Theresa May Mobilises a Whites-First Vision of Britain's Trading Future

During her visit to Washington, the prime minister showed that white settler colonies will be Britain's preferred partners after Brexit.

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30 January 2017, 2:31pm

(Top photo: US Embassy London, via)

Theresa May has made it clear she wants Brexit to involve controls on immigration, so it's perhaps surprising to read that part of the government's post-EU strategy might involve increasing the amount of foreigners turning up in these not-so-crowded isles. 

In the run-up to her much publicised meeting with President Trump – which didn't make the front page of a single US newspaper – government sources suggested the PM was keen to boost US-UK migration as part of a possible free trade deal signed with the Trump administration. This came a few days after the Australian high commissioner revealed that similar soundings had been made in preliminary discussions over a free trade deal with Australia. Where the government has been intransigent over relaxing visa restrictions to high-skilled workers from, say, India, it seems markedly more relaxed when it comes to America, Australia, Canada or New Zealand. 

This confirms what many knew: Brexit isn't simply a question of self-governance or an expression of anti-globalisation resentment: it is also about mobilising a racialised view of the world to help Britain find its place in it. This harks back to a project of May's political hero, Joseph Chamberlain, to create a "Greater Britain": an imperial federation which would allow the free movement of goods and people between "kith and kin", basically the white settler colonies of the Empire like Canada and Australia.

As New Statesman journalists Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce put it , "Greater Britain" – which in May's terminology has become "Global Britain" – was a "global commonwealth, but emphatically not one composed of rootless cosmopolitans". This means you can look beyond your provincial borders – without being a dreaded "citizen of nowhere" – provided these relationships are grounded by a common culture, which, in May's vision, is indistinguishable from whiteness. Health tourism is fine, if you're bleeding the blood of patriots.

"May's performance in Philadelphia made it clear that Britain is going to have to prostrate itself in front of the world's most powerful economy if its capitalist class is going to survive." 

So the week started with the confirmation that Theresa May's lifelong anti-migrant posture is really about a certain kind of migrant. By Thursday, Brexit had become, in the guise of May's visit to the US, a pathetic genuflection to American power. 

Speaking to the Republican Party's "Congress of Tomorrow" in Philadelphia, May made it clear that she desperately needs a free trade agreement with the US. Her grovelling speech made reference to Churchill, the Declaration of Independence, Pearl Harbour and Britain's "shared burden" of leading the free world – all to emphasise the conclusion: she's very keen to start preliminary negotiations for a free trade deal because, without one, Britain will be fucked come 2019. The speech tried to balance a fine line between praising Trump's defiant victory and gently criticising his protectionist instincts – if the latter wins out then it's unlikely a trade agreement will be in Britain's interests – but she didn't even rule out allowing American venture capital firms to buy up bits of the NHS if it's what they want. Although Brexiteers created the impression that after leaving the EU the global economy would be presented to Britain as a blank slate, just waiting for the negotiators to turn up in their imperial yacht and write whatever favourable conditions they wanted, May's performance in Philadelphia made it clear that Britain is going to have to prostrate itself in front of the world's most powerful economy if its capitalist class is going to survive.

The obsequiousness took an even graver tone by the weekend, when – in order to avoid offending her new best friend – the Prime Minister refused to condemn, even in modest terms, Trump's racist, sadistic and politically calamitous executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Having just cosied up to Erdogan's authoritarian regime in Turkey – May was the first Western leader to meet him since last year's failed coup and the subsequent crackdown on dissidents – she was asked what she thought about Trump's executive order in a press conference. She made a quick tactical calculation about the importance of a free trade deal and decided to ignore the plight of refugees being detained arbitrarily in US airports, uttering, through a sullen death mask of utter indifference, a sentence that has already caused her untold political damage: "The United States is responsible for the United States' policy on refugees."   

May's servility signalled what effect Brexit is going to have on the so-called "Special Relationship" (which she mentioned eight times in her speech to the Republicans). After the Second World War, when the United States took over Britain's role as the dominant global power, Britain made a conscious decision to become America's "junior partner", as the Foreign Office bitterly described it. The US would give Britain loans to rebuild its economy after the war but with punitive repayment conditions; they wouldn't provide support when Britain undertook military adventures it didn't approve of – like going into Suez or the Falklands – but would expect, and received, complete fidelity when it did the same. Membership of the world's largest economy, the EU, allowed Britain to mitigate this role somewhat as the years went on, acting as a transatlantic bridge between Europe and the United States. But with one half of that bridge totally burned, May understands she'll need to hand over more military and economic power – and de facto sovereignty – to the US. We've taken back control only to hand it over to a petulant princeling who literally had to have the Geneva Convention explained to him.

Oh yeah, and since we're covering the gut-wrenching things that happened last week I might as well mention that a Chinese military official warned that direct military conflict with the US is "becoming a practical reality" now that Trump's in the White House. What will end first, I wonder: this column or the world?

@yohannk

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