Last month, Theresa May’s Brexit bill was passed by both Houses of the UK Parliament, paving the way for her government to trigger Article 50 and begin the Brexit process. Prime Minister May described the occasion as a “defining moment” for the UK as her government begins to renegotiate its relationship with Europe and forge a “new role” for the country in the world.
There is no doubt that leaving the European Union will mark an historic moment for Britain. Theresa May described Brexit as an opportunity “to secure the right deal for Britain abroad and a better deal for ordinary working people.” Indeed, it is a delicate and difficult balance that Mrs May must strike. She must at once attend to the needs of society while remaining open to global markets and trade to ensure that the rewards of national economic prosperity are reaped by all.
Indeed, Mrs May’s detractors have warned against a protectionist stance in the event that she is unable to obtain a favourable trade deal with the European Union. Elsewhere, we have seen the rise of politicians advocating trade protectionism as a solution to stagnant wages and unemployment. In the United States, President Trump’s desire to impose import tariffs on Mexican goods suggests that protectionist trade policies are his solution to creating jobs and increasing opportunity and prosperity for US citizens. Similarly Marine Le Pen, the National Front presidential candidate in France, has made “intelligent protectionism” a central tenet of her campaign. These trade policies include a tax on foreign workers, a drastic reduction to immigration and prioritising French companies bidding on public contracts.
Yet, countries like India have benefitted hugely from the economic growth that access to global markets has afforded them. Indeed, the decisive victory of Narendra Modi, India’s pro-business Prime Minister and his BJP party in Uttar-Pradesh last month is an example of a leadership style that is able to garner popular support amongst voters whilst encouraging economic growth and remaining open to international trade.
My grandfather, the late Parmanand Deepchand Hinduja, was amongst the first to establish trade links between India and Iran (then Persia) before the Islamic Revolution. After the Revolution, our business moved its headquarters to Europe where my father, S.P Hinduja, has since overseen the diversification of our businesses. The resulting access to international markets from our European base has been critical to the growth of the Hinduja Group.
Dynamic growth and responsiveness to international business opportunities must be maintained alongside a philanthropic duty. My grandfather believed that philanthropy is both a responsibility and an honourable reward of business. At the heart of the Hinduja Foundation’s charitable ethos is to build bridges between India and the world. Whilst the duty of our political leaders is not to act as philanthropists, they do have an obligation to provide excellent public services, opportunities and improved living standards for all the hard-working individuals who contribute to their societies.
In November 2016, Theresa May and Mr Modi discussed striking an Anglo-Indian trade deal once Britain has left the EU. No doubt, the negotiations will include tricky compromises over visa restrictions for Indian workers and students, and negotiations over areas of common ground including technology and skills transfer, defence contracts, and reducing trade barriers for British companies. Let us hope that the good faith in which this meeting was conducted is a sign of what is possible whilst remaining open to our trading partners.
It is important to acknowledge that politicians who promise to restore job security, prosperity and national pride resonate with voters’ legitimate frustrations with growing inequality amidst the rising tide of globalisation. Yet it is my feeling that protectionism will do more to exacerbate these issues than it will to resolve them, potentially creating more enemies than allies. Our leaders must find a way to honour the needs of their citizens whilst allowing opportunities for the benefits of global trade and cultural exchange to be felt. Patriotism must not be permitted to mutate into parochialism.