Britain’s war on everything it is good at

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It isn’t quite true that the Premier League has conquered the world. Some atolls in the Bering Sea are holding out. Rumours persist of villages throughout the Eurasian Steppe where children are still allowed to go about without “FODEN” and “47” on their back. In time, though, these rebel provinces too will fall in line. 

The “EPL” is the most successful British creation of my lifetime. And so the country has decided to honour it in characteristic fashion. We are going to regulate it. The new (busy) body, called the Independent Football Regulator, might work. There is a case for oversight of club owners. But remember the historian Robert Conquest’s Second Law of Politics: any organisation that is not explicitly rightwing sooner or later becomes leftwing. Even if the regulator doesn’t evolve into a meddling prig, how telling that Britain has come to view the Premier League as a problem to solve.  

Britain seems to like nothing it is good at. Its universities attract foreign students: a source not just of cash for the UK, but of future friends the world over. So of course that market is being curbed. Britain has a capital city that subsidises much of the rest of the kingdom. So of course it is slandered as a living Babel. And does any nation agonise about its economic specialism as much as the UK does about its financial sector? (Not a rhetorical question, that. Perhaps Germans feel as conflicted about their energy-guzzling manufacturers, and I’m just less aware of it.) 

This is now a nation of self-loathing globalists. It has what is at various times the world’s busiest international airport, and won’t allow it a third runway. It has been, and should be, a tourism superpower, but has stingier sales-tax rules for visitors than rival destinations. As for our openness to Chinese cash in the last decade, we are in the process of deciding, with some justification on security grounds, that we don’t want that either.  

Last week, the Economist recognised that Britain’s “superpower” is the relative ease with which it absorbs immigration. The foreign-born share of the England and Wales population is higher than America’s. Few of the big cities are ghettoised. All three mainland nations have non-white leaders. But it is a superpower that Britain doesn’t recognise as such, or much want.  

Globalisation is difficult for all countries: even Singapore has its citizen versus expat schism. But the UK seems unique in being so good at it and so reluctant to be. This wouldn’t matter if the nation had a plausible alternative means of earning its keep in the world. Instead, it is going through a fad for the kind of industrial dirigisme for which it has shown little historic aptitude. A state that couldn’t build 80 miles of high-speed rail from Birmingham to Manchester aspires to pick winners in super-advanced manufacturing.  

What happened, I sense, is that Britain took the 2008 financial crash as a moral, not just a material, trauma. (Far more so than Ireland, say, which suffered no less an economic hit without losing all self-belief.) Since then, anything suggestive of British openness — that buccaneering pirate schtick — seems almost improper. Meanwhile, pie-in-the-sky talk of building a Gaullist state sounds not just doable, but redemptive.  

Imagine seeing this identity crisis from a distance. There is one aspect of globalism that Britain is bad at, and that is understanding quite how desperate much of the rest of the world is to enrich itself. Being stuck for generations behind an Iron Curtain, or under a colonial hand, rather concentrates the mind. A country that fusses over how to be rich, rather than asking whether it can remain rich at all in this competitive century, must strike others as . . . privileged? Or easy pickings?

This weekend, as the world tunes into Manchester City vs Arsenal, some well-meaning people in the host territory will be thinking, “How do we regulate this?” Now, whatever its imperial reach, a sports league is small financial potatoes. But the same sour attitude, spread across a whole economy, starts to add up. Britain’s distaste for its own strengths, as though other ones are available, isn’t just weird. It is expensive. But don’t panic. There is a chance that our descendants, as they gaze up at Czech or Malaysian living standards, will forgive our majestic self-indulgence. 

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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