With the equanimity of a seasoned diplomat, Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, the British consul general in Atlanta, is sticking with his country’s mandate to leave the European Union as determined by the Brexit referendum now almost a year old.
He emphasized the inevitability of this course during a “consular conversation” hosted by Global Atlanta at the Midtown offices of the Miller & Martin PLLC law firm on June 15.
A week beforehand on June 8 a parliamentary election was to have strengthened Prime Minister Theresa May’s hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the E.U., but the failure of her Conservative party to gain a majority of the seats did the reverse, thereby further confusing the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, which began this week on June 19.
Mr. Pilmore-Bedford credited gains by the Labour Party at the cost of Mrs. May’s Conservatives to a canny campaign with “a cleverly drafted manifesto” including a pledge to nationalize the railroads to make the trains run on time in the face of the delays endured by many commuters.
He also cited the Labour Party’s pledge to end student tuition fees, which provided an additional reason for voters under 25 years old to turnout in sharp contrast to their reluctance to do so in the Brexit referendum of last year.
And he pointed to the problems faced by so-called millennials in finding good enough paying jobs for them to afford housing in contrast to the experience of the baby boomers at their age.
“It’s said that campaigns don’t really matter,” he added. “But campaigns do matter. The Conservatives were too negative and didn’t focus on the economy while Labour was more engaging. This campaign did make a difference.”
As an overseas representative of his government, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford has had to weather and explain a number of dramatic electoral storms since assuming his post in Atlanta.
In 2014 there was the independence referendum in Scotland that unsuccessfully challenged the future of the United Kingdom. Then there was the 2015 general election that reaffirmed David Cameron as the prime minister with a better than expected majority and provided the impetus to renegotiate British membership in the EU.
A referendum in June 2016, however, didn’t turn out quite the way Mr. Cameron anticipated with a majority of the Brits voting to leave the E.U., leading to his resignation and his replacement by the former home secretary, Mrs. May.
Mrs. May in turn wanted to consolidate her position before beginning the EU negotiations so she called for a “snap” parliamentary election, which in view of the apparent weakness of her main antagonist, the Labour Party, her Conservative Party appeared destined to win.
Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn who was written off last year by members of his party as a disastrous politician. Today, however, he is seen as a risen phoenix, whose party received 40 percent of the vote in comparison to the 42 percent for the Conservatives. Across the English Channel he is celebrated by the Socialist Party that was crushed in the French election as a cause of hope for a comeback.
Instead of focusing on Mr. Corbyn’s success in surpassing expectations with 40 percent, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford underscored Mrs. May’s 42 percent, which he reminded the attendees at the event was the largest percentage gained by any party.
Although she was not able to win an outright majority of parliamentary seats for the Conservatives, nevertheless she won, he affirmed, and the United Kingdom has been led by minority governments in the past. “Both are high shares,” he said of the Conservative and Labour returns, pointing to their significance for “squeezing out small parties.”
While the Conservatives and Labour disagree on many issues, he said that they are fairly close with regards to Brexit and agree on the importance of terminating the free movement of people, which is one of the four pillars of the EU along with the free movement of capital, services and goods.
In response to a question, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford did his best to distinguish between “soft” and “hard” Brexits saying that the terms “are used loosely.”
Under a soft Brexit, the U.K. would develop ties with the EU much the way that Norway and Switzerland have. Although Norway and Switzerland are not member states of the EU, they are closely associated with it through their membership in the European Economic Area (EEA).
Should the U.K. assume such a relationship, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford said the primary point of contention would be the status of the four pillars, especially the free movement of people throughout the customs union.
Under a hard Brexit, the U.K. would leave the EU and the customs union and would rely on the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organization in the absence of trade agreements.
While the U.K.’s negotiating position may have been weakened by the snap election, he seemed positive about the prospects of Germany and France working more closely on strengthening the EU. “We want a strong EU,” he said. “Britain is not leaving Europe. We can’t leave Europe, we are an island that belongs to Europe and we are tied up with the future of Europe.”
He also pointed to the U.K.’s economic resiliency which marked a 2 percent GDP growth rate last year despite the Brexit vote.
“When we first had the referendum in June last year there was a feeling that the U.K.’s economy would stall, he said. “But for 12 months it continued to grow robustly. Consumer spending held up the service sector is continuing to expand and investments have held up with participation by Google, Apple and Nissan.”
He was equally positive about London’s financial sector. Despite the conjecture that international banks would abandon the U.K. for continental cities, he dismissed the possibility “as wishful thinking” on the part of some continentalists.
“The reason is that London has its inherent strengths including a huge range of expertise — legal, accounting, infrastructure and deep capital markets — and successfully regulates its financial sector in a way that promotes growth. This is a difficult balance to develop with the needs of the workers who want a broad array of schools and shops.”
While London had suffered several terrorist attacks recently, he said that the government had strengthened its police and response units and had coordinated its counter-terrorism efforts globally.
He also did a quick review of major players on the political scene including his boss, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and the current foreign minister, whom he considers “a leading contender to lead the Conservatives”; Nigel Farage, who was a leading defender of Brexit but whose party received less than 2 percent of the vote on June 9 and holds no seats in parliament;
Arlene Foster, who heads Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party and is likely to support Mrs. May’s minority government on most issues; Nicholas Sturgeon, whose Scottish Nationalist Party lost a large number of seats but remains the dominant party in Scotland and is unlikely to oversee another referendum to leave the U.K.
Before the end of the roughly 60 minute “conversation,” he expressed an overview of his three and a half years in Atlanta. “I was quite lucky to come to Atlanta six months before the economy started up again. I had heard it has a diverse economy and saw its animal spirits revived and take off.”
Looking out of Miller & Martin’s large windows onto Midtown, he referred to the construction surrounding the building and the network of cranes in plain view. “The change is tangible,” he added. “Just look at what is happening.”
Among his accomplishments, he cited the consulate’s success in promoting a more modern image of Britain by highlighting its strengths in financial technologies as well as start-up and cyber-security companies, which overlap with Atlanta’s important economic sectors.