Theresa May confirmed on Tuesday that the UK is set for a ‘hard’ Brexit – coming out of the single market and the customs union, so that the nation can have control of its borders.
Her speech declared that the triggering of Article 50 and end of economic ties would usher in a ‘global Britain’ that will embrace the world market rather than being tied down to its closest economic and geographical bloc.
It’s breezy symbolism that conjures up ideas of conquest and victory, an easy and natural dominance; almost an aching irony that it is a public relations vision based upon a ballot that firmly rejected any idea of globalism – certainly on British shores.
While the oi polloi and their mass media influencers squabble over immigration numbers, interjecting with the odd metaphor of invasion in the process – the grown-ups are nodding their heads sagely about a thing called trade.
The key word in this whole sorry mess is ‘trade’ because for most people, including me, it is never expanded upon. It’s a useful collective noun to summarize a bunch of suited professionals sat around conference rooms, sipping sparkling water while agreeing to move huge units of currency, from one server to another for goods and services. It’s a rather pretty, nicely shaped package which allows us to dispatch a serious political point without unpicking all the myriad industries with their complex processes and relationships.
Because how could we know about all of these?
One assumes that the government does, or has a fair idea at least. Let’s take agriculture, for instance. Rural England overwhelming voted to leave the EU despite foreign labour being a key part of agri-industries and EU subsidies helping many small farms to break even or make the small profits they do. Without those subsidies, and without the promise that the government will safeguard payments for those hardest hit from European withdrawal, then the entire industry faces decimation.
We are likely to discover which industries the government really cares about through the negotiations – and agreements it reaches – with the EU. It’s highly likely that the banking sector will retain some if not all of its rights to trade with the EU, and perhaps the same guarantees will be given to the rest of the automotive sector, as Nissan received last year.
The rest of UK ‘trade’ will have to fend for itself and hope upon hope that it isn’t restricted to punitive World Trade Organization (WTO) tariffs come 2019.
What it shows more than anything is how little the country produces. A nation that is, fundamentally a glorified finance silo with the remains of an automotive industry, which will keep the UKIP wolf from the door in the midlands and parts of the north east for the Conservatives, but not do a whole lot more to reassure business leaders in other sectors.
Don’t get me wrong – this is not to undermine all of the fantastic SMEs and producers on the UK who are quietly doing their thing, but ultimately the United Kingdom no longer has the clout and reputation in specific industries. Banking and finance account for nearly 10% of the economy, the industrial base has been eroded, and what we predominantly have is a service industry culture – which does nothing for the individual or the nation as a trading force.
What ‘trade’ will look like in reality (probably) will be some access to the US market – but not for the ailing agriculture market – and in return, Theresa May will bring in some TTIP-lite agreement, that finally lets the Conservative Party privatise the NHS, allowing access to private healthcare providers to fully exploit the new market.
The sacrifices Britons will have to make for ‘taking back control’ will become evident enough over time; for those with a memory of how political decision-making usually pans out – it’s clear that communities will continue to stagnate and the poor will only get poorer.