Saturday, 1 April 2023

Is it all about Empire 2.0?


At first sight, the idea that the UK should leave a large and prosperous trade agreement on its doorstep in order to join one based on the Pacific Ocean looks like a very strange decision. It doesn’t look much less strange on second, third, or even fourth sight either. It’s not totally geographically invalid however – part of the UK is, in fact, close to the very centre of the Pacific Ocean. The Pitcairn Islands may only have a population of 47 (at the last count), but the men are all out of prison now and anyway even 1 would be enough to make the UK a Pacific nation. In a strange quirk of history, that infamous mutiny back in 1789 has given the UK access to the untold riches of a 0.08% boost to GDP (maybe – even the trade minister seems a little dubious about that claim), all based – as was much of the empire – on a bit of robbery, rape and pillage, for which we should now, apparently, be grateful.

The logic of there being strength in numbers as outlined by the minister is clear, and joining a large and successful trade partnership is therefore well worth the price of having to agree to a set of rules drawn up by the existing members and submitting to the judgements of the partnership’s courts. We need to keep reminding ourselves that it’s nothing like being part of the EU’s Single Market, even if that’s only because the benefits are so much smaller and under the new partnership the courts meet and arrive at their decisions in secret rather than in a more public and accountable fashion. And in what might well look to the remaining EU members as an echo of the past, the new kid in the bloc is already preparing to demand that it has its own way on who else might be allowed to join.

It's easy enough to mock, but it’s a lot harder to understand what on earth might drive anyone to believe that a small benefit from a far away trade partnership is better than a large benefit from one much closer at hand. Badenoch’s claim that it is like buying into a start-up is an interesting one, basing the decision on faith about relative economic growth rates into the far distant future, although it rather overlooks the fact that most investments in most start-ups fail. The argument that economic growth in the Pacific will be faster than in Europe probably stands up only if China is included; but that is not part of the plan and, even in China, growth is stalling.

I have a rather different theory about the potential attraction to the Little Englanders with their dreams of Global Britain, and it’s all about harking back to the past. Of the 11 existing members of the partnership, 6 are former British colonies and use English as an official language (4), a recognised language (1), or the main business language (1), so (unlike those pesky Europeans), they are not proper foreigners at all. Those who dream of Empire 2.0 fondly imagine that all those countries and their inhabitants see England (and England is what they tend to call it even if geographically inaccurate) as the motherland, the country that gave them their laws, customs and culture. This is England’s opportunity to place itself, once again, at their head and to provide them with the guidance that they’ve missed so much since foolishly becoming independent. From that perspective, their history is ‘our’ history; they share in the glory of empires past and dreams of empires future. It’s utter tosh, of course; exceptionalism always is. But never underestimate the power of exceptionalist tosh to drive decision-making either consciously or sub-consciously, even if – perhaps especially if – the decisions are economic madness.

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