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Cameron prepares to do Blair on India

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Conservative leader David Cameron will be visiting India next week with a clutch of Blairite policies on globalisation and immigration.

He'll be taking with him a policy brief, published this week by John Redwood and Next CEO Simon Wolfson (called India: An Opportunity not a Threat) that neatly sums up New Labour policy over India, with one vital difference: the observation that the British people have some sort of "cultural aversion" to India that needs to be checked.

Both parties' thinking about India starts with an admission that Britain isn't all its cracked up to be, whereas it's looking like our former colony, after over 20 years of rapid growth, is destined to be powerful enough to start calling the shots; if we don't make the most of our historical ties now, it might be too late when in the future we really need them.

The Conservative brief sums the situation up: "Only through an integrated approach can the UK, with a population 18 times smaller than that of India, be taken seriously as an economic partner by her rapidly growing Commonwealth cousin."

Prime Minister Tony Blair said much the same before signing the first of two joint declarations with India in 2002: "The days of Empire are long gone...our land mass and population density inevitably constrain us. We are not a Superpower, but we can act as a pivotal partner...[and] in so doing, I believe we have found a modern foreign policy role for Britain."

There is not much space between the two parties' policy proposals over India either. The Conservative package consists of lower taxes, further deregulation, freer trade. Oh, and a website.

But the thrust of Conservative policy for India, as presented in the brief, is to invite more Indians to come and study and work in the UK. It is not dissimilar to the commitments outlined in the Anglo-Indian New Delhi declaration Blair signed in 2002, or the noises made in the signing of another declaration in 2004, though the enthusiasm for opening immigration with India seemed to have waned by then.

What followed appeared to be a compromise between Britain's economic necessity for greater openness and its growing hysteria over foreigners (outlined in a government paper, Making Migration Work for Britain, in March), which consisted of micro-managing immigration through a points system so that only those with enough money or education could get a visa.

Yet if Britain wanted to get cosier with India, it may not have gone the right way about it. Nasscom, the association that represents the service industries providing India with its top end growth, said in March that the direction of British immigration policy was bad for Anglo-Indian trade.

Redwood and co suggested that Britons had some sort of "cultural aversion" to doing business in India. And this ought to be dealt with smartly because, although Britain did very healthy trade with India, there appeared to be little interest in Britain's business community for much more.

"[We] can no longer afford to ignore India as a key player in the global market," it said, particularly as the North Americans and Germans appeared to have no hang-ups about it at all; and we can't let them snatch the spoils of Empire, can we?

The Conservative brief suggested "complacency" was responsible for Britain's failure to get a firmer grip of India's coat-tails.

A similar attitude has allowed certain members of the union movement to promote the idea that foreigners cannot be trusted to handle British telephone banking records without committing fraud; and likewise allowed tabloid hysteria over migration to degenerate unchecked into the idea of Britain as a fortress against the foreign hordes.

All the Conservatives can do about it for now, because they are too opportunistic to resist harping on about the trouble with immigrants and foreigners, is to float the idea that deeper cultural ties between British and Indian students might in the long run turn into "cultural understanding" that engenders better trade ties.

Then we might glean some of the benefits the US has enjoyed from fostering Indian talent, said the Conservative brief. The US is undoubtedly an attractive place for Indian scientists and software engineers, and the Americans have done very well from it indeed, but Indian papers note their students have become wary of the US since it started playing that old immigration record backwards as well.

The problem for Britain is that fear and derision are not good for business. As Sonia Gandhi said in March 2004 of the internal differences marked out in India by cast and religious prejudice: "Economic liberalisation and social bigotry is a poisonous brew. The closing of the Indian mind is simply not compatible with the opening of the Indian economy."®

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