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On 'Global Britain'
Written by Alex Massie
18 February 2021
Ever since it was first mooted, it has been tempting to greet the government’s oft-proclaimed belief in ‘Global Britain’ with nothing more – or less – than sardonic laughter. Was this not proof of Britain’s delusions? Was there not something simultaneously puffed-up and nostalgic about it? Britannia should be unleashed to once again rule the waves and all that.
Certainly it has been difficult to separate the idea from those promoting it. The current cabinet does not always inspire confidence and the prime minister’s protestations of seriousness are rather undermined by, well, the prime minister himself. As they sometimes say in Texas, he is “all hat and no cattle”.
Moreover, what a government stresses is often a means of compensating for what it does not have within its gift. There is a sense in which ‘Global Britain’ is a protestation too far and, as such, an intimation of weakness not strength. More than that, indeed, since ‘Global Britain’ implicitly concedes Brexit imposes costs that must henceforth be made up for elsewhere. As a purely trading matter this will be difficult as geography still has something to say about that. Mexico is no more likely to replace Belgium than South Korea is liable to replace Spain as an important UK export market. (Seven of Britain’s top ten export markets are EU member states and Switzerland, also not very far away, is another.)
Making trade more difficult, and hence more expensive, with Europe may be an act of economic self-harm but there we have it. Alea iacta est and all that. Even so, it is necessary to resist certain assumptions. Brexit is a retreat but there is no requirement for it to become a rout. There has been a tendency evident amongst some diehard Remainers to assume that everything said or done by this government must be fraudulent or suspect or rotten. Like all prudential heuristics, this may be taken too far. For it is not axiomatic that the UK must always be mistaken and, consequently, that the EU must always be the good guys, exemplars of international best practice of a kind we have, mysteriously, preferred to reject.
EU good; UK bad is as nonsensical as its opposite claim and, in any case, is a reading which thoroughly misunderstands the basis upon which millions of Remain votes were cast. For they were not made out of love for Brussels or Strasbourg but rather in full recognition that, despite being a manifestly frustrating and imperfect set of institutions, life inside the EU was still more comfortable than life outside it. The EU tugged on few heartstrings, even if it has suited some to pretend otherwise subsequently. (To which we might add this: the suggestion that Scotland leaving the UK is comparable to Brexit is wholly mistaken, ignoring the real attachment many Scots have to Britain. These intellectual, financial, and emotional matters are several orders of magnitude greater than most Scots’ attachment to the EU or Europe.)
Be that as it may, certain other realities should be noted. The success of the UK’s vaccination programme and especially its success relative to the EU’s remarkably bureaucratic, cumbersome, and sluggish vaccine roll-out does not in itself justify Brexit nearly so much as it confirms certain underlying suspicions about the EU. Britain could have organised its vaccination procurement just as easily inside the EU as it has outside it. At the same time, however, the EU’s failure – for such it is, at least in relative terms – is a reminder that size imposes costs as well as benefits.
Dominic Cummings is not much missed, even in Downing Street, but the prime minister’s former consiglieri was – and I suppose still is – a more interesting figure than he is sometimes given credit for being. Above all, Cummings argued that Britain should set itself one over-riding national objective: to be the world’s leading country for science, technology, and learning. A big goal, but a worthy one. For while there are many futures, it is difficult to envisage one in which these areas will not be of vital importance.
Happily, there is plenty to build upon. The UK’s university sector is genuinely world-leading and yet, in some sense, still something upon which we fail to capitalise fully. We have been reminded of this during the pandemic too; the UK’s ability to sequence genomes has played a huge part in mapping new mutations of covid-19. The ‘British variant’ is so known chiefly on account of it being identified here.
So there is a glimpse of one future – or part of one possible future – here. Boosting Britain’s scientific research capability to the point it becomes transformational necessarily involves the placing of large bets with little means of knowing their chance of paying off in specific ways. Rather, it gambles that doing so will earn a reward in ways we do not yet appreciate. It places a value on the unknown precisely because we have not yet discovered it.
This is the rationale for the government’s new £800m Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria), a Cummings’ brain-baby charged with making investments in projects that may very well fail. It is a bet that for every 99 failures, there will be one transformational success; a “high-risk, high-reward” strategy whose ambition can hardly be faulted even if it allows cynics – not that you will find any here, of course – to offer wisecracks on the government’s unerring ability to pick losers.
It is not enough on its own, of course, for it needs to be matched by a commitment to funding university research – and, indeed, to incentivising private corporations to increase their own R&D investment – but it remains a useful declaration of intent. It may only be a symbol, but symbols have a value.
The United Kingdom is not likely to become an industrial powerhouse all over again. Talk of reindustrialising the north of England is liable to be as pointless as comparable talk of reindustrialising the counties of Lanark and Renfrew. The UK may be a middleweight power, but it retains certain strengths: finance, life sciences, the arts, the broader ‘knowledge economy’ and it seems prudent to double down on these core capabilities.
That requires a certain nimbleness and a certain willingness to take on risk. The vaccination procurement programme may be but a single swallow – and thus no guarantee of summer – but it has the merits of showing what can be achieved. Even by this government.
To that end, Britain’s willingness to allow Hong Kongers to move to this country free from the usual bureaucratic burdens inherent in doing so can be viewed as a parallel, but meaningful, exemplar of what ‘Global Britain’ actually could mean. Early days and baby steps, of course, but not nothing either. Another symbol; another indicator of one possible future, if only we have the courage to pursue it.
Again, some of this is the necessary corollary to Brexit: the construction of obstacles vis a vis your neighbours must be offset, at least in part, by the removal of obstacles elsewhere. There is no need to indulge in over-cooked boosterism to note that there are opportunities here for a country able to move nimbly and decisively. Something may be true even if it is said by those of whom you customarily disapprove and if Brexiteers are too fond of Tiggerish boasting, that does not mean Eeyore must always be right. As ever, there is a balance to be struck here and if that can be done, perhaps some opportunity may be found too.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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