Brexit, India and the future for UK diplomacy: a road to somewhere?

David Scott

UK Prime Minister Theresa May watching a fly-past by the Indian Air Force in Bangalore, during her visit to the country in November 2016.

In October 2016 Richard Whitman’s piece ‘On a road to nowhere? Brexit and the future for UK diplomacy’ was featured on this blog. A month later and Theresa May took the diplomatic road to somewhere, by visiting India. This trip was the last substantive event I dealt with in my recent article ‘The rise of India: UK perspectives’, which appears in the January 2017 issue of International Affairs. The article found that since 2001 there has been a threefold process at work in the UK-India relationship, namely; a prioritisation of economic partnerships by the UK; a stronger Indian position; and increasing asymmetry in the respective relative weight between a declining UK and a rising India.

These three processes have become even more evident following the unexpected result in favour of a British exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU) in the 23 June referendum. Even as the International Affairs article was being drafted, it was noticeable how various Brexit campaigners emphasized the importance for British diplomacy of pursuing economic opportunities with India in any post-Brexit future.

As we have seen, India has indeed become a significant focus for UK diplomacy in the months following the referendum. The table below traces the swathe of UK ministers who beat a path to India in this time.

List of UK ministerial visits to India since the Brexit vote.

This diplomatic outreach to India reached a peak with Theresa May’s visit to India in November 2016. The trip was described by the UK government as a ‘trade mission’, a rather indicative styling by the UK government machinery of the UK’s post-Brexit priorities.

As the dust settled on Theresa May’s trip, four events within it served as indicators of the future trajectory of UK diplomacy. Firstly and secondly were her public appearances at the India-UK Tech Summit in New Delhi and its spin-off in Bangalore, at India’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. This was indicative of India’s burgeoning economic rise which is transforming India into a high-tech business hub. Thirdly, a ‘joint statement’ issued by the governments of the UK and India pointed to the future, as they pledged to ‘make it a priority for both countries, when the UK leaves the European Union, to build the closest possible commercial and economic relationship’. With that in mind, the joint statement confirmed the establishment of a joint working group, reporting to the Joint Economic & Trade Committee (JETCO), to discuss the detail of UK-India trade relations and help drive progress towards shaping a post-Brexit Free Trade Agreement between the UK and India. Fourthly, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox travelled to India in Theresa May’s party and addressed the India-UK Tech Summit before co-chairing the scheduled 11th JETCO meeting.

These post-referendum events from June-November 2016 were able to be incorporated into the article in International Affairs. Further events since have continued to shed light on the road that UK diplomacy is taking towards India.

Firstly, the UK’s Infrastructure Envoy to India Alok Sharma coined the mantra ‘Make in India, Finance in the UK’ in his speech at a UK-India Business Council meeting on 12 December. This reflected the UK seeking to explicitly capitalise on the post-Brexit future for the City of London, but also indeed perhaps in effect implicitly accepting that increased UK manufacturing exports to India would be less likely.

Secondly, Theresa May’s speech outlining the UK’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU, delivered on 17 January 2017, firmly indicated that the UK would not be any part of the EU Customs Union tariffs arrangement. Thus it would thereby be able pursue its own free trade arrangements with the likes of India. May mentioned India twice in the speech as one of the key countries with which Britain would seek free trade agreements and forge closer engagement. She also highlighted that discussions on future trade arrangements had already commenced with India.

Thirdly, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s visit to India included a typically flamboyant plea at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on 18 January that ‘the time is coming when we need to turbo charge this relationship with a new free trade deal’. However, Indian officials cautioned that ‘mobility issues are of importance to us: we cannot separate free movement of people [which India wants but the UK does not] from the free flow of goods, services and investments’. This position will no doubt present a serious challenge to UK diplomats aiming to balance anti-immigration public opinion at home with securing the strongest possible trade deal.

Fourthly, the economics-based imperatives of post-Brexit British diplomacy towards India were again shown as a UK delegation headed by the Minister of State for Employment, Damian Hinds, arrived at the Bengal Global Business Summit 2017 that met in Kolkata in late January. As with Johnson’s trip, Hinds’ appearance in Kolkata showed the post-Brexit dynamics of the UK pursuing India rather than India pursuing the UK.

However, in the wake of the inauguration of the Trump administration on 20 January, and a quickly-pencilled summit meeting between Trump and May on 27 January, it remains to be seen how far an increased UK diplomatic focus on UK — US free trade will be at the expense of pushing ahead with UK — India free trade arrangements. The question will also arise of whether or not the UK’s diplomatic arm has the necessary depth of quality negotiators to successfully pursue both the US and India trade avenues simultaneously.

Nevertheless, looking ahead, by the end of March 2017, triggering Article 50 should have thereby marked the start of formal two year negotiations for the UK leaving the EU. In the vein of Boris Johnson’s classicism, for UK diplomacy perhaps all roads do not lead to Rome after Brexit? Away from our former European partners there is a road to somewhere else: the road to New Delhi and to a rising India.


David Scott was a Lecturer in International Relations at Brunel University until 2015. Now retired, he remains an active researcher and consultant, speaking regularly on Asia-Pacific affairs at the NATO Defence College in Rome.

More details of his work can be found here.

To read his recent article, ‘The rise of India: UK perspectives’, in International Affairs, click here.