Black Brexit Conference outcomes – is there a Commonwealth opportunity?

I recently had the great pleasure of hosting what I think is the first conference devoted to the view of the Black community in the UK on Brexit and its implications for them, held on the 15th March at CMS McKenna, Cannon Street, London. It was also one of the best I have been at regarding interaction between panels, speakers, and the audience. The Black Brexit Conference uncovered a variety of complex social, economic and political concerns crystallised by the Brexit vote. Over four hours of high energy debate from panellists and the audience aired a range of issues. Not surprisingly, there were more questions than answers – of the latter few were easy ones, and none were quick fixes.

 The aim of the conference

 One aim of the conference was to raise the profile of, and highlight, the critical issues that the Brexit vote posed for the UK’s Black citizens, and their prospects in a post-Brexit landscape. As a group, they voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU: with a 73% vote in favour versus 27% to leave.

Only one other constituency, those aged 18-24, demonstrated this voting variance in the referendum, again overwhelmingly voting to remain (73%).

In contrast, the UK wide vote was 52% leave, and 48% remain.

The Commonwealth in a global context

I opened the conference by making some broad observations about the size and scale of the Commonwealth, its share of global GDP and its sheer breadth.

The 53 Commonwealth countries cover more than 29,958,050 km2 (11,566,870 square miles), equivalent to 20% of the world’s land area. It spans all six inhabited continents.

With an estimated population of 2.4 billion people, nearly a third of the world population, the Commonwealth in 2014 produced a nominal gross domestic product (GDP) of $10.45 trillion, representing 14% of world output when measured nominally and 17% of the gross world product when measured in common currency terms.

Shamik Dhar from the Foreign Office expanded on these points with more detail about growth, and its prospects. By talking about the value and volume of trade, its high share of global output, and the opportunities it offers countries and their citizens to become better off. Shamik explained that trade increases wealth and expands opportunities. He suggests the UK will be successful in replacing any trade share lost from the EU with that from other countries.

Shamik pointed out that UK trade with Europe remains large and likely will remain so in future for geographic reasons (neighbours tend to trade most with each other), although the share with the EU of its total had been falling for some time as the growth in the rest of its key trading partners outpaced Europe’s.

Audience views and interpretation

To gauge the audiences’ view of Brexit, we posed six questions to them over the course of the conference. The responses supported the conference’s decision to focus on the Commonwealth as a source of external growth and export opportunity for the UK, and on the pivotal role, the diaspora of the Black Commonwealth may play in that.

However, the survey also showed that many were not convinced that Brexit would improve the economic situation of the UK’s Black community, and especially it’s less well-off members.

Q1. What do you think is best for Britain’s Black community?

78% – remain

22% – leave

An even more significant share voted to remain than in the referendum itself.

Q2. Why did some Black Britons vote for Brexit? 

51% – Same as other leavers, control of borders, etc.

49% – They felt marginalised and hoped a vote for Brexit would focus attention and resources on their needs rather than on immigrants.

This reflects the many factors that were involved in the referendum, where a single question masked a myriad of motivations, making it difficult for anyone to say it was the vote was for one overarching reason amidst such a broad swathe of views.

Q3. What is the single most important benefit that Brexit offers Britain’s Black community?

9% –   Greater employment opportunities for British workers, particularly for the less skilled black youngsters

44% – Increased trade with Africa and the Caribbean

16% – Control of Britain’s laws and borders

31% – Other                                                   

What is surprising is that so few (9%) believed that Brexit offered opportunities for less skilled people in the UK. After all, one of the reasons advanced by advocates of Brexit is that it would mean a focus on home-grown talent.

In fact, for our attendees, the most significant opportunity was felt to be external: in promoting more trade with the Black Commonwealth (44%). However, this was not an outright majority view as some felt there were other benefits (31%) and control of law and borders mattered to 16%.

Q4. What is the single most important risk that Brexit poses for Britain’s Black community?

23% – Immigration restrictions affecting family and the wider community

54% – Lower standards of legal protection for employment, human rights, and criminal justice

9% –   Diminished relationships and standing with the international community

14% – Other

A majority (54%) of respondents feared that Brexit would mean an erosion of regulations protecting workers’ rights and, to a lesser extent (23%), further restrictions on entry for family members when the UK leaves the EU and immigration controls are tightened. 14% felt there were other risks not adequately captured or that were not measurable.

Q5. Does the Commonwealth matter to the UK’s future prosperity?

88% – Yes

12% – No

This answer, of course, plays to one of the critical points of the conference: to draw out the importance of the Commonwealth. The audience’s conclusion was amply supported by evidence offered by Shamik Dhar from the Foreign Office. This demonstrated that opening the UK to the Commonwealth provided opportunities for its UK-based diaspora to act as a bridge and foster business links between the UK and the Black Commonwealth.

Q6. Will Brexit strengthen or weaken Britain’s position as a leading geopolitical power?

10% – Brexit will strengthen the UK’s position

90% – Brexit will not strengthen the UK’s position

Respondents answered ruthlessly here, apparently noting that if the UK is supposed to be opening up to the world, leaving a large trading bock makes that more difficult. No sugar coating can get away from the audience’s conclusion.

A wider debate

The first session of the conference focussed on the global macro view and the big business perspective of Brexit, while the second session focussed on the micro issues and the entrepreneurial outlook for business start-ups and opportunists. Quality panels in both sessions gave wonderfully personal learning points from their own experience and a diverse range of views.

The question and answer sessions, which followed each session, also highlighted social interaction, and the things that bind communities together, matter to people and play an important role. A sense of not being cared about, of being left behind, and the alienation that these feelings may bring means that the on-going issues that Brexit has raised may not go away for some time.

Indeed, one of the action points in this area is that more needs to be done to be inclusive at events such as these. Offering free tickets to students and the unemployed, inviting schools and colleges to send along those that are interested would help to address this issue.

A view from the UK

Chuka Umunna gave a passionate speech about the impact of Brexit on the future of the young. He pointed out that through his work in schools he has met many young people who are acutely aware that Brexit has potentially damaged their career prospects and future.

He asks how is it that a vote to leave the EU has become such a juggernaut?  Despite all of the evidence that it will hit the poorest hardest, hurt most sectors of the economy and weaken growth in the vulnerable parts of the country, it appears still on track for the hardest of Brexits.

That means we will be leaving the customs union and the single market. He asks where in the referendum campaign did these appear as preferred options on going? Instead, he says, it was about how all the benefits of not being in the EU would make people better off, with more funds available for the NHS, for housing, for schools and so on.

He eloquently pointed out that this was not what people thought they were getting when they voted by a narrow majority to leave. Because of these issues, he believes that at the very least taking back control should mean Parliamentary scrutiny and for voters to have a say on the terms of the exit deal.

To help alleviate the effects of Brexit he wants to help the young get more career advice and on the job training.  Chuka also vehemently opposes a regulatory race to the bottom, as this will make the position of the most disadvantaged even worse in his view.

 An overview of the first session

 The view from big business highlighted broad agreement across panel participants and speakers about the economic opportunities Brexit offers for the UK and Black Commonwealth. However, there was agreement that the theoretical opening up of the Black Commonwealth had to be made a reality by actions from the diaspora as well as firms and governments in the Commonwealth countries themselves.

It was felt that focus primarily should be on infrastructure, energy and consumer demand. The stronger economic growth shown by many Commonwealth countries compared to the UK supported the case for enhanced post-Brexit links.

A partnership of equals

However, the consensus was that such relationships would come at a price for the UK. The days of Imperial preference are long gone. It would be partnerships of equals going forward, and the UK should expect a request for more immigration from these countries.

Indeed, one member of the panel argued that the UK was in third place as a trade partner, behind China and the US. Some points were made about the demise of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) once the UK left the EU and whether this provided more significant opportunities to fill any gaps it created.

Opportunity for the diaspora?

With its EU exit, the majority of panellists agreed that the UK should be more open to trade with African and Caribbean countries. Some felt that the UK may be more open to affirmative action and that the potential overseas economic prospects for the UK should give the diaspora more opportunity to leverage their links with Commonwealth countries. But again, panellists warned that the UK should be prepared to allow more non-EU migration as a consequence of broader Commonwealth relationships.

Indeed, some countries in the Black commonwealth may require this as part of any trade deals. With Brexit possibly being interpreted as a sign of xenophobia, the UK would have to prove itself in this regard. Recent events where a tightening of immigration rules has hit people who have been in the UK all of their lives is a sign that questioning of immigrants, even of such long-standing in the UK, suggests they may be right to be wary of what comes next.

A view from the Commonwealth

A representative of the speaker of the House of Assembly from Lagos Nigeria gave the view from the Commonwealth.

He indicated that they recognised that Brexit would make trading with the UK more accessible, which is an opportunity. However, they are also focused on doing more deals with European countries as a whole, not just the UK. Indeed, some currently see the UK as a gateway to Europe, and so Brexit may damage those perceptions.

He pointed out that Africa was not waiting for the UK or any country for that matter. Somewhat against the run of attacks on free trade, two historic agreements were signed that would lower tariff and allow the free movement of skilled labour. If fully implemented, it would create a market of 1.2bn people, from Cairo to Cape Town. It would indeed be transformational. It would supercharge the economic prospects for the Continent, which has the world’s youngest population in median age of just 27. In comparison, the world’s population is ageing and becoming increasingly middle-aged.

 Although Nigeria, along with 11 of the 55 countries on the Continent, including South Africa, said it would not participate – it would adopt a wait and see approach – it attended the talks, and the signing is a message that something serious is going on. In my view, it is a recognition that a bigger market creates more demand for goods and services and will drive economic growth, development and prosperity for the people of Africa. This is truth that history proves conclusively; that trade is not a zero-sum game and that everyone can be a winner.

I should point out that African countries foreign trade with each other accounts for just 14% of the total trade that they conduct. This compares with Europe where 70% of their foreign trade is with each other. The net results are clear to see in income and wealth disparities. As I said, pulling this off could create an economic powerhouse fit to become the main driver of the global economy in the second half of this century.

There were worries about whether Brexit could cause a recession, partly as they were concerned about a smaller remittances balance from their nationals working in the UK. In that context, CAP reform would be a good thing and might mean easier access to the UK for African exports. He noted that the UK is not the only player and that other countries were increasingly interested in doing business with Nigeria and in Lagos, which accounted for 60% of Nigerian GDP and is a city of 20 million people.

An overview of the second session

From the second session, the entrepreneurs insisted that opportunities existed, but that initiative was required to help realise them. Many members of this panel have been successful in academia but appreciate that being in the right place at the right time and networking are also important. A key point made by two entrepreneurs on this panel was Black SMEs need to inform themselves much more and soon about Brexit, particularly the impact on supply chains, on taxation, import/export, and employment, to be successful.

They were at one in encouraging a focus on what you feel you are good at and not merely copying others (unless you think that you can do it better).

Speaking directly to the audience, the panel had the following advice:

  • focus on skills and what you can do
  • do not be discouraged
  • seize opportunities when they come along
  • do not take no for an answer
  • success is not just for other people – you all have something to offer.

Brexit is shaking things up, which offers opportunities. The panel’s rallying cry was never to stop striving for success.

 My takeaways from the Black Brexit conference

  1. The Caribbean and African countries should be encouraged to forge contacts with the UK now and put forward their case for trade opening.
  2. UK diaspora-based firms should be set up and will play a key role in linking opportunities from the Commonwealth. This may be sector or industry-specific based, allowing them to leverage their domestic expertise.
  3. Local UK diaspora firms to advise on employment opportunities from greater links with home countries – both in the UK and in the source country.
  4. Pressure on government to provide training for domestic talent to replace any fall in EU migration.
  5. There should be no race to the bottom in regulation that hits the less well off. People must feel they are not being left behind.
  6. Apprenticeships should be encouraged by community groups and be supported and funded by the government.
  7. More should be spent on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) skills, particularly in disadvantaged communities and areas.
  8. Ask the government to act to cut school exclusions, give more access to careers advice and address the more significant mental health issues felt by the socially excluded.
  9. BCA to be a cultural bridge.

BCA Actions Points

The BCA distilled the conference down into six clear action points or a manifesto for what it wants to promote and support:

  1. Widen access to Finance and Investment
  2. Support stronger links to the Commonwealth
  3. Develop skills and provide training
  4. Place more Black representatives on UK Boards
  5. Engage and support young people
  6. Tackle any attempts to ‘race to the bottom’ in regulation.

I would like to conclude by offering my heartfelt thanks to all of those that attended, and those at the BCA and elsewhere who made the conference happen. I would also like to thank SOAS for being a sponsor and lastly, but by no means least, CMS Mckenna for providing such excellent facilities and support to help make the day the special occasion that it was.

Kind regards

Professor Trevor Williams