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As the British government tries to work out what its approach to Brexit will be – and so far its mantra that it won’t give a running commentary seems to be designed as much to hide the lack of substance to its plans as it is to disguise its negotiating strategy – it’s insisting the UK will remain an outward-looking country.
This seems partly designed to counter the impression that may have been given by the vote to leave the EU that the English – and it is primarily the English – are turning their backs to the world.
It also seems designed to reassure investors and businesses and shore up confidence in the economy hit by a 15% devaluation in the pound since the referendum.
That fall may make exports cheaper, but it’s widely predicted to lead to an increase in inflation in an economy that imports more than it exports.
Despite all this, the message about an outward-looking country doesn’t seem to be hitting home.
It’s being drowned out in the inchoate debate – if that is not too strong a word – on what Britain’s post-Brexit place in the world should be.
That’s because there’s another message coming from the upper echelons of the government.
This came through loud and clear in the Prime Minister’s speeches and comments during the Conservative party conference last week.
It was added to by Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s promise to slash immigration and pressure business and universities to reduce the numbers of foreign employees and students, as well as Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s pledge to cut the numbers of non-British doctors in the NHS and the idea, reported today, that pregnant women would have to show hospital staff their passports before giving birth.
They all seemed to be saying the same thing: foreigners are no longer welcome in the UK.
And the message doesn’t seem to be getting through just to prospective immigrants who maybe considering a move to the UK.
People who’ve come to Britain from other EU countries in good faith over the past 43 years are also feeling uneasy given they’re openly being used as a potential Brexit bargaining chip.
International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, was recorded advocating this last week.
And Theresa May repeated it – in more veiled terms – at her meeting with her Danish counterpart in Copenhagen on Monday when she said: “I expect to be able to guarantee the legal rights of EU nationals already in the UK, so long as the British nationals living in Europe – countries who are member states – receive the same treatment” (my emphasis).
With all this, it’s tempting to treat the outward-looking country rhetoric as just that – rhetoric
And judging from social media many foreign residents in the UK have taken from all this that they aren’t really welcome any more.
Of course, May, Rudd and Hunt were all in the Remain camp – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – before the referendum, so you can understand if, politically, they feel they need to convince the Tory grassroots and the 52% of voters who backed Leave that they are the people to deliver Brexit.
And paradoxically, it is leading Brexiteers, like Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, who have talked most about the country’s future being an outward-looking one.
But, the rest of the world could be forgiven for missing this when the message from the very top of government is dominated by an expressed intention to keep foreigners out of workplaces, universities and hospitals.
In the face of protests from business, the government has partly rolled back on its proposal that firms report on the numbers of foreigners they employ – they now say firms will have to report them, but the numbers won’t be made public.
If Mrs May and her Cabinet colleagues want to dispel the impression they’ve given that post-Brexit Britain is far from being an outward-looking country, they’re going to have to work a bit harder.
They could start by unequivocally guaranteeing that all the people who’ve already come to the UK from other EU countries to live and work are very welcome and there’s no question they could be forced to leave if London doesn’t get what it wants in the upcoming talks.
They also need to bear in mind that 48% of voters opted to remain in the EU on June 23rd and part of why they did so was because they do want to live in an outward-looking country.