Tory Party Conference and post-Brexit economic policy
As we have heard, the Conservatives are putting together the terms of the deal that the UK will negotiate for our exit from the European Union. Whilst we know little more than Brexit means Brexit, we learnt at Tory Party Conference some of the nascent policies of our post-EU isle. This is to include- to pick two real life examples- encouraging jam making and selling bottles of British air to China. These policies are interesting because they exemplify the fundamental problems in the Conservative’s vision of a post-Brexit society.
And not just because selling air is completely ridiculous- bear with me.
Britain has two important powers. One, our global economic power, comes from our very links with the EU itself, with the commonwealth, our international banking centres and our membership of multilateral bodies.
The other, our soft power, comes from our global influence; our universities and our cultural history, the popularity of our media and as a centre of the English language.
In leaving the EU, Britain is giving up much of its economic hard power. This is why the pound is falling so hard. If London is no longer an economic centre, then the pound is no longer a reliable and stable currency.
But that’s OK, because in giving up our economic power Britain will also give up the free movement of people. Without those pesky immigrants, once more British people will be able to thrive though traditional industries of berry picking and jam making, a policy advocated with gusto by Andrea Leadsome on Tuesday 4th October.
This ignores the minor issue that Britain has never been an economic power without a larger framework. Before the EU there was the British Empire. In this peak of our shared idyllic past there existed a Britain that stole from other countries to create a wealthier- although often still unequal- England.
Take making jam. The notion trades on some English nostalgia for empire, but back when Britain was a large producer, this industry was completely reliant on the import of sugar from the British controlled West Indies.
The England that the Conservatives are promising when Britain exits the EU is a lie. It’s a really good one, I want to pick berries, make jam, wear jumpers made from Scottish sheep and then settle down to drink English coco. But the British economy isn’t designed for that, nor has it been since the 1600s.
Leaving this aside for a moment- on the presumption that Government policy steers away from the reformation of the Empire- let’s look at soft power.
The best summary of Britain’s soft power is probably Hugh Grant’s speech in Love Actually, its Harry Potter, Bowie and David Beckham’s feet.
Britain’s soft power is huge. We have so much of it. 18.8 million People- more than anywhere- visit London each year. Whiskey is an international commodity. Two English Universities are in the world’s top ten, and the globes best-selling authors- from Agatha Christie to Shakespeare- were born here.
These are the reasons why China is buying bottles of British air. Because England feels special. Because our shared culture and history feel global. This feeling comes in part from Britain’s influence in the world, and in part is an aftereffect of colonialism. British history is global.
Over the past decade or so the immigration debate as filtered through to everyday discourse and there have been ever increasing calls to limit immigration more and more. This began as a response to immigration overall but since the expansion of EU boarders to include states from eastern Europe EU immigration has been at the forefront of political debate.
These fears are reinforced by a Government and a media that refuses to challenge these assumptions. With each law, each piece of unchallenged rhetoric, each refusal of a tier 4 visa cuts Britain off- in and out- from our cultural power.
If Britain loses its reputation as a global power, and gains one as an isolated island with all but a few exports, then we lose out soft power too.
The point is, British air may be a silly- but real- commodity, but this cultural cache is also under threat.
This is of course not to say that Britain will lose all of its power, but starting point that cultural artefacts and cottage industries can make up for the trade relationships and pass-porting that the EU provides both unrealistic and dangerous.