In time, this partnership can and should lead to a Free Trade Agreement between our nations. But there are many steps we can and should take before then to make good on the potential which exists.
The last five years have been some of the most disruptive in living memory for the UK. The uncertainty caused by the vote to leave the European Union has been compounded by the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic. But just as Covid-19 is forcing the UK, and other countries, to think about how it might act differently in the future, Brexit gives it the chance to act differently. For many, including the author, voting for Brexit was a vote to lift our eyes beyond Europe to the potential, and the opportunities, which the rest of the world present: there can be few better examples of that potential and those opportunities than India.
Earlier this week the London-based think tank at which I am a Research Fellow, the Centre for Policy Studies, brought together some of the most expert voices in the UK to discuss UK-India relations. Taking place at the same time as the British Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, was in India laying the groundwork for a UK-India Free Trade Agreement, we were privileged to have her Trade Minister, Ranil Jayawardena, address us and equally blessed to have three members of the House of Lords offer their views. Lord Karan Bilimoria and Lord Rami Ranger spoke alongside Baroness Sandip Verma, with each providing personal reflections and unique insights on this most critical of issues.
The discussion was, in a word, uplifting. There was vigorous agreement that the strong foundations and shared democratic values underpinning the UK-India partnership provide a fantastic platform on which to build. The discussion was an exciting exploration of the mutually-beneficial economic, cultural, educational and geopolitical opportunities that exist to further progress the UK and India’s relationship.
Trade Minister Jayawardena started by informing the hundreds of people listening that Britain is the largest European market for Indian exports and referred to the significant investments the UK and India make in each other’s economies. It is hard not to look at all economies through the lens of the Covid-19 pandemic right now but, whilst the British and Indian economies suffered in 2020, trade between our nations stood up well and both countries are expected to bounce back this year.
Our readiness to bounce back is, in no small part, down to the UK and India’s collaboration and joint efforts to overcome the virus. Just this week, Liz Truss announced further investment from Indian pharmaceutical giant, Wockhardt, in their facility in Wales, boosting British vaccination production capacity. In turn the UK, the single biggest donor to the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative, is helping promote equitable access to the Covid-19 vaccine around the world and India is initially set to receive 97 million vaccination doses through the scheme.
This sort of collaboration is precisely what we need to see more of in the future—and is both the embodiment and the platform for greater partnership. Panellists emphasised that Brexit presents enormous potential for the UK to extend ties with India, whether that is around visas and immigration policy, education, innovation, R&D, shared security challenges or trade and investment. With the 2022 Commonwealth Games coming up and at a time when England are playing cricket in India (and winning! Though we all saw, and rejoiced, at what happened after the Australians won their first Test against India!)—the shared bonds through sport also seem particularly timely and relevant.
University research, student exchange and academic collaboration are all areas in which UK-India partnership already flourishes, but in which even closer links can be forged post-Brexit. Both countries are tech innovators and digitally driven—the opportunity to work together on the technological solutions which will help us overcome our most acute challenges is an enticing one. But the partnership should be deeper rooted than that: the UK has withdrawn from the EU’s Erasmus programme and its new “Turing Scheme” is a student exchange programme that should allow for much greater UK-India cooperation in higher education.
If these opportunities are to be capitalised upon, it will require a mutual, and concerted, effort from leaders in London and Delhi. Initiatives like the recent invitation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Prime Minister Boris Johnson for an official state visit, or PM Johnson’s invitation to PM Modi to join the G7 Summit taking place in the UK later this year, are vital steps on that journey. That latter invitation, which was also extended to Australia and South Korea, is taken by many a reflection of the fact that the leading democracies of the world need to stand shoulder to shoulder against shared threats.
India is, of course, the largest democracy in the world and, therefore, a natural partner for the UK—and vice versa. This partnership already rests on solid foundations: a set of shared values, shared interests and the “Living Bridge”, referred to by Prime Minister Modi, reflecting the sizable Indian diaspora residing in Britain today.
In time, this partnership can and should lead to a Free Trade Agreement between our nations—with all the concomitant benefits that will confer for both partners. But there are many steps we can and should take before then to make good on the potential which exists. What it will take, however, is effort. One of the panellists asked if the UK is ready to go “the extra mile” to make India its partner of choice. I hope it is and I think it must.
The platform is there for a glorious future partnership: a new golden age for UK-India relations which would not only bring huge benefits to the two countries, but also the wider world. It is time to go the extra mile.
Nick King is a former Conservative special advisor and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, he also runs his own consultancy, Henham Strategy.