When the going gets tough, as Billy Ocean fell narrowly short of observing, the tough scarper to sub-Saharan Africa for a short holiday from reality.
No one with a dash of humanity will begrudge Theresa May her jaunt, with 27-strong trade delegation in tow, to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. Tough as titanium old boots as she is, she looks exhausted and could clearly use a break from the neo-medieval torture device known as Brexit. So you hope that a few days in the African capitals, relishing the novelty of being treated like someone of global importance and parroting sub-Macmillanite platitudes about the winds of change blowing through the continent, will help morale. But if the chance to affect relevance on the world stage is her main ambition, her nominal ambition offers a bleak reminder of a savage truth.
May’s other intention is to reassure her domestic audience that increased UK trade with Africa’s larger economies will mitigate the spine-chilling horror of a no-deal Brexit. Having asked God to bless and spare her for that, let’s glance at the figures. According to the most recent available statistics, combined annual exports of goods to South Africa and Nigeria came to just over £3bn, with a few hundred million going to Kenya.
The total represents almost exactly one per cent of UK exports. If you doubled it, trebled it, quadrupled it, or quintupled it – if you went on upling and upling until the dictionary ran out of multiplication words – it wouldn’t make a hap’worth of difference. If Britain leaves the EU, to which it exports more than £240bn without a deal, even an outlandishly massive rise in African trade wouldn’t be the weeniest oasis in a Saharan economic wasteland stretching further ahead than the Hubble telescope could see if you force-fed it carrots for a decade.
This is in no way to denigrate the fact that Britain is the world’s second-largest investor, close behind the US, in Africa. One of an elite corps of policies to applaud since the Tories took power in 2010 is the refusal of David Cameron and May, under intense pressure from the thuggish right wing in the Commons and the press, to cut the overseas aid budget. If the purpose is to buy soft power and sew the seeds of serious profit when growing African economies reach fruition, that doesn’t diminish the benefits to people who sorely need the help.
For now, however, talking up the importance of trade with Africa in the no deal context is a lurch into distraction.
You sense the weight of fantasy under which she labours from a statement on May’s behalf. “The PM will use the visit to announce further support to tackle instability across the region,” said a spokeswoman, “because nations can’t prosper without it.”
Aha! This revelation that a nation needs instability to prosper may have been a slip of the tongue, or evidence that the civil servant’s ability to speak English has faded since the days when we owned the three countries May is visiting. It may even have been a Freudian slip from someone who works for a PM whose faintly Orwellian heraldic motto “Prosperity through instability” appears to be. Either way, you don’t need me to spell out the tragicomic poignancy of May, paralysed by chaos and with worse chaos shortly to come, tutoring others about the central importance of stability to economic prosperity.
If Jose Mourinho gave the inaugural Donald J Trump Memorial Lecture – “Maintaining Grace And Dignity Under Fire” – it would be half as absurd.
No one in history was better qualified to give that talk than Nelson Mandela and it’s nice that, “weather permitting”, May will go to Robben Island. Our last woman prime minister regarded Mandela as a terrorist, so definite progress there. But no amount of virtue-signalling will disguise the brutal fact that even exponentially increased trade with Africa would be as effective a painkiller for the agony of no deal as a baby aspirin for someone liberated of a leg by a Zambezi crocodile.
For all that, we need friends in troubled times. So it’s comforting that David Schwimmer, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, is accompanying May. He’ll be there for her when the rain starts to pour. Whether he’ll still be with her when share prices start to fall precipitously as No Deal Day approaches is another matter.
It hasn’t been May’s day, week, month, or even year. Paralysed in neutral, she dreams of being stuck in second gear. Her job’s a joke, her country’s broke, and the October deadline is closing in with not the faintest prospect of a deal being struck.
To engage in some fantasy politics of our own, there is still time for her to do the honest, responsible, dutiful thing of which, I imagine, she dreams most nights: confess that there is no Brexit scenario that won’t be disastrous, and that therefore the British have a sacred right to be asked whether the democratic will expressed in June, 2016, has decisively changed. One appreciates that she’s a deeply conventional politician who feels bound by the conventional wisdom, peddled by her ultras and reactionary newspapers, that a second referendum would be – what else? – a betrayal.
But being in Africa can be a liberating experience, and she could take her inspiration from an earlier European woman who removed herself to Kenya. “Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions,” wrote the Danish author Karen Blixen, who died in 1962. “Here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams.”
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