Theresa May, Brexit and the lost imperial past of a Global Britain

Theresa May

Theresa May (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theresa May has flattered her party and she wants to seduce the public. Despite the harsh economic reality, she has offered a dream that re-imagines the UK’s imperial past as a bright future. Her post Brexit path is towards a Global Britain. In her opening speech to the Conservative Party Conference, she explained that Brexit meant the UK would become an independent, sovereign nation one that will allow the UK to reach its potential to be a Global Britain.[1]

We are going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts.  And that means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration.[2]

Think globally, act locally is not what May has promised.

Her comments have evoked a long dead ghost of an imperial past as if by Brexit, the UK will become what it once was. Despite her brave rhetoric, which flatters her audience, she knows that the effort to act globally and independently is beyond the UK’s capacity. The UK’s success is a direct result of EU membership. She must realize that she cannot meet all of the promises, in particular the rights that developed with EU membership, and act globally. The UK cannot have its cake and eat it too. The effort to sustain the EU derived rights was sustained by EU membership with the easier trade, the free movement of people and capital. When she listed the UK’s accomplishments, she forgot to mention these were all within the context of EU membership.

And we attract a fifth of all foreign investment in the EU.  We are the biggest foreign investor in the United States.  We have more Nobel Laureates than any country outside America.  We have the best intelligence services in the world, a military that can project its power around the globe, and friendships, partnerships and alliances in every continent.  We have the greatest soft power in the world, we sit in exactly the right time zone for global trade, and our language is the language of the world.

Systemic inequality remains despite EU membership by intent.

Despite this success, the fundamental, systemic problems remain. The UK has great and growing economic inequality. Despite 40 years of EU membership, the UK’s economic inequality has increased. The brutal, systemic economic inequality between the South of England and the North East refutes her claims to Global Britain. She ignores this inequality, an inequality that has continued for generations, so she can flatter her audience. She will seduce the public with claims that a neo-imperial dream of Global Britain.

It should make us think of Global Britain, a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look beyond the continent of Europe and to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.  Because we know that the referendum was not a vote to turn in ourselves, to cut ourselves off from the world.  It was a vote for Britain to stand tall, to believe in ourselves, to forge an ambitious and optimistic new role in the world.

Her rhetoric would have the audience and the wider public forget that EU membership multiplied the UK’s status and power. Her rhetoric overlooks two brutal truths that she must know as PM. She omits these truths, which reveals her intent.

Two brutal truths that May hid from her audience and the public.

First, the Global Britain overlooks the harsh economic and societal inequality within the UK. If only we look abroad to global free trade, we need not focus on the North East’s brutal, vicious, for it is intentional, economic fate. She did not talk of the North East for that does not fit her narrative. They have suffered for generations. They don’t fit her grandiose Brexit dreams. She wants to be able to claim she speaks for all even though she has no plans to end or even reduce this economic inequality. She has no plans to address the social inequality, which can only worsen as the UK leaves the EU. For all her talk of everyone, as if it is the common good, she talks only to those who will benefit from Brexit for they are her audience.

The UK lacks the capacity to act globally outside the EU.

Second, Global Britain overlooks the strategic reality. EU membership increased the UK’s freedom to act. As part of the EU, the UK could rely on its neutrality if not its support in any international disputes. Outside the EU, the UK must reconsider the EU’s views whenever it acts. In a dispute with Argentina, the UK could find itself subject to EU sanctions. May and her advisers have forgotten the fundamental principle of the UK’s foreign policy that it followed for over 400 years. As Churchill explained, the UK has acted to keep Europe from being dominated by a single power. When the UK joined the EU, it ensured that the EU could not threaten the UK. Moreover, its EU membership helped to keep Europe from being dominated by the Soviet Union. Outside the EU, the UK will have abandoned that principle. It would allow Europe to become a unified threat. It would weaken the EU against Russia. She may claim that NATO has rendered that UK foreign policy principle invalid, yet that simply means that someone else, America and the EU, determine the UK’s freedom.

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true**

Theresa May has sold her party and the public a dream, a dream of a neo-imperial Global Britain. Her dream, like all dreams, is a salve to ward off Britain’s brutal reality of economic inequality and strategic weakness. She may sell the dream but the gap between appearance and reality will define her, Brexit, and Britain.


[2] Ibid. One has to ask why food labelling is so important for the UK’s fate. Perhaps it is to show that Parliament’s inability to rule on food labels indicates the extent to which its status has been diminished. Yet, it also raises the question of why the UK did not legislate on food labelling on its own and why it waited too long to accept what the EU offered. One has to wonder if it was the EU that was acting for the best interests of the UK instead of the UK government.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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