With less than a week since HM Government presented the EU with the letter, the lineaments of the new British future are already beginning to emerge out of the fog of incompetence, lies and fading promises, and it isn’t a pretty sight. Before Article 50 had been triggered, Michael Gove was looking forward to ending the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive, so that British pharmaceutical companies could sell drugs without clinically testing them.
Even British pharmaceutical companies don’t want this, because if they didn’t meet international standards they wouldn’t be able to sell drugs on the international market. But like his fellow-Brexiters, Gove hates ‘EU red tape’ too much to pay attention to such minutiae. Gove also wants to get rid of the European Commission’s Habitats Directive, which obliges builders to find alternative green spaces to offset the environmental impact of building within five kilometres of listed green areas.
The need to protect the countryside and the environment ought to be as obvious as the need to test drugs thoroughly before marketing them, but for Gove such regulations are just more red tape that ‘holds back’ business.
Since Gove made these observations the British economy has been sliding ever closer towards gotterdammerung as the government’s shallow and barely-thought through promises unravel, the pound gets weaker, the price of food goes up, and real incomes decline. In these circumstances Theresa May has been out frantically touting for business in the Gulf. Pausing to criticize the fact that the word ‘Easter’ doesn’t appear in a National Trust advert, even though it does, she was unable to condemn or even mention the fact that Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen ever closer towards famine and societal collapse, even though it is.
On one level such silence is a continuation of the old UK complicity with the Gulf autocracies, in which oil, weapons deals and real estate speculation always trump any other considerations. Nevertheless it’s difficult not to detect a new whiff of sweaty desperation behind May’s world tour. She knows – even though she will never admit it – that ‘Global Britain’ is a very weak brand that needs any investors it can possibly find, and she clearly doesn’t care where such investment comes from.
The Gulf States know this too. That’s why they reportedly have ‘signature ready’ free trade agreements already prepared for the moment the UK leaves the EU, and don’t anyone even think that May’s government will allow reservations about human rights, democracy or gender equality to get in the way of signing them.
If anyone was in any doubt about this, consider Liam Fox’s trip to the Philippines to meet Rodrigo Duterte. Even in the freakish rogue’s gallery of 21st century ‘populism’, the president of the Philippines is a stand-out monster. This is a man who has ordered his police to murder thousands of real and suspected drug addicts and drug dealers, and has boasted about throwing people out of helicopters himself. Yet Fox has no problem having his picture taken with the smirking gangster, and babbling about the UK’s desire to intensify a ‘ well-established and strong relationship built on a foundation of shared values and shared interests’ with the Philippines.
Fox is not the kind of politician to allow a few thousand extrajudicial executions get in the way of a good deal, and we can expect more of this in the future, a lot more. In effect, the UK has given up its membership of a community of liberal states – the EU – with which the UK does share some values such as democratic government, a commitment to human rights and the rule of law, to cultivate relationships with politicians who have the same values as Al Pacino’s Scarface, and Arab rulers who are as democratically accountable as the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.
Of course there are contradictions and glaring failures in the practical application of the EU’s values, but at least they exist as an aspiration and a standard that member states are expected to live up to, which is more than you can say about Rodrigo Duterte.
The current direction of UK foreign policy makes it clear that we no longer aspire to have any such values either. Fox told a Manila newspaper that we are becoming ‘a stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking nation’, but very little in that statement is true, and most of it is a grotesque misrepresentation of what is actually happening.
We are in fact becoming the opposite of all those things: poorer, weaker, more vulnerable, more deregulated, and more divided. As for ‘fairer’ – this was a week in which thousands of families are set to become even poorer as a result of George Osborne’s ‘three child’ benefit reforms and Theresa May described cutting bereavement benefits as ‘fairness to the taxpayer.’
We are ‘outward-looking’ only in the sense that we are now prepared to do business with any autocrat and sleazeball gangster who wants to do business with us.
None of this should be at all surprising. Brexit was always going to be like this, but knowing that doesn’t make it any better, and for the time being at least, there is very little that anyone seems able to do to stop it.