Delusional nostalgia helped create Brexit. It now looks as if this is shaping our future trade policy, the much hoped-for deal to end all deals with the United States. Not for the first time, the UK looks like a prisoner of its own past, unsure of its role in the world and, in what looks like a continuing act of national self-harm, it is abandoning the security, stability and prosperity of the second largest economy in the world. For what?
The idea that the US is anxiously poring over every twist and turn of Brexit so that negotiations can be started on an exclusive trade deal is fiction. The US administration is more interested in weakening the EU, as it drives towards the Trump ideals of economic nationalism, bilateral trade deals and MAGA – Make America Great Again – a euphemism for protectionism, dismantling regulations and lowering standards. The US wants two of the biggest industry groups, pharmaceuticals and agriculture, who are powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill, to be let loose in the UK.
Progressive Americans think the British “have taken leave of their senses”. Republicans, but not many, have some sympathy for the mess their sister Conservative party has got itself into. But most Americans are oblivious to the Brexit chaos.
This is a tale of two countries, one desperate to court favour with America at any cost, and another which is marginally interested in a trade deal – but on their terms.
The UK isn’t listening to what Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary in Trump’s cabinet, Woody Johnson, US ambassador to Britain, and President Trump are saying. It is ignoring history and refusing to accept that America has moved on. Too much trust has been invested in International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who is out of his depth, and remains the most worrying ideologue in Theresa May’s Cabinet. Hard-line Brexiteers seem willing to pay any price to see the US and UK closer together, regardless of the consequences – the market must win. Fox was even quoted as saying he doesn’t like “politics getting in the way of economics”!
So why are we so obsessed about looking to the US for a trade lifeline? History helps.
Winston Churchill, in his famous Sinews of Peace speech in Missouri in 1946, used the phrase “the special relationship” and argued for an even closer one. But that was 73 years ago and things have changed. The strength of this UK-US relationship was reinterpreted by Obama.
Obama suggested America had many special relationships and Britain should be seen in that context – the hard message of not even being first amongst equals. Now we have a president who doesn’t believe in relationships, only deals and partnerships of convenience, all designed to make America great again.
Confirming the extent of his delusional nostalgia, Fox said in November last year that the relationship between the UK and US had been “special for many years but Brexit has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise it to a new level”. There is no evidence to support this. Amid talk of an ‘Anglosphere’ and a new special relationship, the US ambassador could only say “the US is ready to get to work”.
Britain has learned nothing from history. A speech by former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in November 1962 still rings true. “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role ... the attempt to play a separate power role – that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘Commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength – this role is about played out,” he said. Acheson was right about Britain then and now. The lure of greatness is diminishing Britain.
Trump, like Fox, thinks a country should be run as a company. The Cabinet is the board of directors and Trump has even made it a bit of a family firm. His Cabinet is packed out with billionaires and millionaires doing his bidding, up to their eyes in incompetence or corruption or both and having little respect for the nuances of governing or the sensitivities of the governed.
Wilbur Ross is the perfect fit for this approach. He was recently declared the winner of a New York Times competition to find the “worst of the worst” in Trump’s Cabinet. The idea of Trump, Johnson, Ross and Fox handling the future of a US-UK trade deal is scary, to say the least.
Our Trade Secretary must take a much wider and more informed view of the realities of being dependent on the US. Seismic problems, now facing the US, are a reminder of the massive debt and deficit crisis now being created by Trump and the Republicans. The US has just posted a record trade deficit of $891 billion, a record-breaking national debt figure of $22 trillion, and a budget deficit – up 77 per cent on the previous year – of $310 billion, largely caused by massive $1.5 trillion tax reductions. Any benefits from a trade deal with the UK will be one way. They say the devil is in the detail. In view of the stance adopted by the Trump administration, any trade deal will have to be forensically examined. This will be difficult, bearing in mind the fact that the UK Government does not have the capacity, skills or experience to do this as Brussels has shouldered this responsibility for decades.
Billionaire investor Ross is the one to watch. He has described Brexit as a “God-given opportunity” to take trade from the UK. Ross has also attacked “burdensome and unnecessary EU labelling requirements” and argued “for the UK to allow car manufacturers to self-certify that vehicles meet safety standards”. He wants the UK to drop any forms of regulatory alignment with the EU and has hinted there will be no deal with the US if this doesn’t happen.
Fox is desperate for a deal, but Ross sees it as a minor issue – a potentially dangerous position for the UK to be in.
Finally, there is the madness of Trump, his unpredictability, the chaos of the White House and his fantasy deal-making. The treatment of Canada and Mexico over the North American Free Trade Agreement, the abandoning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his trade war with China, the arbitrary imposition of steel tariffs, scrapping the Iran nuclear deal and removing the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change all speak volumes about why you wouldn’t want to trust Trump.
Brexit was never really about the EU, it was always about the state of Britain and its long-term, post-war decline. The UK is struggling with the past, ill-equipped to deal with the present and frighteningly misjudging what the future holds.