Of all the charges made against Brexiteers, the notion that we ‘don’t understand the modern world’ is the one that some Remainers have most often returned to; their equivalent of the boxer’s stinging jab that relentlessly wears down an opponent. In a global system increasingly dominated by a handful of big players with huge populations and land mass – the US, China, India, Russia – being a medium-sized nation in Europe without the umbrella of the EU was supposed to be a mug’s game.
In the European Parliament, that arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt would often refer to the countries of Europe as ‘dwarfs’ who needed to band together to compete in such a world. We all remember Barack Obama trotting out a similar thesis during our referendum campaign, delighting David Cameron’s Downing Street team by saying that Britain would be at the ‘back of the queue’ in trade talks because he would look to deal with ‘a big bloc, the European Union’ first.
When Boris Johnson decided last spring to stay out of the European Union’s Covid vaccine programme out came the jab again from the usual suspects. The Prime Minister was accused of being ready to sacrifice British lives on the altar of a hopelessly outdated Little England ideology – ‘silly Brexit games,’ said Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey. The EU’s massive combined purchasing-power was going to leave us scrabbling about for crumbs.
The Brexiteer answer to such charges has always been that, in fact, there are many advantages to acting as an independent nation state – quicker decision-making processes, the ability to pursue national priorities, more accountability to the public. These arguments have often been summed up by deployment of the word ‘nimble’.
Well, ‘nimble’ has just beaten ‘big bloc’ hands down on the most important post-Brexit issue Britain has yet faced and is likely to face for many months – the provision of life-saving and economy-saving vaccines.