Theresa May’s Florence Speech: A Deeply Brexity-looking Brexit

Britain won’t be seeking an unfair competitive advantage. It will be seeking a perfectly fair competitive advantage, which is exactly what the British people voted for. I have advocated for a long time that we do not need to be in political union and ruled remotely to continue to work with our continental neighbours where it is mutually beneficial.

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By Alexandra Phillips l September 25, 2017

LONDON-When a British person says something is ‘quite good’ it usually means we think it’s a stream of effluent. The phrase “I’ll bear that in mind” is often used when a Briton actually would not, even for a moment, consider the particular suggestion to be remotely sane nor desirable. Calling something “very interesting” pretty much always translates as “what is this utter garbage?” while labelling something “not bad” is high praise indeed, and in fact, means very much “excellent.”

Confused? If you are not British, you have every right to be.

It is my, perhaps wishful, opinion that the much-anticipated speech delivered by Theresa May in Florence on Friday in front of an Anglo-Italian audience could be analysed along the same lines. It was a very British speech indeed. By that, I mean her words could easily be read in two ways. There was what she actually said: humbly, urbanely, genially, designed to be directly translated for non-anglophones in Brussels and across Europe, and the undercurrent of British semantics for her domestic audience, carefully hewn to unite her own benches, drum up patriotism in the bellies of her public, while acting as a soothing antacid to anxious markets. She acknowledged that “for many, this is an exciting time, full of promise; for others, it is a worrying one.” Doublespeak was the order of the day. What was needed, in many respects, was a thing of British beauty.

#walkawayMay – But Would She?

The hashtag started trending on Twitter just after the speech, propagated by the impatient Brexit zealots who almost self-destructively want to see their big dream executed with immediacy and force, even if it resulted in tearing up the economy and creating even more bitter splits in the nation’s politics.

Major entrepreneurs such as James Dyson believe Britain has the clout to shrug off reaching no agreement with the EU. I tend to agree. WTO tariffs would still total far less than membership contributions and I am certain tax breaks or subsidies could be afforded to help those businesses affected. The outcomes would also be as deeply injurious to an already sensitive Eurozone.

For those with keen ears, our frequencies carefully tuned for signals of fighting talk, she stealthily snuck into the speech a glancing reference to the suggestion that the UK is working behind the scenes to prepare to walk away. Blink, and you would have missed it. But this line is critical

“I spoke not just about the preparations we were making for a successful negotiation but also about our preparations for our life outside the European Union – with or without what I hope will be a successful deal. And the necessary work continues on all these fronts so that we are able to meet any eventual outcome.”

The UK is quietly strengthening its position, as Theresa May immediately preceded the Florence speech with a wooing mission to Canada, and is preparing to walk away with no deal. I like to picture a small army of mandarins infiltrating the corridors of power and enterprise around the world, the dormant imperialist dragon arousing from its half- century slumber and surveying its kingdoms of old, and lands yet penetrated, as the ever elusive Ms May smiles and utters with quivering voice that the UK would dearly love to continue to be cosy with its continental cousins. As is the typical British modus operandi, to be politely underhand, we would not dream of actually telling the EU that they can shove their off-the-shelf trade-deal-only position up their posteriors. It is this silken subterfuge, founded through centuries of exploration and exploitation, that became crystallised through counter-candor in the Victorian era, when the empire stretched to its most fecund and prolific reach.

Telling Brussels: We Won’t Undercut them Reminds them that We Can, and Will

The speech was quietly confident, diplomatic and exceedingly courteous, exhibiting the very British compulsion to take the moral high ground. But don’t be fooled by this approach. It is what the British are best at, whether it be queueing, or the use of semantic contradiction in all of our quotidien encounters. The way we operate is often something that only native Brits, albeit unconsciously, truly understand. And more than likely what helped us quietly end up ruling one third of the globe.

Similarly, just as she said, “when we differ from the EU in our regulatory choices, it won’t be to try and attain an unfair competitive advantage, it will be because we want rules that are right for Britain’s particular situation,” she preceded it with “our fundamentals are strong: a legal system respected around the world; a keen openness to foreign investment; an enthusiasm for innovation; an ease of doing business; some of the best universities and researchers you can find anywhere; an exceptional national talent for creativity and an indomitable spirit. It is our fundamental strengths that really determine a country’s success and that is why Britain’s economy will always be strong.”

In British, this means: “with all due respect we’re going to undercut the hell out of you if you don’t give us free trade. And even then, we still plan to do this anyway.”

The very telling “we will always be a champion of economic openness; we will always be a country whose pitch to the world is high standards at home” could be taken as a clear allegory for telling Brussels not to cut off its nose to spite its face and snub free trade with Britain, while pretending to be the bastion of anti-protectionism to the rest of the globe.

Of course, Britain won’t be seeking an unfair competitive advantage. It will be seeking a perfectly fair competitive advantage, which is exactly what the British people voted for. It is through uniquely customising our own regulation for greater ease of business, the capitalist heartbeat of what Napoleon scathingly called ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, that we would, of course, seek to undercut the bureaucratic behemoth built by Brussels. But we are British. We are hardly going to say that outright.

EU Says We Can’t Cherry Pick? We Absolutely Will!

She also suggested, which I wholly applaud, ongoing cooperation with some of the EU’s agencies, but not its institutions. These agencies often permit various observers and paid- up member nations outside the EU and cover cooperation on education, technological development, scientific research and so forth. I have advocated for a long time that we do not need to be in political union and ruled remotely to continue to work with our continental neighbours where it is mutually beneficial. Theresa said we’d be willing to splash the cash to be in what we want; “we would want to make an ongoing contribution to cover our fair share of the costs involved.” It was quietly ballsy, assumptive. And, I liked it.

Paired with the absolute insistence that we would not be in the Single Market, nor the Customs Union, and the vigorous reiteration that we would not seek to be in the European Economic Area, but develop a British model for a new relationship, it is clear she is quietly telling the EU that Britain is not just as mighty as the EU, it is, and can be (to quote Land of Hope and Glory) mightier yet!

Yet, she used the word “pragmatic” throughout the speech. This was not a self-aggrandizing, imperious, bombastic panegyric. It was carefully pragmatic in every sense of the word. But equally self-assured. She spoke to the obvious, pointing out the sheer irrationality of willfully disregarding the precedence of legislative mutuality unique to the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit, through having in place already harmonised regulation that will be automatically transposed into British law via the Great Repeal Bill. Every condition the EU has set throughout history to qualify for free trade in the single market is naturally already written in British statute. It would expose an entirely baseless pedantic obduracy, if the EU were to suggest Britain could not be a fit free trade partner. What would be the point, therefore, of slapping on tariffs?

Words of Comfort to the Markets

To ardent Eurosceptics, this may look on the outside rather much like the continuation of the status quo, but as Theresa May said, and as she full well knows, this provides certainty to industry, and in doing so, certainty to her own position and party. As the speech was being made I had one eye on the FTSE fluctuations, nudging gently up as the markets took succour from her soothing soliloquy. To rule out a transition period, or be too flippant about a no-deal situation, or even to threaten the EU with suggestions that we could bypass their negotiations and appeal directly to individual member states and industries, would be rather Trump-esque in bravado and not remotely reflective of the British way of doing things. The way that we have proven works, time-and-again.

The repercussions of such audacity would likely be an injured Brussels lashing out, and would see the markets flounder and the pound potentially plummet, and of course be manna from heaven to her critics and those who wish to portray Brexit as somewhat apocalyptic. If this were a game of chess, Theresa May has just castled, allowing herself, as the Queen, to go on the attack, while implementing full defensive mode to prepare for whatever the other side might do.

And that is precisely what Theresa needed to do at this point.

Her repetition that the eyes of the world are on Brexit was a veiled challenge for the EU to meet her in the middle as she stated, “So it is up to leaders to set the tone. And the tone I want to set is one of partnership and friendship. A tone of trust, the cornerstone of any relationship.”

She reaffirmed that the UK was the EU’s biggest market, that we had unparalleled diplomatic networks around the world and that the British spirit would always see the UK economy thrive. She is not wrong. While critics may argue that the speech was concession of sorts, perhaps vacuous or not gritty enough, I regard it as an artful challenge. A challenge to the EU to continue to be the bad guy or to concede and exhibit maturity of mind through spirit of cooperation, while the global markets look on. She could not have been any clearer, in a very low key British way, that we mean business.

But Why Were There No Specifics?

However, what we got in tone and tenor did in some cases lack in detail or self-contradict.

Yet, it would have been foolish for the Prime Minister to create a noose that her opponents could later hang herself with. David Cameron did just that with his renegotiation strategy set out in the portentous Bloomberg speech, which offered to the British people a referendum were he to return from negotiations on the continent empty handed. Outlining specific time frames, enumerating divorce settlements or describing unequivocally how the post-Brexit situation would look, when so much depends on how the EU themselves decide to proceed, would be flagrantly foolhardy. Yet, read between the lines of Theresa’s Florence speech, and you are presented with a deeply Brexity-looking Brexit. Not hard, nor soft, the false dichotomy adored by critics and entirely manufactured by a headline hungry commentariat, who love nothing more than to set up a straw man, but simply inevitable in all of its facets.

Perhaps the only area I was left feeling troubled was in the contradictory statement that we would negotiate for as long as it takes, then in another breath, that a transition period, uttered formally for the first time, should be strictly time limited.

“How long the period is should be determined simply by how long it will take to prepare and implement the new processes and new systems that will underpin that future partnership,” said May, before stating, “there should be a clear double lock: a guarantee that there will be a period of implementation giving businesses and people alike the certainty that they will be able to prepare for the change; and a guarantee that this implementation period will be time-limited, giving everyone the certainty that this will not go on forever.”

In trying to sate the salivating sceptics and sensationalising stayers in one speech, she has potentially framed the question that will likely haunt the rest of the negotiations. How long a transition? And as all politicos know, nothing is more politically dangerous than a promise that cannot be kept.

Reminding the World that Britain is Bigger than it Looks, and Brussels has Gone Crackers

If this gaucherie does not eclipse what was actually a prudently wrought exercise in diplomatic argot, there were many noble positions to be lauded, such as the promise to not use security cooperation as a bargaining chip. With some of the greatest intelligence services in the world, and, as Theresa reminded the audience, the highest defense spend in Europe, it was an opportunity to reaffirm that “the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security. And the UK will continue to offer aid and assistance to EU member states that are the victims of armed aggression, terrorism and natural or manmade disasters.” This benevolent outpouring serves not only to present a dignified and decent face to the world, but gently remind our continental neighbours that where we have strength, they have dependence. Merely alluding to the existence of a possible security bargaining chip was, in fact, gently playing it.

She also assumed a position of moral rectitude in stating that through an exit bill the EU would not face a hole in its budget, but the UK would meet fiscal responsibilities it undersigned as a member state. I applaud this. It gently reminds Brussels that we are fully aware of how injurious our departure is to them, even if this is something they largely desire not to acknowledge.

May’s strident framing of the narrative, that the UK would regain precious sovereignty while the EU would be able to continue on its own course, unhindered by British apathy for supranational governance that simply does not ‘fit’ with Britain’s own sense of self-esteem, coyly referenced EU President Jean Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address earlier this month that was received in many European capitals as fantastically ambitious.

When Theresa May beamed beatifically that “just last week, President Juncker set out his ambitions for the future of the European Union. There is a vibrant debate going on about the shape of the EU’s institutions and the direction of the Union in the years ahead. We don’t want to stand in the way of that”, what she really meant was, “Hate to say we told you so” to cowering member states justifiably alarmed by Brussels sociopathically megalomaniacal socialist empire building. With plans to fully expand the continent’s open borders to all EU accession countries, create a common defence policy under qualified majority voting and force every member state to adopt the Euro, Juncker’s deluded speech was welcomed in the Netherlands, especially as warmly as a cold plate of sick, with the Dutch Prime Minister spitting the barb: “when you have visions, go see a doctor.”

The British translation of this passage was pretty much ‘we are bloody pleased to be getting out before Brussels hurtles headlong into concretising an anti-democratic suprastate.” But being British, that’s not exactly what we said.

By setting out her stall, while reminding everybody of why we put a ‘Great’ before Britain, outlining our claim to the biggest defence budget in Europe, one of the biggest development budgets in the world and enviable far reaching diplomacy throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, Theresa May levelled up to Brussels and asserted that the UK was not just equal to the EU, but is set to be greater yet outside of it, adding that we won’t leave our continental friends behind, but be there to offer an outstretched hand when the British voters are indeed proven right in their choice.

By asseverating in the politest possible terms to our continental neighbours the very British commitment to decency and determination, May has laid down the gauntlet of probity for Brussels to now pick up. She commenced her speech by referencing her location, in Florence, a European city at the heart of the Renaissance; “a period of history that inspired centuries of creativity and critical thought across our continent and which in many ways defined what it meant to be European.” A sophisticated and assured allusion to the Great British rebirth. She concluded her vignette of the denouement of the post-modern European era by stating that it was now up to the leaders to set the tone.

She definitely did that on the day.


Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the political party in Britain that successfully campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She is a political advisor and communications consultant in London. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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