I can’t make the People’s Vote march in London today, so in the spirit of joining in I’m going to write about Brexit instead. Here are some facts about Britain’s standing in the world that I’d like to highlight.
Britain’s current trade deals have been negotiated through the EU. Negotiating as a bloc gives the EU the power of collective bargaining. When dealing with the US, for example, the EU commands an economy worth $18.8 trillion. That’s a decent match to the US at $19.3 trillion.
When Britain leaves the EU, it will negotiate trade deals independently. To Brexit campaigners, this freedom to make trade deals is one of the biggest and most compelling reasons to leave. But from a position of equals as part of the EU, this is the basis on which Britain enters negotiations independently: with an economy worth $2.6 trillion.
Britain will sit down with China, an economy six times larger and more powerful than ours. Or Trump’s America, an economy over seven times larger. How do think that’s going to go? Let me write you a sample tweet:
“American healthcare is the best in the world. UK says no role for our companies in failing NHS. I say NO DEAL!”
A leading slogan for the Brexit campaign has been ‘take back control’. That is going to prove impossible in the trade department. Terms will be dictated by more powerful nations.
We aren’t talking about it much because the figures aren’t in, but 2018 is likely to be the year that India’s GDP overtakes Britain’s. We regularly trade places with France and I couldn’t say what order they’ll come in, but Britain is no longer in the top five global economies.
These relative positions are entirely symbolic of course, but they illustrate a larger trend. As Niall Ferguson argues in his book Civilization, “what we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance.” After centuries of punching above its weight, Britain’s decline is inevitable. Personally, I find little to regret in that. We are, after all, a nation that has invaded 9 out of 10 of the world’s countries and this is still a point of pride in Britain, not shame. We have never had to face our legacy the way previous aggressors such as Germany and Japan have done. It gives us an entirely false sense of who we are in the world.
“It is not unusual for a country to succumb to a state of denial as a long chapter in its history is about to end” writes Sam Knight in his taboo-breaking article about the queen. He argues that because Queen Elizabeth has been in power for such a long time, we have had a sense of continuity from the days of empire until today. Her reign won’t be publicly assessed until the queen dies. When we stop to reflect, it is “likely to be remembered as a reign of uninterrupted national decline.”
Brexit is a denial response to Britain’s changing place in the world, and it’s the opposite of what we should be doing. With their enormous populations, China, India and others were always going to grow and catch up. And rightly so – their growth means people being lifted out of poverty and global inequalities reduced. The world is tilting to the East. The response for countries like Britain ought to be greater cooperation, not competition. Collective bargaining is our best chance of having a role in global affairs.
If we were able to hold a more realistic sense of who we are and how important we are going to be in future, we might want to keep our friends closer. We might tone down the talk of a ‘new Elizabethan age’ and plucky Britain forging its own way on the world. And we might want to march for a People’s Vote.