The Covid pandemic has made us think about other countries and compare how different governments have been handling things – unless of course they are doing better than us in which case, international perspectives are all such a giant waste of time.
After six weeks cooped up inside our homes, our private worlds have shrunk, but it also feels our collective worldview has turned inwards and is becoming more parochial.
After furious rows about keeping the union together, we are seeing our relatively small island fracture into four nations all doing their own thing. Boris Johnson has never felt more like he’s Prime Minister of England alone.
And despite the fact that this a global pandemic where powerful, influential countries should all be pulling together, multilateralism has become a dirty word in an era of populist leaders.
We have a US president who has taken great pride in pulling at the threads of global institutions to try to make them fray. His debut at the UN as Leader of the Free World was to declare his global strategy was “America First” – now it’s America is first, when it comes to Covid deaths. He has attacked the UN, NATO and now the WHO, which has become the latest battleground for his ongoing anti-China agenda.
And we are trying desperately to get a trade deal with the US and well as negotiate one with the EU at the same time.
The Government has said that it is cracking on with trying to do both at the same time with no extension, while also trying to handle the coronavirus crisis and prepare for the looming mother of all recessions. Sounds really doable right?
At an online event hosted by the Strand Group this week, Britain’s attitude to the concept of multilateralism in an increasingly protectionist and inward-looking world was discussed. Former rivals, Ed Balls and George Osborne hoped that the UK could use its influence to persuade America to keep open minded about the need for co-operation, but I don’t feel as optimistic.
We are in no position to lecture anyone about strengthening the ties that bind us as we leave the EU, which so many around world see as an act of political and economic self-sabotage. If the UK Government has any sense it will tread carefully and not rush into a hasty trade deal with Trump before the US election. He may not win. We may find ourselves at the back of the queue. The key relationship to focus on getting right, even post-Brexit, must be with the EU which is where we will continue to do the lion’s share of our trade in goods and services. We must stay within the orbit of EU for the sake of our economy. Whether a Brexit-fuelled Tory Party will agree is a different matter.
This is where Keir Starmer should chart a different course. He has wisely not called for a Brexit extension, but he can make the business case for why we should stay close to the EU, keep the US warm while not committing to anything pre-election and argue for Britain to look outwards again and take pride in good relations with other countries. If Starmer continues to make waves as he’s done so far (although it’s very early days) and creates a buzz, other leaders will likely want to meet him. He could end up looking more of a global statesman than our Prime Minister – the man who took us out of the EU and threatens the Union.