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Boris Johnson Impresses in Greenwich Free Trade Speech


Boris Johnson delivering his speech yesterday. Image: BBC

Boris Johnson is objectionable in many ways. He has carefully cultivated ruffian affectations. He doesn’t seem to believe in much. And what he does believe in is both dubious and retrograde, like his mandatory minimum sentences and general “tough on crime” positions.


But what can’t be denied is that he is an entertaining orator with a quick wit and reasonable knowledge of history. Sometimes these skills count for a lot. And yesterday was one such occasion.


Johnson’s talk was given in the Painted Hall at Greenwich Naval Observatory, an apt venue for his message about the importance of free trade. But the timing of his talk was somewhat odd. Johnson argued (with significant hyperbole: “The more freely goods cross borders, the less likely it is that troops will ever cross borders.”) for the value of free trade two days after Britain extricated itself from the world’s biggest free trade area.


The Prime Minister was apparently moved to give his fiery missive due to the new tack Brussels has adopted since Britain left the bloc contrary to the expectations of many (including myself) a few days ago.


Blindsided by the verdict of the British electorate on 12 December, the Europeans have begun playing hardball, telling the UK that they cannot have access to the single market unless the country complies with the bloc’s many regulations.


There are no rights without responsibilities, so the argument goes. Who can disagree with that?


Yet Johnson gave a persuasive argument that the EU should grant Britain access to the single market and not make concomitant demands on the country. His point was that to do otherwise would entail a large measure of hypocrisy.


"I dispel the absurd caricature of Britain as a nation bent on the slash and burn of workers’ rights and environmental protection, as if we are saved from Dickensian squalor only by enlightened EU regulation, as if it was only thanks to Brussels that we are not preparing to send children back up chimneys."

He pointed out that Britain introduced paid paternity leave long before the EU, offers three times the EU mandated maternity leave allowance, and has a higher minimum wage than all but three EU members states.


On the environment Britain has reduced its carbon emissions by twice the EU average since 1990 and banned single use plastics, which goes further than anything than the EU has proposed.


Johnson’s remarks were not just directed at Brussels. “Free trade,’ he said, “is being choked…From Brussels to China to Washington, tariffs are being waved around like cudgels.”


And his remarks were not just condemnatory. They also marked a new vision for Britain’s place in the world.


“We will reach out to the Commonwealth, which now has some of the fastest growing economies in the world…We will engage with Japan and other trans-pacific agreement countries with old friends and partners Australia, New Zealand Canada on whom we deliberately turned our backs in the early 1970s. We will get going with our friends in America. And I share the optimism of President Trump. And I say to all the naive and juvenile anti Americans in this country…grow up! And get a grip! The US already buys 1/5 of everything we export."

The Prime Minister's speech had a ring of authority and common sense. But it also betrayed an optimism rarely heard from British politicians, an outward mindset and a desire to position Britain as a significant trading nation. In short, he argued Britain has an opportunity to improve its fortunes. And he has good reason to make this case.


I voted remain, but Britain was doing fine before it joined the EU and it will do fine now that it has left. Especially given all the major EU countries are experiencing anaemic growth, structural economic problems and in some cases serious social upheavals.


This may be a turning point for Britain. If it can broker a deal with the EU, the UK is in a unique position to punch well above its weight as it has done throughout history.


With its strong currency, unparalleled infrastructure in key markets like insurance, banking, shipping, and international legal services, a diverse and deep fund of human capital and as the home of the global lingua franca, London has the chance to take the mantle as not just the capital of Europe but the capital of the world.


The British will need at least some help from Europe to do this. If the EU give it to them the country's success will be an advertisement for its own abolition. If they try to punish the UK they will look vindictive and may stoke unnecessary diplomatic tensions.


The ball is in their court. And their response will have ramifications for not just Britain but for all the nations of Europe and perhaps beyond.


On Britain's side there is a formidable adversary at the wheel. Perhaps Johnson's only talent is rhetoric. But this might just be enough. In a militarised world, language remains the most deadly weapon.