The case for Global Britain must now be made at home and abroad

The case for Global Britain must now be made at home and abroad
The case for Global Britain must now be made at home and abroad

The British General Election of 2017 was intended to provide stability and certainty, but it did not go according to plan. Theresa May asked the country for a resounding personal mandate to strengthen her in the Brexit negotiations - but the public refused it, confounding expectations of a clear Conservative victory in this early General Election. But, even before the inconclusive result, it was striking how little light the election campaign had shone on the key choices facing Britain about its place in the world. This was supposed to be the Brexit election - but the campaign revealed nothing new at all about the government's approach. Brexit is the biggest change in Britain's relationship to the rest of the world for half a century, but the world beyond Brexit barely featured at all, at least until the election campaign was twice suspended by the tragedy of terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. After the Manchester attack, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made a controversial speech about foreign policy interventions abroad and their relationship to security and extremism, but no major figure on any side of politics said anything of note about Britain's economic relationships with the outside world during the election. The inconclusive result is likely to see British politics become rather more domestically-focused, with a focus on how to keep the government going, and the need to bargain with MPs from Northern Ireland over the budget and legislation of a minority Conservative administration. There will be much speculation about how long the Prime Minister can remain in office, and whether another General Election will be necessary, set against the pressure of the ticking clock for the Article 50 negotiations, which will see Britain leave the European Union in two years. While the uncertain outcome of the General Election may cause further delays, there is a good chance that the longer-term impact of the result will shift the politics of both Brexit and Britain's broader international relationships towards a more open approach. Theresa May's visit last Autumn to India was intended to send the message that post-Brexit Britain intends to be an outward-looking country, more open for business than ever before, looking beyond Europe to broader horizons too. That trip was never likely to get too far beyond setting the mood music for the future, given that Britain has yet to begin formally negotiating its EU departure under the Article 50 process. So, the government's ambition was for post-Brexit Britain to carve out a role as 'the world's foremost champion of free trade' - but the EU retains sole responsibility for international trade while the UK remains in the club. So the Indian government will naturally want to see if it can make progress in negotiations with the EU, and can do little beyond agreeing that it would be good to talk once Britain is free to negotiate. In the meantime, Britain's attractiveness to trade partners beyond Europe may depend partly on its continental relationships too. The UK is the top choice of Indian investors to the EU, but access to the broader European market is part of that appeal. It will be a blow to Britain's hopes of deepening economic relationships beyond Europe if this new global champion of free trade fails to secure a deal to retain tariff-free trade in its home continent too. So the trip did illustrate the key challenges as to whether a more globally-engaged country will be the view of Britain after Brexit that the world believes is true. Secondly, the global message of an outward-looking Britain depends on resolving the domestic argument at home about what Brexit means - more open or more closed, more global or more protectionist 'Save our curry houses' became an unlikely EU referendum slogan, as Conservative MP Priti Patel argued that “by voting to Leave, we can take back control of our immigration policies, save our curry houses and join the rest of the world”. Patel has yet to convince her new boss that more control over EU migration would also lead to being more open to skills from outside Europe. Nobody could credibly claim that last Autumn's Conservative party conference projected an outward-looking message to the world beyond Britain. The failure of the Conservative 2017 General Election campaign may well now lead to a move inside government to rebalance the argument about immigration. For all of the talk of closer British-Indian links, the number of Indian students at British universities has halved. Competitors such as Australia, Canada and the US have boosted their share of the market, offering more opportunities for students to work in good jobs after their degree. Theresa May's government insisted on exploring opportunities to cut student migration further, rather than into attract more fee-paying students here, even though eight out of ten voters don't want the numbers cut. Right-of-centre publications from 'The Spectator' to 'The Times' suggest that welcoming more students from India would be a key way to substantiate post-Brexit Britain's global appeal. As Home Secretary, May faced down an alliance of most of her senior colleagues on the inclusion of students in the net migration target, and the argument inside the government continued with her move to Downing Street. The shift of power inside the government after the election, and the prospect of new leadership in the future, make it likely that there will be a shift towards a more welcoming message and policy towards international students, reflecting the broad public perception in the UK that this is a rather separate question from the political hot potato of immigration. The last year has demonstrated that the danger has been of Britain sending an 'open' message to the world but contradicting it with a more 'closed' case at home. Yet there are big political as well as economic reasons to pursue a more balanced agenda. David Cameron made enormous efforts to deepen the party's reach to British Indians. He inherited a party with one British Asian MP and left it with eight, among 17 ethnic minority MPs. Progress with ethnic minority voters has been harder: the party made some inroads in 2015 under David Cameron, but slipped back in 2017 with British Asian and other ethnic minority voters. Theresa May saw the possibility of a political realignment by winning votes from the populist Eurosceptic UKIP - but underestimated the extent to which that would repel voters in cities and university towns. The Conservatives did very badly indeed in London, losing several seats to the Labour party, and falling back in other areas of high diversity and in cities and university towns across the country. One of the MPs who lost such a seat was Gavin Barwell in Croydon Central. His consolation prize for being defeated in parliament was to be appointed as Prime Minister Theresa May's chief of staff immediately after the vote. This was seen in Westminster as a significant move in seeking to bridge the different wings of the party. Barwell had long been a vocal advocate of the party's need for a liberal approach to immigration, making both an economic and an electoral case for the Conservatives ensuring they have a balanced and positive approach to managed migration. Before becoming a government minister, he wrote in 'The Daily Telegraph' under the Cameron administration, back in 2013, that the government risked sending "very mixed messages" on its relationship with India which risked undermining the emphasis placed on extending economic and political ties. Barwell wrote: It's no good the Prime Minister committing so much of his time to beating the drum for Britain and telling the world we are open for business if every time we talk about immigration domestically it is always in terms of it being a problem, of not wanting people to come here. We need a more nuanced debate. “My constituents are concerned about levels of immigration, but they're not opposed to tourists coming here, foreign students studying at our great universities and foreign businesses investing here.” That was a direct challenge to the agenda of the then Home Secretary Theresa May, who instead toughened the agenda in Downing Street. After the disappointment of the election result, few believe that Theresa May will prove more than a caretaker leader of the country or her party. So the debate has already opened up inside the government and the party about how to better strike that balance. The Conservatives need to manage Brexit in a way that protects the economy - and will want to make sure that they are competing for the rising economic and political power of British Indians. Seizing it may depend on ensuring that outward-facing messages aren't just saved for foreign governments and diplomatic trips abroad - and become part of a positive vision for post-Brexit Britain that is made back at home in Britain too. We failed to have that debate about global Britain and its approach to the wider world including India during the 2017 General Election - but it will surely have to begin now. Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future, an independent UK-based thinktank. He has previously worked as a journalist and was general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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