Britain needs a dedicated trade envoy to India

This article was originally published on Conservative Home

Dr Rami Ranger CBE is a founder and Chairman of Sun Mark Ltd, and Sea, Air & Land Forwarding Ltd. A longstanding Conservative Party supporter he has been appointed Conservative Friends of India Co-Chairman alongside Zac Goldsmith MP. Captain Jay Singh-Sohal is a media, communications and engagement consultant, and Director of Communications for Conservative Friends of India.

When you next walk through the corridors of St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster, take a look to your right and ponder the depiction of an opulent and colourful Indian court of the mid-17th Century. The painting of Sir Thomas Rose at the court of Ajmer captures the scene more than 400 years ago as the British diplomat was received by the then Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1614.

On the agenda was, of course, trade between the fledgling East India Trading Company and a land of fine jewels and exotic spices. The cards were clearly in the hands of the locals but, despite suspicions, the highly important meeting was successful in giving the British a first step into the subcontinent.

Fast forward four centuries, through thick and thin, civilities and atrocities, and we find that that first diplomatic meeting is paying dividends for both Great Britain and India and has the potential to be even more fruitful.

Trade has since flourished to more than £15 billion a year between our two nations. According to the ONS, our exports to India were worth £5.7 billion in 2016 while imports were valued at £9.7 billion last year.

What started with tea, condiments and rice, has now spread into other industries, with the UK’s top imports from India being pharmaceutical and apparel; while we export electrical machinery, airplanes and optical photographic equipment amongst other items.

India’s investment here includes renowned brands such as Jaguar Land Rover, Tetley Tea and Typhoo, as well as investments in the IT industry and the Port Talbot steel works in Wales. According to the Grant Thornton India Tracker 2016, Indian companies in the UK have a turnover of more than £26 billion and employ more than 110,000 people (36 per cent of these in the automotive industry, and 35 per cent in industrial products).

UK exports to India peaked at around £8 billion in 2013 but have since dipped by nearly £3 billion. It is a sad reflection that Belgium exports twice as much to India.

To address this, Liam Fox announced in January 2018 that UK Export Finance, the official export credit agency,  would make £4.5 billion available for trade including £2.75 billion in support for UK companies exporting to India and for Indian buyers of UK goods and services.

But there is still more to be done to meet the immense potential for further growth in a post-Brexit world, when you consider that the Indian market is worth more than £200 billion. We must act quickly to capitalise on these opportunities and to strike a free trade deal with the subcontinent.

A good place to start would be for the Government to appoint a dedicated trade envoy to India, one who has the connections and clout in both countries to prepare the ground for trade deals. There are already such envoys to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but the Indian role is currently vacant.

We are in a good position to make headway, as one of the key factors behind our enduring connection to India is our people – those migrant communities of which we are proud to form a part, that have successfully integrated into the UK and prospered while maintaining our cultural and familial roots with the land of our forebears. It is people that will drive our deeper connection with not just India but fellow Commonwealth nations.

One such avenue for this is the Conservative Friends of India (CF India), relaunched with new talent to ensure our party, indeed our country, can capitalise on the diaspora link to an economy that will become the world’s fourth largest in four years time.