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Column: UK elections not such a big deal for the Caribbean

Published:Sunday | May 3, 2015 | 5:00 AMDavid Jessop
Political opponents Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Leader of the Opposition Ed Milliband (right) walk from the House of Commons on May 8, 2013. United Kingdom will hold general elections on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

On May 7, the people of the United Kingdom will vote in a general election.

There was a time when this might have had some bearing on the Caribbean; however, at best, and whatever the result, the effect will be marginal for all but Britain's Overseas territories. Notwithstanding, what is now being said by its politicians suggests longer-term questions about the extent to which Britain will be of relevance in a region that now has many suitors.

Over the last decade, Britain has become a different country. Austerity and the nature of its economic recovery have changed attitudes. There are now huge disparities between the wealth of London and the rest of the country. There is widespread distrust of politicians and a growing distaste for the tribal nature of party politics. Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise. There is a very real sense that the country's past is just that, and there are deep, and until recently, unspoken concerns about migration voiced, too, by the Caribbean's Diaspora who, like many, feel marginalised by waves of newcomers. There is also a recognition that despite what has been said during the election campaign, the next British government cannot avoid further cuts to public expenditure.

That said, Britain's economy is growing again, unemployment is low, inflation is low, and in the big cities, there is a positive sense, especially among the educated internationally oriented socially aware young.

What this means is that Britain's general election is taking place against a background of a nation of individuals mostly less certain about their future and place in the world, wanting leadership, but sensing an absence of vision among those who seek their vote.

This, and the consequent rise in support for previously fringe parties, makes the outcome impossible to predict, especially as the opinion polls suggest that very large numbers of voters are still undecided.

The only forecast that can be made with some certainty is that the Scottish Nationalists will win as many as 50 seats, virtually wiping out all other parties in Scotland. If, as a consequence, one or the other of the UK's two largest parties, Labour and Conservative, then have no overall parliamentary majority, and each has as forecast a near-equal number of seats, it is likely that British politics and its Parliament will be cast into unknown territory.

 

Unpredictable change

Put another way, unless voters at the last minute decide decisively to elect one of the two main parties or vote in large enough numbers to make the third party, the Liberal Democrats, a viable coalition partner, the established model of UK parliamentary politics is likely to change in ways that are hard to predict.

This is not to be negative, but to point to something fundamental that is happening in the nation that gave the Anglophone Caribbean its political, parliamentary, and government model, and much else, and which still tends in the region to be thought of, like an ageing grandparent, as being in some way unchanged. As for what this will mean in practical terms for the Caribbean and whether existing policy will change, there are a few guidelines in the main party manifestos.

These all suggest that the overriding concern of the next UK Government will be debt, a more balanced budget, cuts in public expenditure, and new taxes.

One clear consequence is that the Caribbean, and particularly the British Overseas Territories in the region, will see continuing pressure to end globally both the ability of large companies and individuals to use their offshore services to lessen their tax burden, and for criminals and terrorists who value their relative anonymity to hide or transfer funds. While the Labour Party is likely to be much stronger in this respect, all of the parties know that fairness in the payment of taxes has become a dynamic domestic political issue.

Second, the support the Caribbean has enjoyed in EU fora may lessen or even disappear, not because the UK thinks any less of the region, but because Britain has become an uncertain partner in Europe. A Conservative-led 'yes/no' referendum on the UK remaining in Europe would result in negative consequences for the UK's present support for the region.

Third, the UK's defence policy will be subject to a review and further cuts. This suggests that Britain's much-reduced defence and counter-narcotics role in the Caribbean will, at best, continue and, at worst, be ceded to NATO allies. That said, the main manifestos all suggest that security cooperation and support with policing, good governance, and anti-corruption measures may be extended, in part funded as development assistance.

Fourth, Britain's development policy will remain focused on the world's poorest and cross-cutting themes such as economic growth. However, one area where the Caribbean could benefit, if it were to do more to develop a practical case and seek the UK's support, would be to link its recent graduation out of development assistance to the need to mitigate the impact of climate change. As one of the regions of the world most at risk from sea-level change, its situation can readily be related to all of the UK party manifestos.

Fifth, and unsurprisingly, the Caribbean does not figure in the very limited information the parties have provided about their integrated foreign policy, defence, and development priorities. The primary focus will be on Europe, the Middle East, the transatlantic relationship, and the changing global balance of power. foreign interventions will be less likely, combating terrorism and ISIS remain paramount, and the words Commonwealth or Caribbean have virtually disappeared.

Sixth, in relation to trade and investment, the emphasis remains on UK exports. This suggests that the UK government, unlike the US, will continue to ignore the fact that regions like the Caribbean require investment. It is one of many topics that the Caribbean should seek to review with an incoming British government.

And finally, there is the sense, directly or indirectly, in all of the main party platforms that immigration from outside of the EU will become the subject of stricter control.

In short, all of the UK's main parties are focused on similar issues, wavering between defending the UK from a dangerous and uncertain world, and a position that still sees the UK as a global power building on its past, able to trade and influence the way the world thinks.

That said, few in the Caribbean have seen value in developing, on a personal or on a party-to-party basis, a relationship with those who will sit in the next UK parliament or government, suggesting that even fewer with positions of influence in the UK will understand in future the challenges the region faces.

 

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council.

david.jessop@caribbean-council.org