Brexit provides huge opportunities for the UK’s partnership with Pakistan

Brexit provides huge opportunities for the UK’s partnership with Pakistan

Last week, while all eyes were on Westminster for the Chancellor’s Budget speech and its fallout, a groundbreaking event was taking place a short distance away up the Thames.

It went little noticed given the competition for attention, but in time I believe it may be seen as an important starting point for the United Kingdom’s post-Brexit journey towards new partnerships and a new prosperity.

The event was a conference on trading opportunities between Britain and Pakistan, particularly in the fields of technology, IT services and digital commerce. It was the first such bilateral conference to be held since the referendum – and what we hope will the forerunner of many.

I hosted it at Stamford Bridge stadium with the support of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe – with star speakers including ACRE’s secretary general Dan Hannan, Pakistan’s Minister for State for IT and Telecoms Anusha Rahman, and former Austrialian PM Tony Abbott, who himself concluded three major trade deals with China, Japan and Korea in just two years.

Meeting under the banner, Pakistan as a Digital Powerhouse, we drew some 150 politicians, entrepreneurs, business figures and dignitaries from both countries, all there to explore the huge potential for new trading partnerships which will open up post Brexit.

Too many people have presented this decision by the British people as an act of isolationism. They talk of the UK turning its back on Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our country is not turning its back on anybody or anything, but we are facing outwards towards the whole world, instead of of focusing all our attention, effort and energy on one small corner of that globe – and an economically underperforming corner at that.

We have opened up for ourselves, quite literally, a world of opportunity.

We need no longer exclude those parts of the world that were historically our closest trading partners and traditionally our most trusted friends and allies, before we got sucked into the EU on the false promise that we were joining a trading bloc. And we must take every step possible to maximise the options which will present themselves – all over the globe.

Now we can strike our own trade deals without moving at the pace of the slowest boat in the convoy, and without waiting eight years for a deal, such as the one with Canada, and then seeing it almost sunk by a veto from part of Belgium (not even the whole of Belgium!)

Promoting global trade and facilitating commercial partnerships has been a core value of the UK Conservative Party for decades. Following the EU referendum, it is now more important than ever for us, the elected politicians in the UK, to deliver what we were asked to deliver:

A United Kingdom which is a beacon of democracy, a staunch defender of free trade and the free market cause, and a champion of the rule of law.

A United Kingdom which meets the challenge of forging its own trading partnerships with the rest of the world.

A United Kingdom that takes back into her own hands the crucial business of international trade and accessing international markets.

In this context, and in the week when we marked Commonwealth Day, reinforcing and rebuilding trade relations and partnerships with the great Commonwealth nations is both essential and timely. Pakistan, the country I originate from, is an excellent candidate in this new digital-driven, knowledge-intensive era. This is a country with a deeply embedded entrepreneurial spirit, bold and eager to embrace the digital revolution and the principles of free trade.

The remarkable progress towards creating a digital Pakistan merits a particular mention.

Minister Anusha Rahman described to the conference a wholesale reshaping of the digital landscape there which is happening as we speak. From less than 3% in 2013, internet penetration now exceeds 20%.

That is a rapid rate of progress by any measure. Of course there is long road ahead to the ultimate objective of full digitisation, broadband connectivity and state-of-the-art infrastructure, but Pakistan is on its way – and fast.

It is a different Pakistan in so many ways from the one I left at as a child with my family, to come to the UK and live in Bradford. This country welcomed us and I am proud to call myself British and a Yorkshireman.

But I know something of the character of both countries – the nation of my birth and my adopted land. In both countries we know the value of hard work. In both countries, we thrive on trade and commerce. In both countries we live by buying and selling – by providing a service, by striking a deal.

And in both countries we are well-served by bright, eager entrepreneurs and innovators who know that technology and the digital economy are the new frontiers of global trade.

In pulling the conference together, my old friend Shahid Azeem, Managing Director of Arcom IT and Chairman of Aldershot Football Club, did wonderfully to harness the co-operation of the British Pakistan Foundation, the Conservative Friends of Pakistan, the World Congress of Overseas Pakistanis, the Britain Pakistan Council and the British Business Centre Pakistan.

I believe the sheer energy and enthusiasm we created last week – in the shadow of the Budget as well as the Shed End – can be the start of something big.