current affairs politics

Brexit and Britain’s place in the world

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.


  1. Governments do not trade with each other. Trade takes place between individuals and companies. International trade is trade between individuals and companies who happen to be in different companies. They may even be members of the same family.

    All that governments can do is get in the way. This may be desirable, to restrict sales of weapons or pests or invasive weeds. On the whole this interference is unnecessary and undesirable. It makes people poorer and serves the interests of the large producer cartels and associations. This has been known since the eighteenth century, when the mercantilist theories prevalent in the seventeenth century were refuted. Unfortunately, mercantilism has made a comeback, though in continental Europe it never really went away.

    That is the evil of the EU’s mercantilist trade and economic policy. It is astonishing that people who think of themselves as progressive cannot see this. The EU might have reformed itself but that would be like turning round a supertanker.

    Talk about trade deals reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of trade. All governments need to do is to declare that they will not get in the way of people who want to import goods into their country. If the declaration is not reciprocal, then the countries which do not reciprocate are making their own people poorer.

    Why this is so difficult to see is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is because I am old enough to remember the time when returning holidaymakers were confronted on arrival at British ports by gimlet-eyed men in uniforms who made everyone open their suitcases while they went through them to make sure they had purchased such deadly items as cameras, jewellery, nylon stockings or Scotch Whisky.

  2. “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.”

    Orwell got why the people’s vote mob isn’t going to work.

    There is a great deal in this post that I think is deeply wrong but let me ask a practical question. Do you think that this article would make anyone who voted Leave change their vote? I voted Remain but if I’d read this before going into the polling booth my pencil would have hovered over leave far longer than it did.

    You are basically say that Britain is too small, too weak and too morally compromised to be a fully independent country. We should wear sack cloth and ashes rather than look to our achievements. That ain’t going to win you converts but you only preach to the 20% who already agree with you.

    I think the cultural cringe many in intellectual and soft left feel about patriotism is a cause of Brexit. The French don’t wring their hands over patriotism,despite a colonial history at least as bad a Britain’s., They see Europe as a way to promote Frenchness which they still see as something positive. Perhaps if the British cultural leadership had sought to support British identity within a European context rather than giving the impression they would rather it was dissolved away then maybe those who are happy with their country’s culture and history would be reconciled with the EU.

    1. I didn’t grow up in Britain and so I don’t feel particularly British, so I can’t claim any sense of patriotism. But this is where I live, where I choose to live, and the country where I’m raising my children. Obviously I want the best for Britain and that’s the position I’m coming from.

      It would be daft to say that Britain is too small to be an independent nation – as I said in the post, it’ll be the 6th of 7th largest economy in the world. (Incidentally, you should stop yourself when you start a sentence with ‘what you’re saying is…’. If in doubt, ask) Britain is still an influential country, but we’re making a big mistake thinking that the US and China will treat us as equals. Hence we should value cooperation more than we do.

      Would it change a leavers’ mind? I honestly don’t know, but I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. Say nothing?

      1. ‘What your saying is…’ can be a useful way to summarise an argument so as to check understanding.

        I might venture that you could have not tried to link Brexit to the crimes of Empire or imply that Britain is responsible for evil on a par with the Nazis. They aren’t linked. It’s deeply alienating and offensive to try to do so.

        Brexit is driven by identity. David Goodhart’s thesis of the ‘Somewheres’ rooted in a specific place verses the ‘Anywheres’, footloose and global in outlook, is a very good one to understand Brexit. Your post is a classic Anywhere take. It doesn’t connect with most of the people of this country.

        The referendum was lost because the Remain campaign didn’t make it a patriotic choice to stay. The People’s Vote are making the same mistake. The March was a sea of blue and yellow, nowhere near enough red, white and blue. Patriotism isn’t a bad thing that is can only bashing foreigners but something that has importance to many people.

        You are saying you are a bit of an outsider. I recommend that in order to influence your country of choice you should choose to understand it more.

        1. I can only write from the perspective I have. Most of the time my outsider perspective is an advantage, and on the issue of Brexit it isn’t. I’m aware of that, and I’ve made no effort to comment on it beyond the occasional mention. I can’t ignore it though, and anyone who voted remain ought to be asking themselves what their part is in this.

          There are remain campaigns that use a more patriotic approach, incidentally. Best for Britain is one of them, or Stronger In during the referendum. There were many voices for remain, just as there were for leave.

          There’s no Nazi implication in my post. That’s you doing your usual thing of running ten steps on from what I say and then accusing me of saying something extremist. No point in coming back to me on that, I’m not going to get into straw man arguments. I believe Brexit is best understood in a post-colonial, post-empire context, and that is very much a matter of identity.

  3. Unfortunately I couldn’t be on the march either though I was at the one last spring. There was so much more you could have said Jeremy if space had allowed. The EU was set up as peace project following two disastrous world wars. To me it is as much a social as an economic project. People like me who like leaving will be a disaster are not sneering at Englishness (although I do think the vote was passed because England has some kind of identity problem, I am English and British and live in Scotland), nor do we we think we are too small to go it alone.

    We are realistic in thinking that cooperation is better than separation. That many of the problems we face such as climate change and migration plus standing up to bullies like Putin and Trump is done better in cooperation.

    As for these mythical trade deals. There is nothing stopping selling more to the Chinese at the moment. The Germans do. They make more that the Chinese want to buy.

    The problem with Brexit is like the Scottish indy ref. Everyone would have been disappointed since those who want to leave are formed of a number of minority groups with different agendas. These agendas are contradictory and therefore cannot all be satisfied. Therefore the great majority of people will be disappointed and betrayed; the 48% for obvious reasons, those who want migration controlled cause it won’t be. Those who want to “take back control” when they discover in global world with lots of problems that’s not possible etc.

    PS the global elite were on both sides.

    I live in the 21st century not some mythical 1950’s which never really existed.

    By the way Jeremy I think you meant 2.6 trillion although the point still stands.

    1. Yes, that should be trillions. Thanks for the correction. You’re right about the competing agendas, and that’s the saddest thing about it really, that the vast majority of people who voted leave won’t get what they wanted either.

  4. As someone who has worked long term on four continents promoting collaboration between Britain and other countries to mutual benefit, I have watched Britain’s standing steadily diminish. We are a small island that has used up most of our natural resources. We were once dominent, due to ruthlessness (think slave trade & colonialism) and technological dominance (industrial revolution etc). Those times have passed; we might be a leading light in a few narrow fields, but countries with a much bigger resource base, including population, are bound to suppass us. Our best bet is to collaborate and co-operate with others.

    There is much wrong with the EU, but even supertankers turn around. I was and am a reluctant remainer, because European collaboration started after WWII with the aim of making conflict between European nations less likely. The Balkans excepted, this has worked. Another war in Europe would make all other concerns seem tiny in comparison. So I’d rather us stay within Europe and work with our neighbours in a mostly constructive community (just like people (hopefully) do around their home.

    What makes me really angry is the huge amount of distortion and wishful thinking that has been propogated by influential leavers, who seem blissfully unaware, or who do not care, that this will further Britain’s decline and leave many of us significantly worse off and more at risk.

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