Does the UK have its priorities straight?
Global Britain is one of Boris Johnson’s favourite catchphrases.
Theresa May used it first in 2016 to declare the UK is not going to become inward looking after Brexit, and under Johnson the phrase has become ever more prominent.
Do not fret about losing freedom of movement among the EU27, the mantra proclaims, look instead at the freedom the UK will gain to deal with other faster growing parts of the global economy. (Even if evidence for any freedom gained remains scarce on the ground.)
2021 is the year it all comes good according to Johnson. The UK has done relatively well in making, procuring, and delivering vaccines. Only naysayers will bother to mention the UK had the biggest GDP drop among G7 nations last year, as well as 150,000 Covid deaths.
By hosting CoP26 in Glasgow in November, the UK will express leadership on tackling the biggest challenge facing the planet. A head start in vaccines also promises a speedier recovery than many.
With President Biden choosing the UK and Belgium for his first overseas trip in June and England’s hosting of the delayed Euro 2020 finals giving a potential boost to its 2030 World Cup bid, Johnson can hope for more positive media attention than the corruption investigations of recent weeks.
Global Britain is tailor made for Johnson, appealing to his fondness for extravagant slogans and incessant bullishness. Helpfully it is both memorable and meaningless, like his multiple proposals for 30-mile-long bridges across the Irish Sea. The public is more likely to remember his upbeat tone, than lack of substance.
How credible a policy then is Global Britain? Prevailing opinion seems to be that at best, reality does not match the rhetoric.
Academics and scientists for instance were promised that any losses from leaving EU schemes like Erasmus would be more than made up for by funding new enlarged “global” schemes like Turing, but so far at least, firm commitments of new funding have not materialized.
The pandemic has also been used as an excuse to turn away from the UK’s achievement in becoming the first and only G7 nation to give 0.7% of national income to overseas aid, a commitment first made by the 1997 Labour government and backed by the Conservatives and Liberals at the 2010 election.
With the promise “suspended,” the UK aid budget is due to fall from about £15bn before the pandemic to less than £10bn and push it off its perch as the 3rd largest international aid donor. Foreign office leaks complain of diplomats being instructed to find at least 50% cuts to budgets.
Far from the UK “punching above its weight” this looks more like Britain turning its back on cherished outward looking and humanitarian traditions, in favour of throwing a bone to Little Englanders.
Despite much talk of investing in a Northern powerhouse and infrastructure to “level up” the nation from its south eastern dominance, the reality is that new funds have not started flowing or even been committed. Most of Chancellor Sunak’s much vaunted borrowing is being spent on existing quantitative easing for banks and temporary furlough schemes, not new productive investments.
Good news for the already asset rich, with share and property price rises being propped up, but far from being a New Deal.
An ideological predilection for treating the public sector like a game of Jenga by salami slicing budgets is alive and well. Seemingly no brainer spending schemes to improve building safety or incentivize domestic insulation and renewable energy schemes are still being squeezed, not increased.
Despite Downing Street’s current fetish for flag waving, spending cuts also extend to the armed forces. Numbers of trained personnel are being pared down over the next five years, just as the Defense Secretary is announcing the new £3bn showpiece Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier will be deployed to Asia shortly “to fly the flag for Global Britain.”
The public is asked to rest assured however, because the UK has also decided “to increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons by 40% as global threats rise.”
So that’s all right then, in the event of atomic Armageddon, Britain can still do more than its fair share.
A continuing public sector pay freeze is little surprise. But after a whole year of loudly hailing key workers as heroes through the pandemic, it is telling that ministers could not anticipate that hard pressed nurses would not be full of gratitude for being offered a 1% pay increase.
Of course, Johnson is not known for his consistency. His government may yet act on its slogans to invest for the long term, especially in the wake of Biden’s infrastructure plan.
A recent Evening Standard article hints as such by reporting that Downing Street has let it be known that Boris Johnson wants to become “a unifier who no longer divides for electoral gain,” and be seen as the “weathered father of the nation.”
It says a lot, but little reassuring, that the latter phrase was reported straight with neither the obvious punchline referring to his private life, nor any reference to the fact that he had described Prince Phillip the same way only a few days earlier.
Unity will be foremost in Johnson’s mind should the Scottish Parliament election on May 6 produce a majority for a new independence referendum.
If this happens, it raises the prospect of Johnson hosting the CoP26 meeting in a country that is voting to leave the UK, and probably quite soon also having to find a new base for the Royal Navy’s Trident submarines.
Would votes to reunify the island of Ireland be so far behind, instead of many decades hence? Might the same government boasting of global Britain see Great Britain literally diminished in size?
Only possibilities at this stage, but so are pandemics.
A little less Perfidious Albion perhaps. And much more ridiculous.
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.