Speech: Brexit And The Commonwealth: What Next? (Speech by Paul Rennie)
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
I want to begin by saying that I am immensely proud to be British.
I am proud that we are a country of inventors, like Graham Bell with the telephone, Logie Baird with the television, and Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web.
I am proud that we are a country of story tellers, like Shakespeare, Ian Fleming, and the already legendary J K Rowling.
And I am proud that we are a country of musicians, like the Beatles, David Bowie, and yes, even on some level the Spice Girls.
But above any of that, I am proud that we are a country that is open to the world.
That someone like Mo Farah, a Somalia immigrant, can steal the hearts of the British people with world beating performances at successive Olympics.
That someone like Malala Yousafzai, persecuted in her native country for speaking out on girl’s rights, can find a home in the UK to continue her work.
That even someone like me, the grandchild of a Polish immigrant, can stand here today addressing you as a British diplomat in Malaysia.
And that openness to the world is not just a passing phase, it is hardwired into the British psyche. Indeed it is hard wired into the very language that we use every day.
For while Britain may claim to be the home of the English language, we represent today but a small minority of its users, some one billion of them around the globe. And we welcome that. And we are open to that. And we have absorbed and adopted all the wonderful words that other cultures have seen fit to lend us for use in our everyday language.
Indeed, even here in Malaysia, you have been kind enough to let us make use of the word amok.
But why am I telling you all of this?
It is because I am an economist by profession, but a historian at heart. And I believe that if we are to understand the future, we must understand the past and understand what really drives a society.
And so it is that I have been asked to speak to you today about Brexit and the Commonwealth – and to try and in some way answer that physically short, yet conceptually infinite question of ‘what next?’
I would argue here that the story of what next is as much about what will not happen as what will.
On a practical level, what will happen is Britain will leave the organisation known as the European Union (EU). We have had a referendum where a majority of the British people made that decision. We have a Prime Minister and a Government who have been categorical in their desire to carry out those wishes. ‘Brexit’, as Prime Minister May said, ‘means Brexit’.
We have a process within the EU for that to take place, the now famous ‘Article 50’, which specifies a two-year window for negotiations with other EU members.
And we have a time frame to trigger that, with our Prime Minister indicating that she intends to invoke Article 50 by the end of March 2017.
After that, we will make a success of our departure from the EU!
But beyond that much of what I have to say is about what will not come next.
Britain will not turn away from Europe, even as we leave the European Union. We have been an integral part of the history and evolution of the continent for millennia, and that will not change.
Our original entry into the EU reflected many of our shared goals on economic development, peace and stability, a means to forge deeper bonds between neighbours. None of those aspirations will change outside the EU.
We will still champion peace and security. We will still champion open and liberal trading environments. And we will still look for ways to encourage tolerance and understanding between all peoples in Europe.
Outwith the EU, there will obviously be a need for new legal relationships to be forged, but a great many countries exist within a great many different frameworks in their relations with the EU. There will be a model for the UK too.
And Britain will not stop being an attractive, dynamic and innovative country in which to work and do business.
As an economist, I can say with some confidence that the absolute fundamentals of what drives an economy is its openness to trade and the quality of its workforce. For hundreds of years Britain has been a pioneer of free trade. We have pressed that agenda in the EU, and we will continue to press it outside the EU.
And as our companies invest in the world, so the world invests in us. Like the Nissan car factories in the North East of England; or the Google offices in London; or any number of other international investors who want to make the UK a hub, not just for Europe, but for the world.
Even iconic brands, like Mini and Jaguar, retain their essence of Britishness under foreign ownership. That will not change outside the EU. Because the skills, expertise and qualities of the British workforce will not change.
There will be adjustments, just as there have always been adjustments throughout our history as trading conditions and opportunities changed; as new markets opened; or new technologies were exploited.
But with a highly skilled workforce, a robust legal system overseen by an independent and internationally respected judiciary, and a population that is globally minded and quick to adapt, it creates a potent recipe for success.
For the doubters, I would point them to the constant stream of positive economic news since Brexit: from lower unemployment; to stronger than expected growth; to new companies choosing to come to the UK even after the referendum. It shows that the wealth and wellbeing of the UK is very much in our own hands.
And on the question of migration, while the UK wants to have greater control over its borders, it is not the case we are about to close those borders. We will still have a place for the brightest and the best of global talent. There is no cap on the number of students who can come to British universities. And our country is unquestionably stronger because of its ethnic and cultural diversity.
And Brexit does not mean that Britain will shy away from its global engagement and aspiration.
I have read a great deal of late about how we will become more globally facing once we have left the EU. But as a man who has spent his career working in countries outside Europe, I would hesitate over that characterisation.
We will become more globally facing not because we are leaving the EU, but because we have always been globally facing. Because we have always looked beyond our borders, and because as the importance of emerging economies on the world stage has exploded, the UK has moved quickly to engage with them.
Over the last decade our Diplomatic Missions and our staff have expanded significantly outside Europe, long before Brexit was ever on the table.
Our businesses have pushed into new and dynamic markets. In Malaysia alone the top 24 UK companies employ about 80,000 people with total investment value just under RM90 billion.
And our universities have continued to attract the best of global talent, which is why four of them are in the global top ten. And such internationalism explains why five of them have now opened campuses in Malaysia – Nottingham University set up its Malaysian campus fifteen years ago!
Our role on the United Nations will be no less tireless in the search for global solutions to global problems. Our work with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or the World Trade Organization (WTO) will not waiver as we work to ensure the benefits of economic growth and stability can be shared by all.
And our pledges to both defence and development, both of which receive fixed commitments as a share of the UK’s GDP, will not diminish.
And nor will our relationship with the Commonwealth.
Having spent five years in India prior to this posting, and now almost three years in Malaysia. I can assure you that the Commonwealth is ever present in Britain’s thinking, and we strive every day to enhance the benefit and opportunity it brings to so many. And let us not forget three of the current EU members are also members of the Commonwealth.
The UK will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018. Malaysia will host the subsequent meeting in 2020.
So there has never been a better moment for our two countries to unite and collaborate in ensuring we fulfil our Commonwealth obligations to the development of free and democratic societies; the promotion of peace and prosperity; and the improvement of the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth.
That has not changed after the EU Referendum.
That is not to say the UK does not face some big decisions after the EU Referendum. Among these are decisions about what shape our future relationship with the EU will take, and decisions about what rules and regulations we apply when no longer bound by those of the EU.
Decisions about what form future trade deals will take, conscious that a great many countries have already indicated their willingness to do such deals with us, including Malaysia.
The thinking on this is evolving. Such thinking cannot and does not take place in a vacuum. So it would be foolish for me to attempt to speculate on what the specifics of any of these decisions will look like.
Suffice is to say, the British Civil Service is an organisation of the highest calibre and some of our very brightest people are working on this in support of our Prime Minister and Government. I have immense confidence they will find the best possible deal for all of the UK.
Ultimately, we are, and always have been, a Global Britain. I take tremendous pride in that. And while children in Britain fifty years from now will be able to turn the page in their history books to find out what happens next. It is a luxury we do not have now.
But I am confident that those children in fifty years will be living in a Britain that is richer; more educated; more sustainable; more international; and more relevant to the world and its future than the one I live in today – and we already have a terrific starting position.
So in concluding, and to make some attempt to give a specific answer to the specific question of ‘what next?’, I will give you the same answer I would have given you at any point in my career – ‘A world of opportunity for those who choose to embrace it’. I have every confidence that we will.