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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Britain’s Economic Left Turn

The most worrying aspect of Theresa May’s philosophy is the combination of a hard Left turn on the economy and a hard Right turn on social issues. In a liberal society, it should be the exact opposite: Right economically, Left socially

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When Theresa May took over as British Prime Minister following David Cameron’s resignation over the Brexit referendum result, few knew her economic philosophy.

As Cameron’s Home Secretary from 2010-2016, she had worked mostly under the radar. During the fevered Brexit campaign, she voted to “Remain” though her personal campaign appearances were few and low key.

May won a shortlived Tory party internal selection contest to become party leader and Prime Minister without facing the electorate.

It didn’t take her long to reveal her hand: “Brexit is Brexit,” she declared coldly. Those who had expected May, following her pro-Remain stance, to opt for a delayed exit for Britain from the European Union (EU) or at least favour a “soft Brexit” were disappointed.

May has pointed clearly to a “hard Brexit” which means sacrificing Britain’s privileged trading access to the EU in return for blocking a free flow of immigrants from the EU’s open borders policy. The consequences for the British economy could be severe. The pound has already lost nearly 20 per cent of its value against the dollar.

Those who have followed May’s six-year record as Home Secretary will, however, not be surprised by her stance. She wanted to cut immigration drastically and sent out buses to immigrant-dominated areas across Britain painted with a sign in effect asking illegal immigrant to leave Britain.

May has said in reply to a legal challenge over the validity of the Brexit referendum that parliament will vote on it. Those who believe a negative parliamentary vote will reverse Brexit are wrong. Parliament can vote but not override a binding referendum reflecting the will of a majority of the British people.

Article 50, under which EU member-states negotiate to leave, has a two-year window. May says negotiations on trade, immigration, security, budget contributions and the status of EU citizens currently in Britain as well as British citizens working in the EU, will begin by March 31, 2017. That means Britain could leave the EU by March 31, 2019 though delays are inevitable.

The next British general election is due only in May 2020. Despite a lacklustre labour leader in Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats’ near wipeout in the 2015 election, recent by-election results in Cameron’s constituency in West Oxfordshire and elsewhere point to a revival in both Labour and Lib-Dem prospects. A snap general election, however, can’t be ruled out, given the Conservative party’s overall popularity rating of 47 per cent, its highest in decades.

The most worrying aspect of Theresa May’s philosophy is the combination of a hard Left turn on the economy and a hard Right turn on social issues. In a liberal society, it should be the exact opposite: Right economically, Left socially.

As The Economist wrote of May’s speech at the Conservative party’s annual conference in early October: “She took aim at liberal politicians and commentators ‘who find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal.’ Companies will be made to declare how many of their staff are foreigners, to shame those who do not hire natives.

“The sheer intellectual swagger of its authoritarianism sets Mrs. May’s speech apart. It is worrying: a systematic rejection of the way the country has been governed, for worse and mostly better, for decades. Like it or not, Britain’s strengths are its open, flexible, mostly urban service economy and its uncommonly mobile and international workforce. That fact cannot simply be wished or legislated away.”

Britain will now need to sign free trade agreements (FTAs) with each individual EU country who will bargain long and hard. It will also have to reach new trade deals with the United States, China, India and others which were earlier covered under the EU.

For Britons, May’s economic policy echoes the anti-globalisation rhetoric of a Donald Trump. Her social philosophy mimics the xenophobic anti-immigrant trend that is sweeping Europe. Both symbolise the return of Little England – the shrinking of a once global power. The secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom through a second referendum looms.

For India, a post-Brexit Britain offers new trading opportunities as well as challenges. Indian students and temporary workers will be hardest hit by new stringent immigration rules.

A silver lining though: even as Pax Britannica retreats, Pax Indica rises in an unfolding new world order.

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theresa may britain Brexit european union economic growth