Earlier this week, the British government unveiled its long-awaited grand strategy that would combine both its defence and foreign policy ambitions into a single, cohesive, coordinated and overarching plan.
It hit the desks of policy wonks with a thud, containing 100 pages of breathtaking prose that set out the United Kingdom’s intent to focus its future on the “geopolitical centre of the world” — the Indo-Pacific region.
For sure, it said the UK would continue to uphold its key role in security and peace in Europe and beyond through its partnership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Its nuclear arsenal would be increased by 40 per cent — with Foreign Minister Dominic Raab telling the BBC that nuclear warheads provided “the ultimate insurance policy” against international threats.
A cold war with China?
No sooner had those words been uttered than he went on to say how the UK would focus its efforts now on building a relationship with China where trade could prosper, while the next words out of his mouth went on to describe that British trade and industrial secrets would need to be protected from those in China who would take advantage of that know-how one way or another.
“It would not be feasible to go into some old, outdated, cold war with China”, he said — which all seems rather at odds with building up that nuclear deterrent.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, the brand spanking new carrier of the Royal Navy is being sent on its first operational deployment to the waters of the Indo-Pacific region soon, and at the end of next month Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself will be heading to India on his first grand tour since the UK regained its international freedom by leaving the European Union.
Situation Room in Whitehall
Also in the strategy came the not-new news that there would a hi-tech, smart-board, ultra-secure Situation Room built within the bowels of the Cabinet Office, one that political leaders and the top military and civilian echelon can use to watch crises unfold in real-time technicolour. What the White House has for decades, Whitehall can have too.
Gosh, I honestly thought that the Brits would have had one of these Hollywood screen set pieces of political theatre already. Are they not de rigueur for a nation that has the ability to project itself on the world stage through the predictable presence of an aircraft carrier? After all, the UK is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
I find it hard to take this new global outlook with the gravitas it is meant. This vision of London somehow being able to project its — dare I say it — ‘imperial’ power on the other side of the world, makes me want to pinch myself and check the calendar. Yes, it is 2021, not 1951. It is six decades since the Union Jack was lowered east of Aden, and those halcyon days of pith hats, long white socks and crisply starched-uniforms ordering tipples at Raffles in Singapore are only alive in the words of Rudyard Kipling and Noel Coward.
And Hong Kong? Well, given the events that have unfolded in the former British colony over the past two years, relations between London and Beijing have been strained. Less than two months ago, the UK imposed sanctions on businessmen over China’s policy of dealing with minority Uighurs, while China says they provide vocational training, aimed at eradicating extremism.
Sweeping visions of imperial might
If the integrated foreign policy and defence review is supposed to provide the big picture of Britain’s place in the world, its trade statistics make for much more grim reading, with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) providing the material that cannot be glossed over in grand and bold sweeping visions of imperial might.
Yes, a post-Brexit Britain is charting a new course in the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific region — it is to become an associate member of the ASEAN trade group too.
But far closer to home, things are not looking good.
The ONS reported that the January trade performance was the worst since monthly records began in 1997, as a 1.7 per cent rise in non-EU trade, worth £200 million (Dh1.02 billion), failed to make up for the plunge in cross-border activity with the UK’s biggest trading partner. Overall, global UK exports and imports fell by about a fifth.
For all of the talk in Whitehall about becoming a global trade power — and more — it is ignoring the world’s third-largest trading bloc on its doorstep. A market close to hand of 500 million people is being strangled as the UK looks to build trade links on the other side of the globe.
Britain’s exports of goods to the EU plunged by 40.7 per cent in January as the first month since Brexit. Yes, the imposition of a new Covid lockdown too resulted in the biggest monthly decline in British trade for more than 20 years.
But the figures show a very worrying trend indeed. For all of the businesses that import and export their goods across the border, there is a very hard pill to swallow. Exports to the bloc fell by £5.6 billion, while imports fell by 28.8 per cent or £6.6 billion.
Exports of food and live animals to the EU were the hardest hit, collapsing by 63.6 per cent in January. Consignments of fish and shellfish were down by 83 per cent from the level a year ago to only £16 million. While food and live animals account for only 7 per cent of total UK exports, they are the lifeblood of farmers and growers.
It is this trade with Europe that fills the shelves of supermarkets and speciality shops in the high street. It is these goods that fill the showroom of retailers. It is these goods and services that power British industry. And it is these goods that are listed in online catalogues where British people click and collect.
It’s one thing to be a big cheese and go for broke on the world stage, another when cheese makers go broke in Warminster. Maybe I am missing something?