Dreaming of empire 2.0 east of Suez and a low-tax, low-regulation, no-questions-asked financial paradise only pours salt into Britain’s social wounds
Now we know what “global Britain” means. Optimists have clung to Theresa May’s phrase in the hope that Brexit might avoid falling into insularity and isolation; that a hint of liberal England might survive Brexit. But with May in Saudi Arabia, Philip Hammond trying to build empire 2.0 in India, and trade secretary Liam Fox visiting Gulf tyrants and a Philippines president busy wiping out his own citizens, we can rid ourselves of such illusions.
History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, said Marx. Certainly there is something ridiculous about May, Fox and foreign secretary Boris Johnson scampering around the world as if the last 150 years hadn’t happened, dreaming of a military presence east of Suez while clearly desperate for a deal with any human-rights-abusing dictator that will meet them. But it is no less frightening for that. A ruling elite tortured by its inability to rule the world, which believes such a role is its birthright, can still make dangerous decisions.
“Global Britain”, the international component of Brexit, is just such a decision. It is a strategy that the hard right has dreamed of for decades. We will be the financier and arms merchant to dictators. We will be the trading centre for financial products too dangerous for European standards. We will be the premier investment hub for the emerging super rich of the developing world, where everything can be bought for a good enough price. Britain is for sale, and we don’t much care who is buying.
For the rest of the world, “global Britain” has already had significance. In January, May flew from the court of Donald Trump, where he was signing his draconian Muslim ban, to Turkey, where thousands of President Erdoğan’s opponents languish in jail awaiting trials – and flogged £100m of arms. Trump used May as a symbolic weapon against the EU, Erdoğan basked in the legitimacy she brought.
Senior ministers have already undertaken an astonishing number of visits to the Gulf, paying homage to the oil barons who promise to keep the London markets afloat. Johnson might think of them as exotic local rulers, but they hold all the cards. Saudi holds Yemen in the modern equivalent of a medieval siege, where a devastating famine will starve its opponents into submission at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. But May, Fox and Johnson have other matters to discuss.
On Tuesday, Fox was in the Philippines, greeting a president, Rodrigo Duterte, who apparently compares himself to Hitler and brags of mass murder, who derides the United Nations and is killing thousands of his citizens under the guise of a war on drugs. None of this would have been mentioned, of course.
What’s more, all of government is geared up to this new strategy. Last week, development secretary Priti Patel opened the London stock market and promised to use British aid to expand the City’s financial tentacles into Africa as a great “development partner”. Meanwhile, British diplomats and Foreign Office officials are increasingly chosen for their ability to sell our wares rather than diffusing international tensions.
No wonder Conservative MPs such as Anna Soubry think her party has been captured by those who don’t want a deal with the EU. That would create standards, protections and regulations we would have to abide by. It would prevent Britain becoming the low-tax, low-regulation, no-questions-asked financial paradise some dream of.
And what sort of society is this is likely to create? While this pomp and wealth is enjoyed by the government overseas, it presides over a society where public services are collapsing, homelessness is more visible by the day, social divisions become deep canyons. The domestic implications of “global Britain” will only pour salt into these wounds. A service economy for the corrupt super rich has no need of well paid and fulfilling employment, or a healthy and educated workforce. It needs cleaners and baristas, and call centre operatives and fast food workers. It needs them to be cheap and plentiful. Everyone else will have to survive on jingoism and blaming migrants for their problems.
The domestic implications of “global Britain” might not be as brutal as the regimes we are trading with. But they are brutal.