Sadly, many of the great quotations in history are simply not accurate.
One of my favourite apocryphal quotes is (wrongly) credited to Sir Francis Drake, supposedly written just before the intrepid explorer set off on the Golden Hind on his dazzling circumnavigation of the globe.
Drake is supposed to have said: “Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves; when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little; when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore; disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wilder seas, where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.”
Perhaps no single thought better encapsulates the failure of imagination that is presently holding the UK back.
All through the Brexit debate, I have been struck by the myopia of the analysis. For Brexit is not primarily about the Irish backstop, the size of the divorce bill, parliamentary manoeuvrings, or the latest over-the-top bellowings of that sheep in wolf’s clothing John Bercow.
Getting beyond Brexit – where the whole of the country has been intellectually stuck through the dreary, highly unimaginative administration of Theresa May – instead requires looking at what comes next.
A key question to assess, beyond the vital Jeffersonian notion of self-rule, is whether Brexit is worth it or not in practical policy terms.
Can the UK can use its newfound freedom to craft trade deals with the parts of the world that are growing, rather than obsessing about the ultimate accord with the one continent that is not?
Start with the basic fact that the European project is in an advanced state of decline. Export-driven Germany is hurtling toward recession, statist France is becalmed, and chaotic Italy possesses a smaller economy now than in 2008, before the recession. Sticking with the sclerotic continent is a ticket to nothing but decline.
Fortunately, in the Anglosphere – the former major English-speaking colonies and dominions of the British empire – the UK has putative trading partners growing at a far healthier clip.
For despite numbers-challenged taunts to the contrary, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, and India, are not relics of Britain’s past. They are a loose but durable alliance that can be the key to the UK’s economic future.
Take two per cent GDP growth per annum as roughly what it takes to maintain a successful first-world economy (numbers that most of the EU would kill for) and the story becomes plain.
In 2018, Australia and the US grew at 2.9 per cent, New Zealand 2.8 per cent, and Canada 1.9 per cent. India, a star emerging market performer, managed a healthy 6.8 per cent, powering Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a landslide re-election.
As in snooker, the order the balls are potted matters. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is making it clear that he thinks a free trade deal can be inked in under a year. New Zealand and Canada ought to be next, and present no real problem.
The crux of the matter will be whether the UK can manage free trade deals with India and the US.
In President Donald Trump, Boris Johnson is fortunate to have at the helm the most Anglophile leader in recent memory – compare his “first in line” comments regarding a deal to the dour “back of the queue” position of Barack Obama.
Already, 45 Republican senators have made it clear that they are on board for a quick and comprehensive accord. If the UK can persuade the Irish caucus in the Democratic party that the Good Friday agreement will be upheld, all will be smooth sailing.
As for India, the key will be negotiating immigration rights for high-skilled Indian workers. Harkening back to his days as the liberal, cosmopolitan mayor of London, the Prime Minister can unlock close trade ties with the country in the world most likely to grow at the fastest rate over the next two decades.
So it is time to not just heed Drake’s apocryphal words, but to act on them.
The new yardstick to measure Brexit has absolutely nothing to do with what is presently dominating the headlines. Rather, if in three to five years the UK has inked free trade deals with the major Anglosphere players, it was worth it; if not, Brexit was a mistake.
It is past time for the UK to intellectually and strategically move on, to sail beyond sight of land, and to reach the stars.
Main image credit: Getty