Welcome to HMS Global Britain. It's your captain – Ian "Beefy" Botham – speaking. We're embarking on a journey to the sunlit uplands of the post-Brexit world. Throw away your red tape, it's not needed here. And there is nothing to lose but the chains of the bloated European Union bureaucracy. All aboard!
Whatever misgivings the Conservative administration may have, we must offer credit where credit's due. Boris Johnson and his compatriots have left a lot to be desired when it comes to managing a pandemic, adequately preparing supply chains for the entirely predictable disruption of a hard(ish) Brexit, and dutifully respecting a treaty they signed up to. But they are experts at selling a vision of heady triumphalism that has little basis in reality.
And that was precisely the energy with which secretary of state for trade Liz Truss announced the latest facet of Britain’s so-called global future: the (very) former England cricketer Ian Botham has been appointed as the new trade envoy to Australia. “Ian will bat for [British] business Down Under and help them seize the opportunities created by our historic trade deal,” Truss tweeted.
But the news was sullied by some inconvenient realities plaguing Britain as it extracts itself from the EU. Thanks to supply chain issues, last week the restaurant Nandos was forced to temporarily shutter several of its outlets after apparently running low on its principal item, chicken. On Tuesday, McDonald’s suffered similar problems, this time running out of milkshakes. Greggs, which has 2000 stores nationwide, has been hit with the disruption to poultry supplies too. The chief executive of the Co-operative Group has meanwhile described supermarket shortages as the worst he’s ever seen.
Sloganeering and gestures
The technical choreography required to mitigate such problems must be of secondary concern to a government far more interested in sloganeering and symbolic gestures. It would be hard to dismiss the genius behind Dominic Cummings’s referendum-storming “Take Back Control” mantra. We needn’t forget the appeals to Getting Brexit Done (come what may) that saw Johnson sail into a hefty majority in the House of Commons. And we have been offered no shortage of cultural totems to mark the new age of Britannia unchained: the minting of a patriotic Brexit coin, Botham’s latest career change, and a new UK “trade yacht” likely to cost hundreds of millions of pounds.
Realising his vision for a "truly Global Britain" needs more than whacky infrastructure projects
This is the vein of politics Johnson thrives in. And it is perfectly suited to thumping election wins and all-or-nothing grandiosity (the 2012 Olympics remains the man’s greatest triumph). Unfortunately the project that he was hoping would define his premiership – Brexit – requires a rather different approach. And realising his vision for a “truly Global Britain” – whatever that means – needs more than whacky infrastructure projects.
As Cummings was masterfully pulling on the strings of the electorate, he was failing to adequately prepare for the project of disentangling Britain from a trade bloc that had permeated every level of its economy. And though Johnson can wax lyrical about a new nation pursuing its destiny beyond the four oppressive walls of the European Commission, he has not done a particularly good job at keeping the basics ticking along: food on shelves, workers in factories and offices, chicken in chicken restaurants. You know, the minor details.
But now, in lieu of membership of a powerful bloc that organised trade deals on our behalf, the UK has a former England cricketer with a schoolboy nickname on a currently-non-existent yacht sailing into Sydney Harbour to flog its wares; and a proposed bridge to link Northern Ireland to Scotland that would hardly be completed (if ever started) before the union fell apart. Johnson could have saved some time by localising this jolly and ineffective chicanery into one government department (the Ministry of Bad Ideas, perhaps).
Johnson could have saved time by localising this jolly and ineffective chicanery into one government department (the Ministry of Bad Ideas)
Of course, these labour shortages and supply issues are not the sole fault of a chaotically handled Brexit. The pandemic has much to say for itself too (as plenty of factory workers were forced to isolate, for example). Covid in some sense then has saved Johnson from the hard analysis of Brexit. But this only damages him in the long term: he needs to know what is not working if he ever plans to fix it. But disentangling the two could be like looking through a kaleidoscope on hallucinogens. In that context maybe Botham’s appointment is as sane as anything else.
But here lies the folly in Johnson’s reverie: a chronic confusion between the culture and economics of the affair. These empty gestures are all symbols of something Johnson wants to believe is a purely cultural revolution, proof that Britain’s exceptionalism makes it too big to fail. But Brexit is as much a boring, detailed economic puzzle as it is any kind of cultural shift.
And the whole myth of global Britain is laid bare in its utter shallowness as soon as we realise the government is not interested in proving it has any substance.
“Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” Theresa May asked in parliament. Where is global Britain when parliament voted to slash its foreign aid budget? And where is global Britain when the Conservatives try to renege on an international treaty they committed themselves to? Where indeed.