Silver linings… and clouds

Boris Johnson’s election win may offer opportunities for Asia’s best and brightest, but it also brings risk of further rifts in the UK. Ashis Ray reports

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handsome victory in a snap general election renders it almost certain that the United Kingdom will begin exiting the European Union on 1 February next. The nitty gritty of such a separation, however, remains to be worked out, including a free trade agreement, which might be challenging to conclude by the deadline of December 2020.

As and when Brexit actually kicks in, free movement between Britain and the rest of the EU will end, other than for business trips and tourism purposes. As far as entry into the UK is concerned – as outlined in Johnson’s Conservative Party manifesto – ‘a firmer and fairer Australian-style points-based immigration system’ will be introduced. This will open the door to high-skilled Asians and virtually terminate working-class intake.

The manifesto pledges: ‘Qualified doctors, nurses and allied health professionals with a job offer from the NHS (the state-funded British National Health Service), who have been trained to a recognised standard, and who have good working English, will be offered fast-track entry, reduced visa fees and dedicated support to come to the UK with their families.’

Furthermore, it promises that a ‘small number of the best technology and science graduates from the top universities in the world and those who win top scientific prizes will be offered fast-track entry to the UK’.

Both categories constitute good news for the ‘best and brightest’ in Asia. However, competence in English will matter to fill vacancies in the NHS, since this field involves inter-action with the public. At the same time, the lenient system that has operated for decades could be replaced by a much stricter monitoring of who is travelling in and out of Britain, with a crackdown on criminal elements. Equality of treatment towards EU and non-EU citizens is sought but integration with, rather than isolation from the mainstream will be expected of immigrants.

The policy of granting asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution will continue, though with the ultimate aim of helping them to return home ‘if it is safe to do so’. In other words, sanctuary will not necessarily be permanent.

The PM will ‘forge stronger links with the Commonwealth, which boasts some of the world’s most dynamic economies’

Other than those in genuine need – such as utterly helpless refugees – people will have to pay into the tax system ‘for a reasonable period of time’ before they become entitled to welfare. Unemployment, housing and childcare benefits would only apply after five years’ continuous residence. Besides, new arrivals will be required to contribute to the funding of the NHS and the health surcharge in this respect will increase ‘to ensure it covers the full cost of use’.

Moreover, health tourism will become expensive. The budget for the enforcement unit here will be doubled to enhance compliance. Of course, free emergency care will not be denied to anyone in need.

On foreign policy, the Conservatives’ statement is unambiguous: ‘In an uncertain world, in which the threat of terrorism, rogue states and malign non-state actors is ever-present, it is vital that Britain stands up and is counted.’ Interestingly, while during the election campaign there was talk of terminating the BBC’s licence fee revenue at some point, the manifesto says: ‘We will work with our cultural institutions like the BBC and British Council to expand our influence and project our values.’ In other words, the UK’s successful soft power policy will be sustained.

A number of Asian countries with questionable human rights records will be relieved they don’t find mention in the ruling party’s document. However, Sri Lanka does; and obliquely Israel, in the support ‘for a two-state solution’ vis-à-vis Palestine. India, too, could come into focus in the realm of ‘international media freedom’.

Johnson’s undertaking is to ‘have 80 per cent of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within the next three years, starting with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan’. Conspicuously, China and India are not on this list. The fact is there hasn’t even been any meaningful discussion regarding an Indo-British FTA in the three-and-a-half years since Britons voted to leave the EU. But Johnson says he will ‘forge stronger links with the Commonwealth, which boasts some of the world’s most dynamic economies such as India’. The noted economist and former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Professor Raghuram Rajan, has, of course, cautioned the Indian government on rushing into FTAs.

A notable commitment is the proposed creation of up to ten free ports around the UK. But an election won is a job half done. It is one thing to make promises; quite another to redeem them. Admittedly, Johnson served two terms as Mayor of London; and while many complained about his lack of attention to detail, he by and large passed the popularity test. Nonetheless, administering a city, no matter how big, and running a country are vastly different propositions.

An economic slowdown has certainly gripped Britain after three-and-a-half years of uncertainty over Brexit. The pound may have strengthened after a clear mandate, but in the medium term there can only be a negative impact without economic alignment with the EU. India’s Tata Group, one of the UK’s biggest employers and owners of Jaguar Land Rover, have already opened a car manufacturing plant in Slovakia; and such moves will increase if Britain becomes a competitor to the EU.

While the outcome is undoubtedly a triumph for Johnson – who has been unbeatable at hustings – there are portends of tension between Whitehall and Westminster on the one hand and, on the other, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Johnson’s win is founded on English support, whereas the anti-Brexit Scottish National Party (SNP) has mopped up 80 per cent of seats in Scotland, not to mention pro-Europe republicans edging into a majority of seats in Northern Ireland.

The conflicting regional results, more particularly Johnson’s Brexit deal with the European Commission, will intensify the SNP’s demand for another referendum on independence from the UK, while Northern Ireland might have slipped into an early stage of drifting in the direction of unification with the Catholic majority Republic of Ireland. This was once unthinkable for the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. But that may no longer be the case.

Ashis Ray has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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