Global Britain: what is next?BY LUCA BELLARDINI

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The end of his tenure at 10, Downing Street, raises a fundamental question: what will remain of the ideas and policy measures wherewith — no matter what — did Boris Johnson shape the international positioning of present-day UK?  

In judging the outgoing Prime Minister, one is bound to think that he was not only the main upholder of Brexit but, even more so, the head of government most committed to a vigorous Western response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, as well as — more generally — to a free world that does not bow its head before autocracies’ zeal in pursuing their agenda.


From this point of view, Johnson’s premiership would appear almost entirely devoted to international affairs, with little room for domestic issues: we should not forget, however, his markedly statist footprint in economic policy, due partly to political expediency — i.e., to strengthen consensus in the north of England, whose ‘Red Wall’ had crumbled at the 2019 General Election — and partly to the “hysteresis” of the lockdown and the other measures taken to counter the spread of the virus. Nor can we avoid considering the British approach to the pandemic itself: the bare minimum in terms of restrictions, which would be almost completely lifted as soon as the situation did allow; but, at the same time, a mighty vaccination campaign based on significant public funding for the largest pharmaceutical multinational enterprise domiciled in the Kingdom, AstraZeneca, so that — in a joint venture with one of the country’s most important scientific institutions, the University of Oxford — it could develop its product, and have it approved, in record time. The competitive advantage would have been considerable, if only the delivery had not been subjected to a series of “stop-and-go” due to an unforeseen frequency of side effects. 

Moreover, like in respect of Brexit, the anti-Covid policies enacted under Johnson did mirror the approach he intended to take to the British economy. When he came to power, some had spoken of ‘boosterism’: that is, a neologism indicating the personal exuberance, administrative decisionism, and optimism that the newcomer PM seemed to instil in the party — and society-at-large, too — following the grey, bumpy three-year period of Theresa May’s premiership, marred by the ‘opposite extremes’ as of relations with the EU.


Thus, here we come to the formalised “divorce” from Brussels: for Johnson, that was clearly a political masterpiece. Yet the issue is not how much has he benefitted therefrom as of his consensus; nor is it easy to understand whether either side did score some gain or was actually harmed: in fact, the pandemic in 2020-21, and war in this 2022, have yielded economic spillovers of such magnitude that any data is irreparably “soiled” by exogenous shocks. The real issue, therefore, is to understand whether, and to what extent, has the country’s international posture changed. 

As we know, the ‘Leave’ front at the 23 June 2016 referendum — as in subsequent parliamentary developments — was far from homogeneous. On the one side was isolationist populism, determined to deal a mortal blow to the ‘Europe of the banks’, the ‘globalist elites’ and other mythological creatures invented by low-level propaganda, unfortunately not wholly free of foreign influence. On the other, there was the much more convincing idea — which Johnson himself did wage — of a ‘Global Britain’ capable of bringing back to London that centrality in the world arena that — despite all the Iron Lady’s efforts and successes — had been lost at the end of the Victorian age, at a time when the United States was asserting itself as a new power: first, industrial (with the ‘second revolution’ based on transport and electricity); then, commercial (thanks to the growing financialization, too); finally, military (arising in the period comprised between the conflict with Spain for controlling Cuba and the intervention in the Great War).


In today’s multipolar context, however, the cosmopolitan, free-trade idea of ‘Global Britain’ cannot be propelled by hegemonic illusions. Instead, it must come to terms with the conspicuous differences vis-à-vis yesteryear. In fact, the Kingdom is no longer subjected to Brussels-taken decision; however, since it is fully integrated into the ‘international community’ institutions, it does not enjoy the once-upon-a-time policymaking autonomy anymore. The colonial empire is justly gone, leaving room for a ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ wherein London is only ‘prima inter pares’. The pound sterling is still one of the currencies endowed with the most widespread circulation and the highest reliability, but not to the same extent as in the past. The only clear advantage is perhaps the greater stability in the system of alliances, yet this brings non-negligible responsibilities too. 

In light of the above, may we deem as credible the project that Johnson-like “Brexiteers” are used to support, mainly embodied by the current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and, in particular, this key speech of hers? If we look at what London has done in recent years, the answer should be positive. Notwithstanding its several weaknesses, the agreement signed with the EU on Christmas Eve 2020 keeps the UK’s trade ambitions alive, starting with the City’s ones as a global financial hub. Many bilateral treaties have already been signed with non-EU countries. Moreover, the British commitment to tackling the most serious worldwide issues — from climate change to global security threats — has often been a tangible one. 

Of course, there is plenty of uncertainty on the domestic front: think only of the generalised increase in the tax burden and the substantive infrastructure investments — including the nationalisation of a railway transport company, Northern Rail — that were enforced without duly accounting for inflationary risks, which have largely materialised already. The ‘philosophy’ underpinning today’s UK is not as clear and unambiguous as it was in the Thatcher or Blair years: compared to them, Johnson has never had either the political courage or the ability to understand problems and work the solutions out, let alone the personal standing. Post Brexit, anyway, there is no turning back from the ‘Global Britain’ goal. Whoever makes it to Downing Street, better bear this in mind. 

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