“I hold with respect to alliances, that England is a Power sufficiently strong, sufficiently powerful, to steer her own course, and not to tie herself as an unnecessary appendage to the policy of any other Government. I hold that the real policy of England—apart from questions which involve her own particular interests, political or commercial—is to be the champion of justice and right; pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving the weight of her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks that justice is, and wherever she thinks that wrong has been done. Sir, in pursuing that course, and in pursuing the more limited direction of our own particular interests, my conviction is, that as long as England keeps herself in the right—as long as she wishes to permit no injustice—as long as she wishes to countenance no wrong—as long as she labours at legislative interests of her own—and as long as she sympathises with right and justice, she never will find herself altogether alone. She is sure to find some other State, of sufficient power, influence, and weight, to support and aid her in the course she may think fit to pursue. Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” – Henry Temple, British Foreign Secretary, 1st March 1848
The reaction of most British commentators to the fact that Theresa May will become the first world leader to meet with Donald Trump after his inauguration has been one of either horror or delight. To some, it was effectively an endorsement of the rhetoric and policies exhibited and advocated by Trump, and which May has previously condemned. To others, it served as a reminder that, as Britain prepares to leave the EU, it might find in Trump a desperately needed ally. They’re both wrong.
First the obvious. No trade deal with the United States, no matter how good its terms might be, will alone make up for the loss of single market membership. This isn’t my opposition to Brexit speaking, it’s simply an economic reality. Not only is Europe a larger market than America, but it is a market with which we do substantially more business. Just over 53% of UK exports go to Europe, just over 22% to Asia and just over 16% to North America . These are simply the numbers, and I’m sure they speak for themselves.
Secondly the less so obvious. On the surface, it might appear that Donald Trump is a natural ally of a post-Brexit Britain. Not only did he support its decision to leave the European Union, calling it “a great thing”, but the new leader of the free world also happens to be surrounded by people who have a history of supporting individual nation state democracy, and therefore by extension opposing the EU. In his first interview with a British newspaper after the election, Trump said that he wants a UK-US trade deal ready as soon as possible, directly contradicting Obama’s “back of the queue” approach. However, aside from the aforementioned fact that a good trade deal alone will not solve all our problems, what exactly this deal will include is still very much an open question.
Trump said he wanted a quick deal, not one that overtly benefits Britain. Obviously, whatever happens, it will certainly be spun as such a deal for the sake of May and the Conservative Party, but the devil will remain in the details. Donald Trump is a man quite familiar with striking deals, in fact, he happened to write a book about it, and more crucially he knows how to screw people over in the process. As any capable dealmaker will without a doubt be aware, the best possible time to strike an advantageous deal is when your adversary is at their most desperate, and be under no illusion – Theresa May is very, very, desperate right now.
One of the great ironies of Brexit is that rather than “taking back control”, we have chosen to relinquish what little control we did have. The terms of our post-Brexit relationship with the European Union will be determined not by us, but by its remaining 27 member states: from France to Hungary, to a tiny province in Southern Belguim. If you think I’m exaggerating, one such province by the name of Wallonia managed to individually veto an entire trade deal between the EU and Canada because it deemed it to be detrimental to its interests. At the time, leading Brexiteers used the situation as an example of the EUs horrifying inefficiency. However, aside from the fact that it was evidence of precisely the kind of sovereignty that they claimed the EU denied its members, the inefficiency we voted to escape might very well be what kills us. This is only part of the reason why May’s hope of striking an exit deal within two years is delusional and dangerous fantasy.
While Britain’s future relationship with Europe will be determined by Europe, it’s future relationship with the United States will similarly be determined by the United States. Just like Britain at the very high of its power, the United States of America has no friends, nor does it have any enemies. The United States has interests, and it is those interests that are eternal just as they are perpetual. Trump, or at least the people representing Trump, know that while Theresa May will rather accept no deal than a bad deal when it comes to the EU, she will certainly have to accept any deal with regards to the United States. A failure to do so will be a PR disaster of epic proportions. Britain is an open shop for Donald Trump’s America. Whatever he wants he should know he can get, whether it be lower tariffs or better access for American pharmaceutical companies to the British National Health Service. The “special relationship” is largely a con, in the sense that it is designed to always benefit the United States. Truman wanted to stop the USSR and develop trading relationships, so he gave the war-torn nations of Europe billions of dollars to rebuild. Bush wanted Blair’s political support for his war in Iraq. As for what Trump wants, we’ll find out very soon.