in a very upbeat, internationally focused introduction. However, by this time in the process it is not good enough to merely speak in generalities, even if the Prime Minister’s impulses are clearly on the mark. It is time to talk about the specific, glittering geopolitical possibilities that can make May’s Global Britain a success.
While all the world is now to be now Britain’s oyster in terms of securing free trade deals, obviously some bilateral arrangements matter more to London than others. Indeed, in the media’s obsession about the terms of negotiations with the EU, a much larger strategic point has been almost entirely missed: the success or failure of Brexit will have far more to do with whether Britain can secure free trade deals with the Commonwealth countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada), the US, India, and China, than whatever are the specific terms reached with the economic basket case that is the EU. That is where Britain’s Drakean, swashbuckling, energies must lie.
The great news (it is far better than good) is that the May government is pushing on an open door. Australia, New Zealand and critically Donald Trump’s America (once again the Project Fear establishment should never leave their day jobs and attempt to become actual foreign policy analysts) are itching to quickly negotiate and secure trade deals with the UK. As these three countries all have a solid record of growth–certainly compared with a becalmed EU—this is the first step toward Global Britain. But this is just the low-hanging fruit. The medium-term test is whether India and China (probably in that order) can also reach trade agreements with the UK. This is what the May government should actually be worrying about.
There is a further Holy Grail to attain if Brexit is to lead to a new Elizabethan Age: the Global Free Trade Alliance (GFTA). This proposed trading group would be a coalition of genuinely dynamic economies, voluntarily committed to pushing the free trade envelope. A legislative initiative rather than a trade deal, Parliament would offer GFTA members (chosen by neutral numerical criteria relating to their economy’s openness) access to the UK market with no tariffs, quotas, or other trade barriers, on the single condition they offer the same to the UK and the other members of the club. Such a radical move would over time do nothing less than remake both the UK and the world.
May gave a very solid speech which should encourage everyone that believes in a new, global future for Britain. She gave a speech that even five years ago would have been unimaginable. But we are where are and now is the time to think big. We look forward to hearing a detailed vision along these lines in the next few months.
Written with James Frayne and published in City AM London, January 7, 2017