Commentary from Colin Robertson

Why Canada can learn and gain from its British connection

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
January 20, 2015

The British have reason to feel chuffed. The United Kingdom pipped France last year to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. After enduring years of controversial austerity, the British economy is growing again albeit with a North-South divide.

Once the capital of an empire on which the sun never set, today’s London – its population of 8.3 million is about a third bigger than Scotland – defines cosmopolitanism. Londoners still look at the world through expanding concentric circles: the City, the United Kingdom, Europe and beyond.

The City vies with New York as the world’s premier financial centre (Toronto ranks 14th). London has more angel investors and more startups – startups like Mind Candy – than anyplace else in Europe. Business bosses told a recent Lloyds Banking survey they expect 2015 to bring more sales, orders and profits.

Britons are scheduled to go the polls on May 7. Current surveys for Westminster’s 650-member chamber project another hung parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives face Labour, Liberal Democrats (the Tory’s junior partner in the current coalition), UK Independence Party (UKIP), Scottish Nationalists and Greens. Mr. Cameron needs to persuade voters that his tough-love approach deserves another term.

The Scots rejected independence in last year’s referendum, only after they were promised more powers. Changes may result in a more Canadian-style parliamentary federalism.

British ambivalence about Europe is deep, historic and profound. Unhappiness over “benefit tourism” (more myth than reality) and events in the eurozone – the uncertainty around next week’s Greek election and fears of a deflationary spiral – increase euroskepticism.

UKIP is fuelled by anti-Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment. UKIP’s successful campaign in last year’s EU parliamentary elections won it the most UK seats. Mr. Cameron has promised reforms to British membership in the European Union, leading to an “in-out” referendum by 2017.

The United States passed Britain as Canada’s main trade and investment partner before the Second World War. While almost half of Canadians claim British descent, our immigration flows shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the early 1970s. Still, the UK remains the most popular travel destination for Canadians outside of the Americas.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth bicentenary was recently celebrated in his Glasgow birthplace. In becoming Canadian, says scholar Ged Martin, Sir John ceased to be a Scotsman, but for Macdonald the British connection distinguished us from the United States and was essential to being Canadian.

Stephen Harper believes in the British connection and in two London speeches – given in 2006 and 2013 – he spoke of a combined history “built by layer upon layer of common experiences, shared values and ancient family ties.”

Mr. Harper found a kindred spirit in Mr. Cameron and then foreign minister William Hague; the Canada-UK Joint Declaration of 2011 sets out a strategic partnership focusing on commerce, foreign policy, defence, security, development and the intelligence relationship.

Canada can learn and gain from the British connection.

Britannia no longer rules the waves but sustained investments ensure it international place and standing.

British defence spending (2.4 per cent of GDP) outpaces Canada’s 1 per cent, as does its development assistance budget – .71 per cent (the target for developed nations recommended by Lester Pearson) versus Canada’s .27 per cent.

Mr. Harper could take note of Mr. Cameron’s public recommitment to Britain’s navy. At NATO’s Wales summit last September, Mr. Cameron announced two new aircraft carriers will transform Britain’s “ability to project power globally, whether independently or with our allies.”

Britain’s intelligence capacity, (as shown in the film The Imitation Game), remains premier league. Intelligence sharing, through the Five Eyes alliance, has renewed urgency in tracking and containing jihadist threats.

British “soft power” is deftly delivered through the BBC World Service and the British Council. With a presence in 227 locations, the effective British Foreign Service is rethinking foreign service to emphasis trade and geopolitics. Since 2012, we co-locate, where appropriate, to save money and give ourselves a wider reach.

London is the obvious launchpad to take advantage of the Canada-Europe trade agreement. The UK is our second-largest goods export market. British firms are our third-largest source of investment. Bombardier is the biggest investor in Northern Ireland.

Illustrating our managerial competence are the Canadians directing three iconic British institutions: Mark Carney at the Bank of England; Moya Greene at the Royal Mail; and Michael Downey at the Lawn Tennis Association.

Beyond Canada Gate in London’s Green Park, there is a memorial to the one million Canadians who came to Britain and fought for freedom in two world wars. Inscribed are these words: “From danger shared, our friendship prospers.”

Ties binding the “little island” and the “great Dominion” – Winston Churchill’s characterization – have loosened but they endure and we have a mutual interest in sustaining them.

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