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Boris Johnson Called Africa a Country — and Other News From a 'Global Britain'

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Behind the rallying cry of a “Global Britain,” the Conservative Party Conference has kicked off in Birmingham. 

Fronted by Prime Minister Theresa May and vocal Brexiteers from the current cabinet, Day 1 centred on a bold ambition: “Making a success of Brexit,” with speeches from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (yes, it’s a mouthful) and the Secretary of State for International Development. 

Amidst all the soundbites and slogans, a lot of big statements were made – statements that will have a major impact on life in the UK, and its relationship with the wider world.

Here are some key quotes — from the bold to the blasé — that will tell you what you need to know about the Conservatives’ vision for the future: 

“Brexit means Brexit — and we’re going to make a success of it.” — Theresa May

On the surface, this isn’t news. Theresa May has been making this declaration since the day she walked into Downing Street. But her opening address to the Conservative Party Conference brought a new force and direction to these words. Repeating an announcement made on Sunday morning on the BBC's Andrew Marr show, she confirmed that Britain would trigger Article 50 by March 2017, formally beginning the process of negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union. 

May also dismissed the possibility of a Parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50, putting to rest any hopes held by those wishing to reverse the referendum result. To calm fears of legal uncertainty, the Prime Minister announced the Great Repeal Bill, which would automatically enshrine all EU law into UK law on the day the country officially leaves the Union. 

What Brexit will look like is still unclear, but many commentators believe May’s speech points to a “hard Brexit,” hinting that she is prepared to sacrifice full access to the Single Market for the sake of full control over immigration. For some, a hard Brexit sounds as palatable as a 100-day-old cereal bar, while others welcome her decisive position on the direction of the country. Only time will tell whether May can unify a divided country where “Brexit means Brexit” means so many different things.

“Life expectancy in Africa has risen astonishingly as that country has entered the global economic system.” — Boris Johnson 

Oh no, he didn’t?

Oh yes, he did. 

Boris Johnson had the room in pantomimic levels of laughter as he confidently owned the stage. It is undeniable that the man has a way with words, managing to bring in references to the Kardashians, elephants, Snickers, and even French knickers. But, hilarious as it may have been to some, Johnson couldn’t help tripping over the loose thread between his punchlines and his policy. 

The common theme in his first conference speech as Foreign Secretary was the importance of freedom of all kinds — free trade, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of speech (and of course, the freedom to love Europe from outside of the EU). 

In this spirited defence of freedom, he warned that some African countries were becoming more authoritarian, before attempting to celebrate the progress that has been made across the continent:

“Life expectancy in Africa has risen astonishingly as that country has entered the global economic system,” he said.  

Imagine how the Brexit champion would react if anyone ever referred to Europe as “that country”? Probably not well.

It is unclear whether the Foreign Secretary of Team Global Britain really thinks Africa is one country, rather than a continent of 54 independent nations, or if it was just a slip of the tongue. Johnson should obviously not think of Africa as a homogenous bloc, oversimplifying the diversity and richness of the second biggest continent in the world.

Read More: 27 Myths About Developing Countries

“It is in our national interest to alleviate suffering overseas.” — Priti Patel 

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Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel used her speech to reaffirm the priorities for UK aid. Celebrating the impact of the country’s leadership in delivering aid to the world’s poorest, Patel highlighted the relationship between global challenges and life in the UK. 

In an article published exclusively in The Independent  hours before her speech, Patel argued that: “our aid budget has a crucial role to play in shaping the world according to our universal values of democracy, enterprise, and justice.” 

She challenged the distinction between helping the world’s most vulnerable people and pursuing our national interest, describing this division as a “false dichotomy.” For Patel, lifting people out of poverty is fundamentally connected to our national interest, because it builds the foundation for a safer, more stable, and more prosperous world. 

On stage, Patel announced £750 million of aid funding to projects in Afghanistan, and used the country as an example of how aid can simultaneously improve lives after conflict, create jobs and opportunities, tackle the root causes of migration, and reduce the threat of global terrorism. It’s a bold assertion, but one that confidently aims to quell arguments on both sides of the aid debate and show that she is committed to proving that UK aid really does work. 

“Britain has always been one of the most tolerant and welcoming places on earth – and it must remain that way.” — David Davis

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As the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis has the tough job of making his department sound more inspiring than its name suggests. A longstanding Eurosceptic,  his speech at the conference was a triumphant call to unite to build Britain’s post-EU future. This future will blend past greatness and new opportunities, where Britain can be a nation that “makes for ourselves all the decisions that matter most.” 

Keen to assert that the referendum was about sovereignty rather than xenophobia, he gave a stern warning to anyone inciting or inflicting racial hatred in the aftermath of Brexit:

“To those who peddle hate and division towards people who have made Britain their home: let the message go out from this hall, we say you have no place in our society.” While Davis distanced the party from the post-Brexit backlash, he made it clear that control over immigration was a central issue. 

“Let us be clear, we will control our own borders and we will bring the numbers down.” 

So what do we know? 

— The Brexit process will begin by March 2017, but we still don’t know exactly when or exactly what it means. 

— We know that the UK aid budget is here to stay, and that Priti Patel is committed to proving that fighting extreme poverty goes hand in hand with the national interest. 

— David Davis wants to control immigration but keep xenophobia at bay. 

— Boris Johnson may or may not know that Africa is a continent. 

Stay tuned for more coverage of the political party conferences by following Global Citizen UK on Facebook and Twitter.