In the wake of the EU referendum result there has been plenty of out-of-touch drivel spouted about Britain's future trading relationships with the rest of the world by Tory ministers, but talk of an "Empire 2.0" strategy towards Africa pushes the boundaries of delusional ridiculousness to a whole new level.
The idea that trade relations with Africa could be any kind of tier one priority at a time when Theresa May is slow-marching the UK towards a socially and economically ruinous nuclear Brexit would be laughable enough in its own right, but reports that this so-called plan is being referred to as "Empire 2.0" just go to show how divorced from reality people in the corridors of power are becoming.
Under normal circumstances the idea of strengthening trade relations with African countries, especially some of the Commonwealth nations, would seem like a sensible enough proposition, but in light of Brexit, it's an extremely odd priority to be going on about to say the least.
To say that post-Brexit Britain's diplomatic capacities are in for a sustained period of over-stretch is putting it lightly.
Aside from all the non-trade related diplomatic issues arising from Brexit (security co-operation, legal issues, borders in Ireland and Gibraltar, the environment, education ...) UK diplomats will surely be so hard-pressed concentrating on stabilising trade relations with their main trading partners (the Single Market nations, the US, China, Canada ...) there's no way that a sustained effort to woo Africa could be considered a tier one priority.
A bit of perspective
The UK's biggest export market in Africa is South Africa where we exported £4.2 billion worth of goods and services in 2014. Exports to Africa in 2014 totalled £16 billion, which means that if the entire continent of Africa were a single country (population 1.2 billion), then they'd be vying with Ireland (population 0.006 billion) to be the UK's 5th biggest export market.
Africa is obviously not unimportant, but in the grand scheme of things trade with Africa is clearly of far less importance than trade with either the United States our European neighbours.
A 12% drop in UK exports to Germany would be the equivalent of wiping out 100% of our export market in South Africa. Conversely a literal doubling our exports to South Africa (a staggeringly optimistic proposition) would be the equivalent of increasing our exports to the United States by less than 8.5%.
A bit of geopolitical pragmatism
Brexit is going to be the biggest challenge that the United Kingdom diplomatic corps have faced since the 1940s. The negotiations with our 27 former EU allies are going to occupy a huge proportion of our diplomatic capacity, and then there's the job of making sure that Brexit doesn't severely damage trade relations with other major trading partners like the United States and China.
Of course our diplomatic preoccupation with trying to mitigate the Brexit fallout with our biggest trading partners shouldn't be used as an excuse to turn our backs on Africa, but a bit of pragmatism is surely in order.
Let's say that increasing trade with Africa is a seriously important international trade priority for all players on the early 21st Century geopolitical scene. Given that the UK diplomatic corps is going to be stretched to the absolute limits by Brexit, does anyone seriously believe that over-stretched UK diplomats will be in a better position to negotiate new trade deals with Africa than rivals like China, Russia, the EU or the United States?
It's obvious that attention of the British diplomatic corps is going to be divided and diverted towards other priorities, whilst our geopolitical competitors will have very much more available manpower to focus on trade relations with Africa should they see it as a priority.
If improving trade relations with Africa were a race, then Brexit represents a massive pair of lead boots for the UK, and anyone blabbering on optimistically about "Empire 2.0" is clearly guilty of bragging about how grand their new set of lead running boots are!
The trade balance with Africa
Aside from the fact that exports to the entire continent of Africa are lower than exports to small European neighbours like Ireland and the Netherlands, and the fact that Brexit is clearly a pair of diplomatic lead boots (not the wonderful dawning of a new era that many right-wingers are pretending that it will be), there's also the fact that the UK is actually running a trade deficit with Africa.
Of course the trade deficit with Africa is relatively insignificant compared with our overall trade deficit, which is catastrophically bad after almost seven years of inept Tory economic mismanagement, but we still buy more from African nations than we sell them, which adds to our alarmingly weak balance of trade position.
If we look at just the trade in goods with Africa the situation is even worse, but a significant chunk of this deficit in goods is offset by a trade surplus in financial services.
Given the importance in exported financial services in offsetting the worst of our trade deficit with Africa, the impact of Brexit on the financial services industry seems very important. Will Brexit actually end up having a negative impact on the balance of trade with Africa as Africa-based financial services customers begin to opt for service providers from within the Single Market region?
You'd have to be an over-optimistic fool to refuse to even consider it as a possibility.
Not a bed of roses
Just the cursory look at UK trade relations with Africa should make it clear that it's all a lot more complicated than pretending that Brexit is some kind of amazing golden opportunity that can only turn out brilliantly, when it's clear that there are all kinds of potential pitfalls, especially since Brexit actually represents an extraordinarily heavy pair of diplomatic lead boots for the UK.
As if all of the ridiculously unrealistic over-optimism wasn't annoying enough, the fact people are actually calling it "Empire 2.0" is astounding. How on earth do you think a nickname like that is going to go down in countries like South Africa, Kenya, Congo, Algeria ... that suffered the terrible ravages of European colonialism?
Whoever came up with "Empire 2.0" could barely have come up with a more offensive name for the project if they'd tried ... Maybe "Colonialism Strikes Back"? Or "Operation Rape Africa"?
Feel good fodder for little Englanders
"Empire 2.0" is a nickname that could only ever appeal to little Englanders who idealise the bygone days of empire where Brits were free to travel to globe pillaging the resources of other countries and living the life of Riley, while "darkies" knew their place and stayed in their own god-damned countries.
An astounding 43% of Brits think that the British Empire was actually a good thing (rather than a brutal, repressive and deeply racist system of global wealth extraction), so this "Empire 2.0" gubbins is just a load of ridiculous feel good right-wing propaganda nonsense to keep them distracted from the fact that Theresa May is slow-marching their country towards a catastrophic nuclear Brexit.
It is a nice idea that Brexit could be a golden opportunity to improve our trade relations with Africa, but you'd have to be utterly delusional to imagine that this should be any kind of priority in comparison to preventing trade with our 27 former European allies falling off a cliff, or that the UK diplomatic corps will be suffering severe over-stretch because of Brexit.
If you take one thing from this article I hope that it's a little bit of perspective on the magnitude of all the Brexit consequences. As a political writer I spent hundreds of hours before the EU referendum researching and writing about the potential Brexit consequences, and trade relations with Africa barely made it onto my radar at all before the vote.
As a country we've voted for this thing, but the magnitude of the consequences is far beyond the ability of any one person to properly comprehend. Anyone who thinks they do know what Brexit is all about, and exactly how its all going to turn out in the end is clearly living in a bubble of underinformed self-deception.
"Empire 2.0" is a manifestation of this kind of self-deception. In reality the impact of Brexit on trade relations with Africa is going to be incredibly complicated, with many obvious pitfalls, but it's clearly being presented by the right-wing media as lightweight feel good nonsense for little Englanders who get some kind of nostalgic buzz from harking back to an age of Empire that very few Brexit voters are actually old enough to remember the appalling realities of.
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