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Thu 24 September 2020
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The Prime Minister’s attempts to show his understanding of Aussies and New Zealanders fell flat this week – as have his attempts for post-Brexit trade

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While campaigning to become leader of the Conservative Party last year, Boris Johnson made a fascinating and telling remark in an interview with the Spectator that was largely missed at the time.

Brexit, he said, had been informed by “loads of people in parts of… Oppidan Britain [having] a sense that their lives and their futures weren’t… important”.

Before you start reaching for Google, let me explain. 

At Eton, Johnson was a King’s Scholar – one of the 70 boys who make up the ‘elite within the elite’ of the most gifted and thus entitled pupils in arguably the most exclusive private school on Earth. King’s Scholars call other boys ‘Oppidans’ – from the Latin word oppidum meaning ‘townie’. At other public schools, that derogatory term is used to refer to the local people who don’t attend the institution. At Eton, it is used by the academic crème de la crème to describe those who they deem to be intellectually – if not socially – inferior. 

Now of course when Johnson used the word he was not referring to Old Etonian Brexiters. He was using Oppidan in its broader sense to suggest that the Conservative Party had to reach out to the working people of Britain who had voted to leave the European Union. His use of the term is telling because it suggests that our Prime Minister views this 52% – and perhaps all of us – as little more than ‘townies’.


Time for Tim Tams

This week, the Prime Minister addressed us Oppidans directly in two films that set out the Government’s plans for free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand.

It was classic Johnson. The nation may have lost 42,000 lives to COVID-19 – according to the Government’s figures – and be facing down the real possibility of a catastrophic ‘no deal’ Brexit. But there is always time for frivolity.

The first broadcast kicked off with Johnson waving a packet of Aussie Tim Tam biscuits while helpfully informing us that we already trade with Australia and even drink their wine. The address was light on detail and big on absurdity. The humorous contempt in which public schoolboys hold ‘townies’ is as nothing compared to that which they reserve for Antipodeans. 

The Prime Minister is an unserious man at the best of times, but in his hands this deal was reduced to a series of crude tropes and caricatures. His reference points conjured up images of a Crocodile Dundee Australia, dotted with lovable idiots in dangly cork hats, drinking VB and tossing shrimps on barbies.

Then he turned to New Zealand and things got even worse. Its exports to the UK included “orcs and hobbits” and Oyster Bay wine, he said, before claiming that “there is so much more that we could do together”.

No mention of any detail was made in either video and there was a reason for that. 

The Tim Tams and the Orcs were for domestic consumption – a desperate attempt to divert from two deals that have all the substance of a packet of fairy cakes.

The Brexiters always claimed that we would only be able to trade with the rest of the world and reconnect with the Commonwealth if we broke free from the clutches of the EU, but it was a lie.

Since 2018, the EU has been negotiating FTAs with both New Zealand and Australia and talks are fairly advanced. By quitting the EU, the UK has removed itself from those negotiations to begin again – from a weaker position, further back in the queue. 

That presents a massive headache for New Zealand and Australia. Both nations want to prioritise a deal with the much larger EU but now have to go through the unnecessary rigmarole of more negotiations, simply to satisfy Britain’s imperial vanity.

Johnson’s patronising tone and Tim Tam waving won’t have helped matters. Twitter users in Australasia, including the veteran New Zealand actor Sam Neill, took offence at the British Prime Minister’s condescending tone which seemed to sum up all the very worst excesses of British colonial arrogance.


No Interest in Empire 2.0

The Brexit Conservatives are desperate. Desperate for good news and desperate to sell the line that a deal with our old Commonwealth friends is a replacement for our relationship with the EU. Unfortunately, the numbers simply don’t add up. However it is spun, there is no equivalence to be made.

Total UK exports to the EU are worth £297 billion a year. Total UK exports to Australia and New Zealand are worth just £6.5 billion. The UK does 10 times more trade with Ireland than it does with New Zealand. And, while all trade is to be welcomed, FTAs don’t always benefit both parties equally. In the case of New Zealand, the UK probably won’t benefit economically at all. A Government commissioned strategic outline has suggested that, while benefitting the Kiwis, a UK-NZ FTA will have “close to zero” effect on British GDP and might even make it shrink. 

A deal with Australia would fare slightly better, perhaps adding as much as £900 million to the UK economy, in a best-case scenario. That sounds great until one works out that this is an increase of just 0.03% in GDP – roughly akin to the turnover of Harrods department store in Knightsbridge. 

There is anyway little appetite for increased trade with the UK in either Australia or New Zealand. Both nations now see their destiny in trade with east Asian nations and the EU FTA promises to open up a far larger market than anything the UK can offer. The Ladybird libertarians who set out the case for Brexit were so busy staring at their navels and dreaming of Cecil Rhodes statues that they forgot to ask the members of the Commonwealth if they were on board with the whole Empire 2.0 plan. And they clearly are not. 

Brexit was always based on shoddy economics and sold by a wealthy elite to people who didn’t understand numbers. None of it or any of these deals are rooted in logic or even common sense. But, as Boris Johnson flies about the world in his Brexit jet surveying the Oppidans beneath him, one has to wonder if he really gives a f*ck. He’s head boy now and that’s all that matters.


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