Legally British subjects until January 1983, we must never forget our African and Caribbean friends from the Commonwealth who stepped up in Britain’s time of need. Those who came over in their vast numbers to help us fight the Nazis and those who boarded HMT Empire Windrush in 1948 to come and rebuild this country after the war.
From the British West Indies Regiment to the Royal West African Frontier Force, over half a million volunteers from both Africa and the West Indies joined the British Army and served in the RAF, fighting to defend “King and Empire” during Britain’s Darkest Hour. 10,000 Africans were killed, with 166 receiving medals for bravery. By the end of the war, 11 battalions from the Caribbean, comprising of 15,000 soldiers, had seen action.
Fast-forward the clock to 1948, and HMT Empire Windrush was heading from Australia to England, due to dock at Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up servicemen from leave. An advert had been placed in a Jamaican newspaper, offering cheap transport to those who wanted to come and work. It was from the British Government, inviting people to come and help rebuild the “mother country” a time when it was most in need.
Of the 800 that boarded that ship that day, some came in the hope of re-joining the forces. Others made the most of the opportunity just to take the trip to England. But many stayed and settled, as under the British Nationality Act of 1948, they were legally British citizens. They filled important labour shortages, sometimes almost solely so, from working in British Rail to the NHS. They formed new communities, had children and grandchildren – and like many of us in this country who have heritage from around the world, they added a chapter to the pages of the British story. They formed an integral part of the modern, diverse and tolerant nation that we are today. A country that so many of us are proud to call home.
From Ghana in 1957, to Antigua and Bermuda in 1981, the majority of Commonwealth countries in Africa and the West Indies fought for their independence from Britain over the years to follow. British Citizenship for those coming from the Commonwealth came to an end in 1962 and, as they were going out on their own, we were getting closer and closer to our European neighbours.
Although certain privileges have remained, such as the ability to vote in our elections, the more integrated that we have become with our European neighbours, we have drifted further and further apart from our Commonwealth friends. Brexit provides us the opportunity to change that – to develop those long-standing relationships once more.
When it comes to trade, the EU does have its own trade deals with both the Caribbean and several African countries, but they are less than perfect and not necessarily how we might choose to do things going forward. There is some degree of relief from EU tariffs for the poorest countries, but this does not apply to farm produce, where the trade is largely in the EU’s favour. This protectionist nature is often seasonal, for example higher tariffs are applied to oranges when EU crop is available and the price of sugar is guaranteed for Europe at three times the world average.
The Common Agricultural Policy, with the subsidies that it provides European land owners, makes it almost impossible for African farmers to be able to compete. Thousands of tonnes of subsidised food from large transnationals are able to be dumped into Africa at low prices, and tariffs applied the other way mean that German manufacturers can make double their profit on re-exporting raw goods from the continent. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari earlier last year refused to sign an EU-West African trade deal, in order to protect Nigeria’s economy, her industries and her small businesses. In Buhari’s own words, jobs needed protecting to keep her “youthful population busy”.
Now that we are going out on our own, we have the opportunity to move away from this model of protecting when it suits and charity when we wish. Should we so choose, we can trade freely and open up our markets. Fast growing economies like Nigeria will have the opportunity to be rewarded for their entrepreneurship, and places like Zimbabwe will be free to trade with us outside of the EU’s embargo.
In leaving the European Union, we can trade with countries on the African continent once and for all as equals. And in doing so, we are presented with an opportunity to re-balance the global stage.
Better trade relationships also mean that in the long term, we can move away from this old, somewhat colonial model of giving vast amounts of aid, simply for the sake of patting ourselves on the back and meeting an arbitrary target. We can be proud of the role that we play on the global stage in delivering aid when it is needed, such as the £427 million direct support package that Britain gave during the Ebola crisis of 2014, or the £15 million sent to the Caribbean after hurricane season. Nobody can doubt that spending this kind of money is the right and the noble thing to do. We will always be on hand where we can to assist countries in need.
This is vastly different, however, to perpetuating a culture where teenagers from the West now think that they are more qualified to build a school than a local, or working in an orphanage unqualified is a gap year ‘adventure’. The time surely has come to question this attitude that we have had for so long, to be honest in how this behaviour might skew our lens and mindset when we compare ourselves to certain cultures around the world.
We have an opportunity now to rethink our aid budget and how it can be put to better use. To find small and local organisations to fund, harness skills to pass on and move into a model of empowerment, instead of seeing ourselves as perpetual rescuers, hopefully re-balancing our relationships in the long term. The Ghanian President, Nana Akufo-Addo, elected in 2016, has had the consistent message of his vision for a “Ghana beyond aid”. He is committed to growth in the private sector, and said that “we have to take our own destiny into our own hands”. From Gambia to Zimbabwe, slow and steady progress for democracy is being made in Africa, and with it a new generation determined to take their nations forward to standing on their own two feet. Britain herself now has a unique opportunity to stand with them side by side, and do what we can along the way.
As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, and many can argue that it is the best tool a government can ever provide in order for its people to lift themselves out of poverty. Our membership of the European Union has brought us so many benefits in terms of science and research, data-sharing and forming collaborative working in our universities. Now we have the opportunity to use all of that and go further, opening up our world-leading higher education sector and forming new partnerships around the world. In Africa and the Caribbean, particularly, this is a key moment to use education for the greatest possible good.
From water sanitation to wildlife conservation, committing to working together through new collaborations and ways of doing things could transform so many lives, whilst solving crucial global challenges in the process. We can build on the outstanding work done by so many in the third sector, through the frameworks used during our years of EU membership, to think innovatively about how we can work together in the future. From exchange programmes to more formalised training, the possibility of opportunities that we can offer both those in Britain and abroad, to share their knowledge, have new experiences and make a real difference in the process, is endless.
For our universities at home, up until now, EU students have enjoyed the same tuition fees as home students, whilst those from outside pay almost triple. From visa applications to finding a home to rent, financial barriers hit non-EU international students the hardest. Upon graduation, they have to jump through the most hoops if they wish to stay here and work. The opportunity to devise a new system now lies in our hands, to attract the best and the brightest to study here; free to stay and form part of Britain’s story, or to head home with a life-long connection and skills and an education that they can really put to use.
Back to our African and Caribbean friends, who have helped us so much in days gone by: now is the perfect time to say thank you and time for Britain herself to renew her relationships with each nation, to tailor our immigration policies to ensure that we treat each nation as fairly as every other or to give special preferences to the Commonwealth, should we so wish. Whether that be in education or work, an opportunity arises now to show each nation how much they are valued to us.
Brexit gives us the opportunity to trade with them as equal partners, opening up the market for fair competition; the opportunity to rethink the way that we deliver aid – to not perpetuate patronising viewpoints, but to move towards real empowerment, trusting in each other’s ability to stand on our own two feet, never putting ourselves above or below each nation, but simply standing side by side during potentially turbulent times.
For our African and Caribbean friends, it’s time for us to remember the realities of our past, plan optimistically for our shared future and to become the equal partners in a post-Brexit world.
This article is an extract from Clean Break, Bright Future: Leaving the EU, Rejoining the World, published by the Freedom Association’s Better Off Out campaign
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