Book review: Murray tries and fails to stir up panic about a “war on the West”

27 May

The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason  by Douglas Murray

This author makes, in his introduction, a number of preposterous claims. Here is his opening paragraph:

“In recent years it has become clear that there is a war going on: a war on the West. This is not like earlier wars, where armies clash and victors are declared. It is a cultural war, and it is being waged remorselessly against all the roots of the Western tradition and against everything good that the Western tradition has produced.”

How can Douglas Murray suggest that this “war”, as he terms it, has only “in recent years” become apparent?

At pretty much any time one cares to name in recent centuries, conservatives have feared that tradition is in danger both from barbarian invaders, and from reformers within the gates who wish to sweep away all we have built, and erect a glittering new edifice in which their reign of virtue can begin.

The French Revolutionaries promised this. Various varieties of Communist promised it. In the 1960s, rebellious students and satirists set out to subvert every traditional source of authority.

In order to justify his hysterical tone, Murray goes in search of enemies who today pose a mortal threat. By page four he has found the Communist Party of China, and complains:

“almost nobody speaks of China with an iota of the rage and disgust poured out daily against the West from inside the West.”

That is true, and this reviewer would not wish for one moment to downplay the horrors perpetrated by China. But the same double standard was applied by many in the West to the Soviet Union.

The problem is not new, and working out what to do about it, or how to contain it, is the work of decades, perhaps of centuries.

But Murray’s fiercest argument is with those inside the West who wish to debilitate the West. In 2017, he recalls, he brought out The Strange Death of Europe, in which (as he says in the volume under review) he asked why the Europeans have allowed mass migration, “and why they were expected to abolish themselves in order to survive”.

According to Murray, only Western countries “were told constantly that in order to have any legitimacy at all…they should swiftly and fundamentally alter their demographic makeup”.

That is a gross over-simplification. In pretty much every Western country, there have been big arguments about immigration. In Australia, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, pretty much anywhere one cares to name, politicians have come to realise they will only possess legitimacy if they avert unrestricted immigration.

Africans are at this moment suffering in abominable camps in Libya because the European Union has devised ways to stop them crossing the Mediterranean.

A further paradox, untouched on by Murray, is that many British politicians of immigrant descent – one thinks of such figures as Kwasi Kwarteng, Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch – express conservative opinions with wonderful gusto.

If Enoch Powell were still alive, he would perhaps concede that the British nation and British political tradition have proved more adaptable, and durable, than he had feared.

Where does Brexit fit in Murray’s narrative of a war on the West? He ignores that question and is instead indignant that “we have been pushed into racial hyper-awareness”:

“In recent years, I have come to think of racial issues in the West as being like a pendulum that has swung past the point of correction and into overcorrection.”

He continues:

“Racism is not the sole lens through which our societies can be understood, and yet it is increasingly the only lens used. Everything in the past is seen as racist, and so everything in the past is tainted.”

Is this really true, or is the pendulum already swinging back against such a simplistic reading of history? On one of my regular walks I pass a house, on a leafy slope on the Highgate side of Hampstead Heath, in the window of which for some months I was faintly irritated to see a hand-written sign which said “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE”.

The sign has now been taken down. I accept that this does not amount to conclusive proof that the moral panic which swept at hurricane force across Britain as well as America after the murder of George Floyd has blown itself out.

But things have died down a bit. No more statues have been thrown into Bristol harbour. Churchill still stands in Parliament Square, his plinth at present unsullied by accusations that he was a racist.

On page 126 of his book, Murray alludes to a Policy Exchange pamphlet in which Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes rebutted the slurs cast at Churchill in February 2021 during a panel discussion at Churchill College, Cambridge.

So the pendulum does still swing, and contentions which for a short time have held sway are exposed to criticism, and cease to be quite so fashionable. It turns out to be possible to disapprove in the strongest terms of racism, without supposing it offers a complete interpretation of the past.

Gebreyohanes has just become Director of Restore Trust, an organisation set up, as she explained in a piece for The Times, to return the National Trust to its founding values and objectives.

Murray is in grave need of opponents, and inclined to magnify their importance. Many of those he finds are in the United States. He digs up Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, both of whom used to be more influential than they are now, and various other figures who may or may not become influential.

Karl Marx is dug up too, and we are reminded of some of that thinker’s today unacceptable views on race. Murray remarks ruefully that although the bust of Marx in Highgate Cemetery has from time to time been daubed in red paint, there have been “no online petitions or crowd efforts to pull it down and kick it into a nearby river”.

There is actually no river nearby, and to kick this colossal bust anywhere would be a difficult task, liable to end in many stubbed toes.

Marx, however, suffers what is in some ways a greater humiliation. He is ridiculed, or treated as a mere curiosity. If one does not wish to pay to enter the cemetery, one can see him through the railings on the southern edge of Waterlow Park, at a distance which reduces the bust to an acceptable size.

That is how the British public has long been inclined to deal with intellectuals who take themselves too seriously: it peers through the railings and laughs at them.

It seldom occurs to Murray that the best way to deal with fashionable absurdities is to laugh at them, and to trust to the good sense and conservatism of the wider public. Edmund Burke (absent from this book) put the point with genius in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Murray has flattered the loud and troublesome insects of the hour by writing a whole book about them.

Since this ill-titled volume went to press, Vladimir Putin has ordered the invasion of Ukraine. There the true war on the West is being waged. The Ukrainians’ fight for freedom reminds us how trivial most of the pseudo-war recounted in this book really is.

Anand Menon: Europe and the war. Will the unity engendered by Russia’s invasion last?

18 Apr

Anand Menon is Director of the UK in a Changing Europe.

‘Europe will be forged in crisis and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.’ If ever there were a moment to ponder the import of Jean Monnet’s words, it is now. The war in Ukraine has come as a shock to the system of a union that, for years, has failed to deliver when it comes to its security ambitions.

Unlike, say, the Eurozone or migration crises, events in Ukraine have not proven intrinsically divisive. In the face of the armed invasion of a neighbouring sovereign state by a country already recognised as a potential threat, and acting in lockstep with the United States, unity amongst member states has been (relatively) easy to maintain. If the Donald Trump presidency (and accompanying threats – at least according to John Bolton – to leave NATO) had illustrated the fragility of the NATO shield, Ukraine has rammed home its continued importance by underlining the reality of the Russian sword.

The shock delivered to the collective EU system seems to have spawned a realisation, going beyond the usual cheap talk, that its ‘geopolitical holiday’ is over. And not simply because of the conflict itself. More broadly, many of the other challenges the Union faces in its neighbourhood – in the Middle East, Africa, the Sahel, and the Balkans – will be exacerbated by the war. As the EU’s newly minted ‘Strategic Compass’ puts it, the EU is ‘surrounded by instability and conflicts’.

How has the EU responded?

At Versailles in March, EU leaders declared their intention to ensure the EU could ‘take more responsibility for its own security’. The Strategic Compass published ten days later declared that the ‘EU and its Member States must invest more in their security and defence to be a stronger political and security actor.’

And, crucially, member states seem intent on rising to the challenge. In a dramatic half hour on 27 February, Olaf Scholtz reversed decades of German strategic thinking. German defence spending will rise from 1.5 per cent in 2021 to two per cent; a 100-billion-euro fund will be created for the armed forces. Germany will become the world’s third biggest military spender.

Nor is Germany alone. Denmark and Poland have also announced increases in defence spending. The former has announced a referendum on its opt-out from EU security policies. Finland and Sweden are reconsidering the issue of NATO membership. And, in a stark break with past reticence, the EU itself pledged to provide Ukraine with €1 billion in military assistance.

There is of course a long way to go before rousing words are translated into meaningful action. Yet it does seem that one consequence of the current crisis will be significantly enhanced European military capabilities.

So far, so overdue. Europeans have been free riders on American power for far too long. However, capabilities are one thing. Deploying them is quite another. Taking greater responsibility for European security implies working collectively. Working collectively, in turn, requires consensus (because a genuine ‘European Army’ is not on the cards). Perhaps the biggest question emerging from the present crisis is whether the unity engendered by the Russian invasion will last.

While the EU has imposed five separate sanctions packages on Russia, the longer the conflict lasts, or the nastier it gets, the greater the pressure will be to extend these to cover oil and gas. Germany, Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria, however, are highly dependent on Russian gas exports, raising the prospect of bitter arguments to come.

Which raises the thornier question as to how member states might respond to Russian attempts to negotiate a settlement. Emmanuel Macron has maintained a dialogue with Vladimir Putin, despite the obvious irritation this caused among some of the former’s partners (‘nobody negotiated with Hitler’, as the Polish Prime Minister put it). A firm offer of de-escalation in return for concessions on sanctions might well exacerbate such tensions.

Then there is Ukraine itself. While many of the Central European and Baltic states favour a rapid path to EU membership, the French and Dutch have expressed reservations. The Versailles declaration was typically vague, promising support for Ukraine in ‘pursuing its European path’ whilst affirming (meaninglessly) that ‘Ukraine belongs to our European family’. Again, it is not hard to imagine the debate about the appropriate relationship with a post-war Ukraine becoming a running sore within the EU.

And of course such sores existed well before the current conflict. Internal disputes over the rule of law are now being viewed through the lens of events in Ukraine. The European Commission is preparing to release billions in recovery funds for Poland, which has been in the frontline of the refugee crisis. In contrast, two days after the re-election of Viktor Orbán (with his clear sympathies for Putin), the Commission announced plans to trigger a rule of law mechanism allowing it to deprive Hungary of millions of euros in scheduled payments.

It is too early to predict the possible medium-term consequences of all this. On the one hand, the crisis might prompt Poland to reconcile with the European Union. Or, it might encourage political leaders in Warsaw to believe they can act as they like at home as long as they keep in step with EU external policy. As for Hungary, with Orbán’s refusal to countenance weapons deliveries or sanctions on Russian gas exports already straining relations with other member states, it seems reasonable to assume that tensions between Budapest and Brussels will continue to bedevil the Union.

However endless the conflict in Ukraine may be coming to feel, we are still in its early phase. And this might be the easy phase as far as the EU is concerned. How long the war lasts, and the circumstances in which it ends will obviously help shape its longer-term consequences for the Union. It seems likely, though, that member states will emerge with enhanced military capabilities. Whether or not they agree on the foreign policy objectives to which these capabilities will contribute, however, is far from certain.

Mark Simmonds: Stronger trade partnerships in Africa will be essential to a successful, global Britain

10 Mar

Mark Simmonds is a former Foreign Office Minister for Africa and Chairman of the Advisory Board of Invest Africa.

In little over a week, the Ukrainian invasion has dramatically transformed the geopolitical and economic status quo.

As major British corporations such as BP sever ties with Russia, and the Government implements wide-ranging sanctions that will limit our trade, the measures carried out to economically isolate Mosvow will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the British economy.

At a time of economic uncertainty, it is therefore vital that the UK step up its efforts to secure trade deals with our international partners, and bolster our economic resilience.

Lost amidst this week’s news of the invasion was the announcement that there has already been some progress in this area. On Monday, the Government signed a comprehensive new agreement with New Zealand, which could boost trade by almost 60 per cent. This was a promising development in the post-Brexit drive to boost trade, particularly as it is the most comprehensive deal New Zealand has signed with a country other than Australia.

However, it is also something of an easy victory. The UK has always had close ties to New Zealand, and deals with much larger markets will still be needed to place us on a surer footing.
Post-Brexit, Britain has secured new trade agreements with several countries, including some in the Commonwealth, while also expanding to markets in Asia. The most significant of these being the UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, signed in 2020.

The UK is in fact making good progress in Asia. Just last week the UK signed a new deal to boost digital trade with Singapore, and the Government is working hard to gain admittance to the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would significant open up Indo-Pacific trade to the UK.

While a promising path has been set for Britain’s future trade relations, one area the UK could do more is in Africa. Many countries on the African continent have become fast growing areas for high-tech innovation, which make them exciting candidates for trade and investment with the UK.

The Government has recently expressed a commitment to boosting trade with Africa. At the last UK-Africa summit, the Prime Minister stated that British businesses could help Africa prosper from the green industrial revolution, otherwise known as ‘Clean Green Initiative’.

However, while this is an important aspect of trade, the UK/Africa focus should be on far more than just green commerce, given the opportunities in financial services, tech, infrastructure, construction and healthcare.

In 2021 alone, Africa saw a $2 billion USD investment in start-ups, a 200 per cent increase in start-up investment since 2020. Investors have shown an enormous appetite for investing in new African businesses, with a wide range of promising mid-cap companies hungry for the financing they need to kickstart their growth. The UK’s financial service sector is perfectly placed to provide the support they require, which could significantly support and accelerate wider economic growth across Africa.

The growing interest in African businesses is reflected in the sharp increase in economic activity for a number of African nations. To take one example, Ghana has displayed a remarkable resilience to the economic effects of the pandemic, showing strong economic gains throughout the last year. Given its relative strength, Ghana is exactly the sort of African market Britain should be looking to partner with.

Ghana’s capital, Accra, is also home to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and this is another area the UK should look to pursue. This trading bloc facilitates both intra-African trade, and inter-continental trade with Western counterparts. One of the largest free trade areas in the world, AfCFTA is predicted to significantly boost intra-African trade in the coming year. This growth in economic activity is something the UK could benefit from.

A strong trade deal with AfCFTA would significantly expand UK access to the African market as well as provide a strong springboard for greater engagement with individual countries on the continent.

At a time of heightened economic and geopolitical uncertainty, Britain’s economic resilience is more important than ever. Post-Brexit, the UK’s need for new trading partners was already a vital task, but now it is imperative that we step up our efforts and pursue all opportunities available to us. There have been many UK-Africa summits where the UK has pledged to increase ties with African nations, but now is the perfect time to focus on expanding our access to this market.

We have made good progress, but we know more than ever that the global economic picture can change in a week. Trade has to be a major focus now, our national security depends upon it.

Daniel Hannan: Why is the West falling behind? Because we are abandoning meritocracy.

19 Jan

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Even in Pakistan’s remote mountain passes, you keep stumbling upon China’s spoor. By the side of empty roads, you find monuments celebrating the unlikely alliance between the world’s first purpose-built Muslim country and the last Communist power. On the edge of villages, you find Chinese-funded social projects. More and more, you find highways, dams and factories springing up along the path of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

I spent early January in those sparse highlands. Like most visitors, I was struck by the beauty of the landscapes and the warmth of the people; but also by an uneasy sense that a country with the strongest demographic and cultural ties to us has drifted into the orbit of a nearer and fiercer star.

Pakistan has its own reasons for cosying up to China, which it has long seen as a counterweight to India, and to which it is closely tied commercially. But something similar is playing out across swathes of Asia, Africa and, now, Latin America. Countries which, 20 years ago, looked to the West culturally and politically – countries which wanted to think of themselves as a law-based, propertied, multi-party democracies – have found an alternative model.

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s clever and charming prime minister, recently put it this way:

“Up until now, we were told that the best way for societies to improve themselves is the Western system of democracy. What the CPC has done is that it has brought this alternative model. And they have actually beaten all Western democracies in the way they have brought up merit in their society.”

Merit. That’s the key. Allocating positions through talent rather than by birth, caste or status was a big part of what originally elevated the Anglosphere and a handful of related European states over their rivals. Now, just as the West is letting go of the idea, the world’s greatest autocracy has taken it up.

I have been thinking a lot about merit since reading Adrian Wooldridge’s magnum opus, The Aristocracy of Talent. I had vaguely intended to review it last year, but I was enjoying it too much, and wanted to savour each chapter.

Wooldridge, who recently moved to Bloomberg after a career at The Economist, has written one of the great books of the decade. Here, meticulously researched and in arresting prose, are definitive accounts of Plato’s authoritarian philosophy and the way later generations interpreted it, of China’s mandarinate, of the rise of IQ tests and much else. But what comes across most strongly is just how downright weird the concept of meritocracy is.

For most of human history, hierarchy and heredity were seen as the natural order. Wooldridge begins with some lines by our national poet:

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

I remember Michael Portillo getting into terrible trouble when he quoted that passage. Yet, until an eyeblink ago, almost no one seriously questioned the world-view that Shakespeare was articulating. It seems to have been hard-wired into us as social primates. Even when we imagine future worlds – think of Star Wars, Dune or Foundation – we people them with emperors and princesses.

Wooldridge shows how English-speaking nations, in particular, replaced kin-based models with open selections and exams. He reminds us of how recent and, by global standards, how unnatural this system is. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its chief supporters were on the Left. The Webbs and their followers saw a rational, socialist state as resting on meritocratic appointment, while many conservatives protested that abandoning the older social order would leave people deracinated and unsatisfied.

Oddly, from our present perspective, some of the biggest supporters of IQ tests and unadjusted exams in the United States were black sociologists, including Horace Mann Bond, Charles Johnson, Howard Hale Long and J. St Clair Price, all of whom saw the ability to rise by talent as an antidote to racism.

Judged by economic outcomes, meritocracy worked. Countries that tried it got richer than countries that didn’t. The Anglosphere went more or less the whole hog, but most places ended up with hybrid systems. Pakistan, for example, took from Britain the common law, individual property rights and a civil service open to talent. It also retained clannish voting patterns, resting on strong extended families.

As long as Western nations had open institutions, they tended to outperform their rivals. But, as Wooldridge shows, they are now turning against the creed that elevated them.

The assault comes simultaneously from both sides. There is a Trumpy/populist/Know-nothing line of attack which holds, roughly speaking, that a bunch of effete pointyheads, removed from the general population, are imposing their Leftie values on the decent majority. And there is a woke line which holds that groups rather than individuals are what matter, and that if, say, blind assessments result in more Asian than black students getting into a particular university, then those assessments should be racially weighted.

There is a third and more subtle critique, which posits that meritocracy is a hoax. Rich parents, themselves products of elite universities, invest resources in rigging the system in favour of their children, sending them to expensive private schools and buying them opportunities to ensure that they go to the same universities and perpetuate the cycle.

This line often comes from beneficiaries and exemplars of the system being decried. Professor Daniel Markovits of Law at Yale Law School argues in The Meritocracy Trap that “merit is nothing more than a sham”, a way to transmit inherited privilege. Harvard’s Michael Sandel agrees. In The Tyranny of Merit he laments the decline of manual jobs and argues that a new trans-national elite has arisen, bringing hopes of social mobility to an end for most people. The same theme is taken in Britain by David Goodhart who holds, in Head Hand Heart, that the overvaluation of cognitive skills (head) over manual (hand) and caring (heart) has led to the creation of a graduate oligarchy.

There is something in this analysis. The solution, though, might be more meritocracy. The domination of elite schools by the wealthy could perhaps be addressed by crammer-proof aptitude tests. The under-valuation of non-academic skills is widely acknowledged, and huge efforts are being made to boost technical education.

Far more dangerous is the notion that openness to talent is intrinsically racist. Woke critics don’t want to improve meritocracy. They want to return to the pre-modern idea of group rights, collective identity and advancement by caste. A theory that was, until perhaps eight years ago, more or less confined to campus, has, with astonishing rapidity, taken over most of our institutions. Company boards, charities, schools, churches, political parties, local authorities, NHS trusts and, most of all, the civil service – all now recruit and promote on the basis of physiognomy as much as aptitude.

You know who isn’t bothered about “equality, diversity and inclusion”, though? China. That’s why it’s on course to become the world’s largest economy. No wonder ambitious politicians across Asia and Africa are learning Mandarin. No wonder up-and-coming cadets want to train at the PLA National Defence University rather than Sandhurst.

The way for any society to get rich is to allow people to rise to the level of their talents, to remove obstacles of birth, tradition and clan, and thus to marshall its human resources with maximum efficacy. We used to do that very well. Now, others have taken our place.

Daniel Hannan: Through their intimidating fervour, woke hardliners are pushing our Enlightenment values to the brink

8 Dec

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

What do you see in the above image? It’s a self-portrait by William Hogarth from the late 1750s, in which he sits palette in hand, absorbed in the work of painting the Muse of Comedy. An apt theme for the bawdy satirist, you might think. But the curators of the Hogarth exhibition currently on at Tate Britain could see only one thing – slavery, supposedly embodied in the curved mahogany chair:

“The chair is made from timber shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand-in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”

Seriously? That’s what you see? I suppose, if you are determined enough, you will find racism everywhere – even in works by an 18th-century London artist who had no connection with slavery and whose political views tended towards radicalism.

The fact that Hogarth was no slaver does not deter the woke inquisitors of Tate Britain (whose chair, talking of chairs, is Roland Rudd). Nor does his humane and often sympathetic portrayal of the handful of black characters who make it into his works. Hogarth was satirising the world he knew, and many of his black subjects appear as servants in grand houses, looking out on scenes of upper-class degeneracy. He occasionally gives them the tiniest hint of a sardonic smile, as if they alone understand what is going on.

What might have been an interesting exhibition that set Hogarth (who was, for want of a better shorthand, a Eurosceptic) within the context of contemporary Continental trends instead descends into a harangue against the man it is meant to celebrate.

Where you or I might see, for example, a room filled with comical drunks, the show’s curators prissily tell us that “the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation and slavery”.

Where you or I might see, at the end of the Rake’s Progress, a young dandy brought so low that he ends up in a madhouse, the authors of the wall text see a white man “shackled and near naked, like the enslaved African”.

Where you or I might see, in Marriage A-la-Mode, a morality tale about a faithless couple, the authors see “overall a picture of White degeneracy”

Consider this image above: Southwark Fair, painted in 1733. Again, what do you see? A rumbustious outdoor crowd, yes? A vivid portrayal of ordinary people carousing noisily and chaotically? Well, reader, check your privilege. The young black boy playing the trumpet in the foreground might look as if he is joining the fun. But apparently “the dog makes a racist juxtaposition with the trumpeter”.

And what happened to the canvass itself, hmm? It turns out that “Hogarth’s Southwark Fair, painted for Mary Edwards, was subsequently owned by William Atherton, who joint-owned two plantations in Jamaica”. Hogarth might as well have fashioned the coffles himself, eh?

“All is race, there is no other truth,” says a character in one of Disraeli’s novels. That sentiment, already slightly nutty when Dizzy penned it in the 1840s, was utterly discredited a century later. But it is making an unlikely comeback in the Anglosphere.

Everything – absolutely everything – is nowadays seen through the prism of race. Horatio Nelson is judged, not as the man who sank our enemies’ fleets, but as someone who failed to support an abolitionist measure in the House of Lords. Jane Austen (a strong abolitionist) is condemned because her clergyman father (also an abolitionist) would have become the trustee of a plantation had a friend of his died – which he didn’t. Every work of art, music and literature is judged by standards which, in effect, damn every white man born before the First World War.

The oddest thing about this monomania is its timing. I understand people becoming obsessed with slavery at the height of the campaign for abolition. I understand people seeing things in racial terms while fighting for desegregation. But why now, at a time when (at least before the rise of BLM last year) race relations had never been better?

I know optimism about race infuriates wokies, but take pretty much any measure you want – mixed marriages, mixed neighbourhoods, violence, composition of Parliament and Cabinet, public attitudes towards immigration, acceptability of racist language – and find me a less bigoted decade.

Why then, when slavery still exists in parts of Asia and Africa, are we so preoccupied with Britain’s past participation in the trade? After all, we don’t extend the same test to anyone else. Go to an exhibition of Chinese or Arab or Russian art and you won’t be lectured about how everything you see is the product of forced labour. No, our obsession is purely – and paradoxically – with the country that poured its blood and treasure into a campaign to end the slave trade.

I fear the monomania is precisely the attraction. The experience of many ages teaches us that people respond to simplicity and certainty. From Marxism to Salafist extremism, we are drawn to creeds that allow us to interpret everything, from marriage to music, through a sacred precept. The very unreasonableness of the creed turns out to be part of its appeal, giving devotees a sense that they are set apart from the run of humanity.

The devotees may be few in number, but their intimidating fervour allows them to set the agenda. Just as the Bolshevists pulled behind them mainstream Russian socialists (who had had enough of Tsarist tyranny) and just as the jihadis pulled behind them peaceful Muslims (who had had enough of secular dictators), so woke hardliners exert a pull on moderate Leftists who have little time for cancel culture, but who don’t like to line up with conservative opponents of identity politics.

Thus, one by one, the Enlightenment values that we have taken for granted since Hogarth’s age are extinguished. A long night stretches before us.

Daniel Hamilton: The international community must take immediate steps to stop the bloodshed in Ethiopia

12 Nov

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

Until recently, there was a real sense that Ethiopia had turned a corner.

Despite the country’s tragic past, which has seen its people experience the vile deprivations of the communist Derg junta, intractable and bloody feuds with its neighbours and multiple coup d’états, the country has always had a spirit and verve unlike any other in Africa.

The pace of economic development in recent years has been staggering.

Where choking traffic had once paralysed the city, a sparkling new mass transit system rose above the streets to connect those living in formerly isolated suburbs. The new rail link from Addis through the eastern city of Dire Dawa and onto the port of Djibouti – and on to the rest of the world – gave new hope that Ethiopia may finally live up to its potential as Eastern Africa’s manufacturing powerhouse. The city’s myriad jazz bars were packed to the rafters with tourists and locals revelling in the benefits of growing salaries.

Tuesday evening’s plea by the Foreign Office for British citizens to evacuate the country at the earliest opportunity is therefore a painful one for those that know the country well.

Ethiopia’s wholly avoidable collapse into anarchy, just two years after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on improving neighbourly relations with Eritrea, is a stark reminder of the challenges fragile states face.

The roots of this avoidable conflict began last year when the central government authorised what was initially presented as a necessary law enforcement operation against separatist terrorist elements loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north of the country. The operation won widespread support from supporters of the government.

Since then, and with the world distracted by the Coronavirus pandemic, the conflict has grown as an exponential rate. It has ceased to be a battle between the TPLF and central government and mutated into an alliance of nine other restive ethnic groups who, through a marriage of convenience, wish to topple the Abiy government.

Early this month, the Ethiopian Parliament imposed a six-month state of emergency which has handed the central government increasing powers to crack down on terrorism – perceived or imagined – in increasingly heavy-handed ways. Rather than calm the situation, this mechanism has effectively thrown fuel on the fire, with the UN Human Rights Commissioner expressing concern about mass killings of civilians and military personnel on both sides of the conflict.

As I write, the city of Addis Ababa is now at imminent risk of falling to opposition forces whose strength and durability has been underestimated by the central government.

Nobody doubts that the Abiy government has overstepped the mark and surrendered the moral leadership to run a country of more than eighty different ethnicities with a diverse range of culture and religious beliefs. But the opposition’s agenda, in particular that of the TPLF, risks the permanent division of Ethiopia, the permanent displacement of millions of people from their homes and the opening of tribal and ethnic conflicts that could have repercussions far beyond Ethiopia’s borders.

In her excellent article in The Times earlier this week about the element, Alicia Kearns MP highlighted the efforts of the Bosnian Serb to break up Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to serve sectarian agendas.  The same is true for the Ethiopian opposition alliance.

Despite some valiant efforts on the part of local political leaders to force dialogue between opposing factions, domestic solutions to the crisis have failed.

It is now time for the international community to take immediate steps to stop the bloodshed.

There are a number of practical steps that should be taken.

First, it is crucial that urgent humanitarian aid is allowed to reach those that need it most urgently. Across northern Ethiopia, acute food shortages and the looming risk of famine is now impacting an up to seven million people – roughly one in fifteen Ethiopians.  Pressure must be placed both the Abiy government and opposition, both of whom have clear lines of communication with bodies like the Red Cross, to allow them carry out their work unimpeded.  This aid must extend to neighbouring Sudan where the UN projects more than 500,000 Ethiopian refugees will flee in the coming weeks.

Second, immediate pressure must be placed upon the Turkish government to cease its sale of military equipment to the Abiy government. In particular, the sale of Bayraktar drone systems, whose use by Azerbaijan in its recent war with Armenia saw entire battalions of troops liquidated at the press of a button, must end. The use of “drones of mass destruction” is not an appropriate application of military force on Abiy’s government – it has the potential to be a war crime.  Unless the supply of these weapons is limited, one can expect the death toll to rise by tens of thousands in the coming weeks.

Third, the issue of Ethiopia’s preferential access to international trade accord should also be urgently examined.  President Biden has already made steps to exclude Ethiopia from the terms of the US African Grown and Opportunity Act processes which gives the country duty-free access to most goods it exports to America – a move which has caused fury among Abey loyalists that have sought to frame the US as a hostile power with sympathies for the opposition.

Given the sensitivities regarding the US’s role in the country, the support of China – which recently dropped its opposition to a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cessation of conflict – in blocking the export of supply and export routes controlled by both the government and opposition forces via the port of Doraleh (which is de facto controlled by Beijing) will be crucial.

Fourth, it is important that a constitutional settlement is found that allows for the integrity of the Ethiopian state to be maintained while granting appropriate rights of self-government to minorities. The African Union’s High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo is well placed to lead such an effort given his successful efforts to lead a multi-ethnic government while serving as Nigerian President.

Fifth and finally, it is incumbent on governments globally and international institutions to put in place a solid plan to prevent the conflict spilling over from Ethiopia into neighbouring states. This will involve the provision of aid on the ground and an intensification of support for peacekeeping efforts.

Kenya, which shares long border with Ethiopia has long had its own domestic problems with separatist movements and is experiencing a devastating drought. Sudan, which only gained independence in 2011 after a protracted civil war, has long looked to Ethiopia as the guarantor of its own peace process.  Instability in Ethiopia, the region’s largest economy, risks crippling South Sudan’s already-fragile supply chains of everything from oil to basic foodstuffs and empowering rebel forces. Sudan, which has already taken in thousands of Ethiopian refugees, is struggling to navigate the fallout of its own military coup last month.

We are all aware of the impact of impact of ethnic conflicts and the mass loss of lives they have wrought on Eastern Africa in the past forty years. The images of barbarity in Rwanda and Sudan should rightly continue to haunt an international community that was too slow to act to prevent genocide.

In international relations, though, the price of delays and indecision in heading off genocide and famine is widely known – but often forgotten.

Rather than risk sleepwalking into another catastrophe, now is the time for the international community to force the country’s warring factions to the negotiating table and draw this latest tragic chapter in Ethiopian history to a close.

David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Liz Sugg and Ritah Anindo Obonyo: At this week’s Global Education Summit, we need to talk about sex

29 Jul

Baroness Liz Sugg CBE is a Conservative peer and Ritah Anindo Obonyo is a member SheDecides Kenya.

When Boris Johnson co-hosts the Global Partnership for Education summit this week, we want him to talk about sex.

Why? Because comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is absolutely vital to realising the UK’s commitment to ensuring 12 years of quality education for young people everywhere.

The Global Partnership for Education provides a vital opportunity for Boris Johnson and other world-leaders to commit funding to transforming education systems in the world’s poorest countries. That transformation must have CSE at its heart.

For girls in particular, access to comprehensive sexuality education gives them the tools and knowledge they need to understand their rights and to make decisions about their own bodies. Whether in Kent or Kenya, it helps to prevent gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. In fact, it is key to women’s and girls’ economic empowerment later on in life.

The benefits of CSE cannot be ignored. Girls who don’t receive sex education are more likely to drop out of school due to early marriage and pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa, four million girls leave school before finishing due to early pregnancy.

In contrast, when we provide CSE and information on reproductive choices, we can help girls stay in school. We know that girls who complete secondary education are five times more likely to be educated on HIV/AIDS, keeping them safer and giving them the tools they need to make decisions about their bodies.

Growing up in the Korogocho Slum in Kenya, I, Ritah Anindo Obonyo had no sex education. My two friends and I used to talk about what was happening to our bodies – both friends then dropped out of school as a result of early pregnancy.

Without sex education, young people access information from unreliable sources. They have poor reproductive health outcomes. They are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS – in Sub-Saharan Africa six out of seven new HIV infections occur in young women aged 15-24. All of these issues have a profound effect on women’s life chances and equality and have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

We know that women’s economic and social equality is impossible to achieve when women don’t have ownership of their own bodies. Sex education is therefore key to sustainable development.

For many years now, the UK Government championed our belief that CSE is crucial to girls’ empowerment. The UK taxpayer should be proud that, via the international aid budget, we have collectively helped empower vulnerable women and girls around the world.

But when I, Baroness Sugg, resigned as Minister for Sustainable Development and Special Envoy on Girls’ Education last year, I did so because the progress we have made on supporting women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health faced a grave threat with a budget cut that broke both the Conservative Party manifesto promise and international commitments.

Two weeks before the launch of the Global Partnership for Education Summit the UK Parliament approved the fiscal circumstances needed before we return to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on international development.. This will unequivocally damage the rights of girls and risks rolling back decades of progress.

The cuts will force the closure of sexual and reproductive health services in some of the world’s poorest countries. It will lead to more women and girls being forced to access unsafe abortion. It risks more women dying in childbirth.

Simon Cooke, the Director of MSI Reproductive Choices and also a SheDecides Champion, has warned the cuts will “do more damage … than the global gag rule” – a US policy that denied federal funding to NGOs that offered abortion services or advice that resulted in 20,000 unnecessary maternal deaths and 1.8 million unsafe abortions between 2017 and 2000.

What will the UK Government’s record be?

The cut to international aid will end life-changing and life-saving programmes that deliver information and advice on sexual and reproductive health. We are deeply concerned about the long-term impact a lack of education about sex, respect, consent and bodies will have on girls in the Global South, particularly as they deal with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of course, we cannot change the past. But we can look to the future. As ministers prepare for this week’s Global Education summit, we ask them: are we going to leave women and girls behind as the world builds back better from Covid-19? Or are we ready to ensure girls’ rights are protected by investing in CSE?

The Chancellor has promised to work with parliamentarians to ensure the UK’s overseas development aid budget is spent in a way that has maximum impact. We know that ensuring every child has access to CSE will have a huge impact in the years and decades to come. It will create healthier and more equal communities. It will boost women’s economic empowerment. It will reduce maternal deaths, unsafe abortions, and rates of child marriage.

This week’s summit provides the UK with an important opportunity to raise its hand and recommit to quality education. We need to hear from the Prime Minister that he commits to funding education systems to include CSE, for every child in the world, no matter where they live.

So, Prime Minister, are you ready to talk about sex?

David Davis: The Covid public inquiry should open in October, be held in two stages – and prepare for the unexpected

26 Mar

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

While the dedicated staff of our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is clear that mistakes have been made during the Coronavirus crisis.

No, let me rephrase that piece of Blairite prose. We have made mistakes. The whole British ruling class. Government, advisers (scientific and otherwise), Whitehall, the lot. And not just this Government, the previous one, and the ones before that.

So it is essential that lessons are learnt. Not just by this Government, but by future governments as well.

So we must establish a public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic.

Needless to say, the architects of our strategy throughout the crisis are nervous about the implications for them, and unsurprisingly they are saying “Yes, but not yet.” Not before the next election, or not before they retire, or move on to their next job.

Unfortunately, that will not do. The principal aim of the public inquiry is not recrimination about the past, it is preparation for the future. Pandemics come out of an apparently clear blue sky, or seem to. They are a peculiar class of threat, one whose eventual arrival is certain, but whose timing is entirely unpredictable.

The sloppy thinkers in Whitehall tend to imagine that if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, the most likely time is in about ten, so we have time to prepare for the next one. They are wrong. There is an approximately equal chance of a new pandemic in every year. There are “wet-market” style interfaces between wildlife and urban populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and as the urban populations expand there are new opportunities for zoonotic pathogens jumping species all the time.

As public health services expand, depending too much on antibiotics, the risk of new drug resistant bacteria continues. It is probably only a limited time before we have a really virulent strain of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for example. We do not know whether the next threat will be bacterial, viral or fungal. We do not know whether it will be transmitted by air, by touch, or in our food. All we know is that there will be another pandemic at some entirely unspecified time in the future.

So we need to get a move on with the inquiry, and start as soon as possible. Of course the inquiry must be thorough, and must thoroughly review what went right and what went wrong in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The public will expect it, and the Opposition will demand it. But the most important thing is that we learn the lessons and develop the template for the next crisis as soon as possible.

What is different from other inquiries is that there is a vast amount of data to design this rapid template for pandemic management, and most of it comes from abroad. Although we have had a spectacular success with our vaccination programme, and a lesser but important success with the RECOVERY programme (that delivered dexamethasone as a valuable therapy), the majority of the most successful strategies were in other countries, most obviously in East Asia.

There is a vast amount of data to evaluate all the national strategies and operational arrangements. There are reasonably accurate data on mortality, infection, recovery and excess other deaths on a daily basis for virtually every country in the world. Similarly there are accurate economic impact assessments available. Along with the genetic mutation data this allows us to track very accurately how the disease travelled, grew, was suppressed and was treated, and assess the effectiveness of dozens of different preventive and therapeutic approaches.

This argues for a two-stage inquiry. The first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.

While such inquiries are normally run by judges, the first stage of the inquiry might be better led by a leading scientist, possibly a past President of the Royal Society or some similarly recognised intellect. What it should not be is chaired by anybody who was an adviser to the Government in the crisis.

So this week the Health Secretary – Matt Hancock – announced that his Department will be setting out plans for a new UK Health Security Agency. The Agency will plan for, prevent and respond to external health threats, such as pandemics.

This is a welcome development to better protect the UK, our population, and communities from future external health hazards.

However, the Government has chosen Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to head up the Agency. I am not at all sure that this is wise. This is not a reflection on Harries, who may be brilliant. However the Prime Minister himself accepts that there were a number of missteps in the crisis.

These missteps taken by the Government were often based on questionable advice provided by the very same medical advisers who are now being handed the job of looking at what went wrong.

These public inquiries must be led in an unfettered way by an independent actor who is not consciously or unconsciously committed to the strategies that have failed in the past.

In due course the inquiry will review the errors that have plagued some of our Covid strategy. Before the current Government gets too nervous it should realise that many of the errors are rooted in the past, long before the current Prime Minister came to power, and often before the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government government took over in 2010.

So the advisory arrangements – SAGE et al – date back to the Blair years. They were first activated for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. They frankly do not work very well. The idea of dumping all scientific advice into one committee is a bit bizarre, the sort of thing that liberal arts dominated Whitehall might do. It can often become dominated by a single strong character with a speciality that is beyond many of the members, as happened with Neil Ferguson and his poorly constructed and opaque mathematical model at the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly the Whitehall structures that are supposed to cope with crises are pretty poor too. The best demonstrator of this was the Operation Cygnus pandemic preparation exercise that was run a few years ago. This so-called command post-exercise was positively harmful, because it persuaded Whitehall that it was ready for a pandemic when all it rehearsed were the coping mechanisms – how many body bags you need, and should you have a mass mortuary in Hyde Park – rather than what you would actually do to minimise deaths. This is a generic problem, not just applicable to pandemics. Their “worst case” Brexit preparation was pretty poor too.

Some of the deep-rooted problems come a little later. The Public Health England structures were largely a product of the Lansley reforms, and they too were visibly not fit for purpose. It was their poor leadership that meant that we failed to hit the target of 10,000 test a day before the end of March, while Germany comfortably hit 15,000 a day in mid March. That incompetence denied the Government the strategies that worked so well for Germany in the first wave.

Then of course there were many decisions made on the fly during 2020. Obviously many of these were wrong, notwithstanding Matt Hancock’s cheerfully optimistic gloss earlier this week. But the public, and frankly anybody with any sense, knows that any government was making decisions based as much on guesswork as on hard data, and the public are very tolerant of that.

The primary area where an inquiry’s criticism is likely to fall is poor strategic management in, for example, the upper levels of NHS management. While their staff were doing a brilliant job, I am not too sure that the decisions on, for example, the deployment of the Nightingales and the private sector hospitals were entirely sensible.

These are the sort of things that will be unpicked over a few years by the second stage of the inquiry. The data will be complex and sometimes hard to establish, so it will take a significant time to resolve. Since it may be commenting on the decisions of individuals it is right that it takes its time. But that is all the more reason to start soon.

So my message to Boris Johnson is do not fear this inquiry: grasp this nettle soon, get the actionable insights quickly, reform and prepare accordingly, and then allow the commission to take its time doing a detailed inquiry over several years. History will judge you well for doing the right thing on this.

Daniel Hannan: Ignore the Europhile sneers. Joining the Pacific bloc marks the rebirth of Global Britain.

3 Feb

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

She’s unstoppable, that Liz Truss. The epidemic has put most Whitehall ministries in damage limitation mode, but the Department of International Trade is on a roll, signing 62 free trade agreements to date – plus, obviously, the deal with the EU itself.

Those who can’t bear the thought of Brexit succeeding are, naturally, scoffing. These deals, they say, are largely replicas of what we already had as EU members. Their new line of criticism is, I suppose, an improvement on the position that they took until 12 months ago, namely that we would barely be able to strike any deals at all.

But it’s still not true. Many of the “rollover” treaties go further in small ways: more generous quotas, fewer restrictions. True, these liberalisations are chiefly tokens of intent. But that intent is real. With limited capacity, our priority has been to negotiate new FTAs – that is FTAs with countries where the EU currently has no trade deals, such as Australia and the United States.

Where there are serviceable existing arrangements, we have tended to say, in effect: “Let’s leave things roughly as they are for now, and agree to come back to it next year”. Even in these cases, though, we have often taken the opportunity to go further. The UK-Japan deal, for example, is more comprehensive when it comes to services and cross-border data flows than the EU-Japan deal, even though the latter had only just entered into effect.

This week, Britain took a momentous step when it applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade zone comprising Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

Again, many Europhiles are sneering. Joining a Pacific trade pact, they say, defies geography. And it is of course true that Britain is not a Pacific country (other than in the technical sense of owning the Pitcairn islands). But we have exceptionally close links to a number of CPTPP members. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada are common law, English-speaking nations. So, to a degree, are Brunei and Malaysia.

One of the arguments for Brexit was that, in the internet age, cultural proximity trumps physical proximity. That argument is stronger now than it was a year ago. The lockdown has habituated us to using Zoom or Teams for important discussions. When travel returns, it is hard to imagine that business people will be as ready to hop over to Düsseldorf for the day to make a presentation. If you’re online, Rotorua is no further than Rennes – indeed, nearer in the sense that it shares your language, legal system and accounting methods.

Another argument for Brexit was that, by global standards, the EU was a slow-growth region. That argument, too, is now looking stronger. Although we talk of the pandemic as a global event, the truth is that it hit Europe much harder than Asia, Africa or the Antipodes.

But the biggest difference between the EU and the CPTPP is that the latter is a trade agreement rather than a state-in-the-making. Its members simply seek to maximise their prosperity through greater specialisation and exchange. Joining the CPTPP does not involve making budget transfers to its poorer regions, or accepting the supremacy of its laws over our parliamentary statutes, or adopting a common flag, passport or anthem. Nor does it require a member to alter its standards on non-exported goods and services.

Viewed purely as a trade pact, the CPTPP is preferable to the EU because it elevates mutual recognition over harmonisation. The essence of the CPTPP is that its members agree to refrain from certain actions that would restrict free commerce. It is perfectly possible for CPTPP members simultaneously to have ambitious trade deals with each other and with the EU – as, for example, Japan and Canada do. On services and on professional qualifications, CPTPP uses a “negative list” approach. In other words, it assumes that whatever is legal in one state is legal in all the others unless it is expressly exempted in the treaty.

It is fair to say that the CPTPP is wide rather than deep. It does not go as far as, say, the Australia–New Zealand deal, which is arguably the most advanced on the planet. But, as Australia and New Zealand demonstrate, a deeper trade deal can nestle within a broader one.

Our aim should be to negotiate a deal similar to that which Australia and New Zealand enjoy with one another – assuming that is, that our protectionists in DEFRA and the NFU will let us. We should, in other words, seek both to participate fully in the CPTPP and, under its auspices, to secure even more ambitious agreements with the countries closest to us in terms of GDP per capita and regulatory interoperability – namely, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore.

Indeed, New Zealand, Singapore and Chile – three of the world’s greatest free-traders – are currently setting the pace when it comes to digital trade. If Britain peels itself away from the wary and watchful EU, which has never been comfortable with the free-wheeling nature of the internet, and joins these Hayekian states, it is likely to end up crafting standards on digital trade that every competitive country will want to adopt.

Finally, there is a geopolitical case for membership. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Pacific deal at the last minute opened the door to China which, three months ago, created a rival trade pact with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and all ten members of ASEAN.

My guess is that the Biden administration will want to reverse Trump’s mistake. After all, many of its leading members had been involved with putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership together in the first place under Obama. British membership of the zone, as well as being in itself a useful counterweight to Beijing’s ambitions in the region, will set the context for UK-US trade talks.

To sum up, then, our CPTPP application will boost jobs and growth, strengthen the Anglosphere, improve the prospects for a bilateral American deal, accelerate our pivot to the fastest-growing markets on Earth, and elevate Global Britain. Not bad. Not bad at all.