It was just a week before the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the EU, and Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford was required to keep mum on the “Brexit” topic.
But the U.K. consul general in the South wove an elegant picture of some of the issues that formed the backdrop to the vote, such as trade and immigration, in the first in Global Atlanta’s monthly series of conversations with Atlanta-based diplomats.
The diplomat sat down with Global Atlanta and a group of readers at the Atlanta Center for International Arbitration and Mediation at an inflection point in his posting. It had been exactly two years into what will likely be a four-year term representing the country here.
Even before the Brexit vote, which already has begun to add to his speaking load, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford had a full and diverse portfolio.
He’s enjoyed Atlanta’s hospitality and weather, though it hasn’t necessarily been able to compete with his previous posting back in London handling Caribbean affairs, which enabled him to slip away on sunny business trips to places like Barbados.
Still, his first posting in the U.S. after stints in Malaysia, Russia, Singapore and Qatar has lived up to its billing, partly because of the dynamism of Atlanta and the region — both economically and demographically.
“The U.S. is one of our prime postings, because it’s our most important ally. The U.S. is the indispensable relationship that we have,” he said in setting up a wide-ranging conversation that covered defense ties, negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, education, the state of the British brand worldwide, infrastructure development and how the U.K. democracy has handled the ebb and flow of change over centuries.
Tradition’s Anchor in Turbulent Times
On that last point, he was somewhat prescient. Few predicted that the “Leave” campaign would win the Brexit referendum, but the forces driving some of the angst leading up to the vote, namely immigration policy in the EU, were among those he discussed in what amounted to a mini-lecture on how the elasticity of British identity makes it stronger.
Some see the U.K. through the lens of “Downton Abbey”, cricket, tea, bucolic countryside and the queen, he said, while others view it as a modern, fashion-forward melting pot focused on creative and knowledge industries.
“The truth is, probably, Britain is both. One of the strengths of the United Kingdom is that we manage quite easily and naturally to mix some of best of the of the tradition, the old, and stability with the more modern and creative side of things,” the consul general said. “We push the more modern, diverse, creative side more at the moment because I think a lot of people perhaps don’t realize that side, but the two do go together very much.”
But asked about the issue of traditionalists pushing back against the influx of immigrants — from South Asian Muslims to those from continental Europe looking for work — he said the country adapts to these new realities by holding to symbols like parliament and the monarchy, and even things like formality of dress.
“That gives it a sense of continuity and stability during periods of change, be it industrialization in the 19th century or two world wars and social change, or now, migration,” he said. “One of the reasons Britain has been a successful country for centuries that we’re able to match stability and continuity with rapid change.”
That ability will be put to the test in the coming years. The polarized 52-48 Brexit vote toppled Prime Minister David Cameron, who stepped down today after six years in office to make way for Theresa May, the country’s second woman to hold the position. Some are even worried about the integrity of the U.K., given that all districts in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. Leaders there are now calling for a second referendum on its status within the country.
While not addressing that specifically, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford did outline steps that the central government has taken to devolve powers to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, as well as to better balance growth throughout England. The wealth gap between London and the rest of the country has been a source of political tension, particularly northern regions that cradled the early advance of industry and global trade — like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham — but then suffered mightily during times of readjustment in decades like the 1980s.
One effort to correct the imbalance is the Northern Powerhouse, a development plan that aims to connect cities in the north of England with better transport links to help them more readily compete — together — for foreign investment.
“The government is linking some of these big cities together better to give them enough people, enough economic weight, to count globally,” he said, noting that the Atlanta sister city of Newcastle, which sits a bit removed in the far Northeast, will be linked with these clusters, though the final routes of the ambitious HS2 high-speed rail expansion have yet to be pinned down.
Many cities are also moving to “American-style” elected mayors who (in decidedly European style) also chair economic development bodies responsible for their entire metro areas.
“We’re giving those mayors the economic levers that they need to pull to help develop those cities. This is part of a recognition that this is a way to rebalance the British economy, but also a recognition that in the 21st century there’s increasingly a feeling that this is the century of cities.”
That view is also shared by Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, who has repeatedly cited the ascendancy of urban areas in an age of global connectivity and stagnant, polarized central governments.
From Mr. Pilmore-Bedford’s perspective, Atlanta, while it is a global city with a huge airport and many massive companies, is also a relatively new kid on the block that needs to push its brand more outside the U.S.
“Unlike some of the cities that have been big cities for a long time, like your sort of Bostons, or San Franciscos or New Yorks, I still don’t think (Atlanta) does quite as much international engagement or that it comes quite as naturally to it and to its political leaders, so I think there’s still a lot more to do on that front,” he said. “And I think because it’s a new city, I think you almost need to sort of do more to get your brand out there. A lot of people in Europe and Asia, they still can’t picture Atlanta.”
For British companies like Triumph Motorcycles, however, the city is well-known, and the U.K. government has beefed up its trade and investment arm in the Atlanta consulate over the past five years to help more British companies engage with the city and the region.
The consulate also has a scientific officer charged with helping foster partnerships between U.K. universities and their American counterparts, which Mr. Pilmore-Bedford praised for their engagement with the private sector to commercialize new ideas and research.
“You guys, I’d have to say, are still the best at doing that — we’re still chasing your model,” he said.
More ties like the University of Georgia connection with Oxford University are always being explored, he said.
“We’re trying to make sure it’s not just sort of Oxford and Harvard, but it’s Newcastle and Georgia Tech, and it’s much broader, and we’re not missing out on new universities, new centers that are rising like that,” the consul general added.
Like education, trade is an area where connections come naturally. British companies already employ more than 20,000 people in the state, and many Georgia firms have British operations.
Negotiations are afoot to bring Europe and the U.S. closer together in this regard through a deal known as Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP.
The deal has been less controversial (and less visible) than the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which presidential candidates have railed against.
That’s probably a good thing, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford conceded.
“I think the last thing anyone wants is for it to become an election issue, for people to start saying things that are unhelpful when the election is over.,” he said.
Ironically, though it is linked to rhetoric on immigration in the U.S., the United Kingdom has seen consensus on the openness of its economy in spite of tension the former, he said. Aside from a brief period of protectionism between the World War I and the 1950s, the U.K. has been a free-trading nation since the 1846 abolition of tariffs on imported grain, he said.
Still, the U.K.’s status as a TTIP champion has all but evaporated after the Brexit vote, with voices like Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne coming out to say that the nation should start talks with the U.S. right away as it re-establishes control of its global trading relationships.
Still, speaking before the vote, Mr. Pilmore-Bedford outlined the rationale behind the TTIP deal. Yes, tariffs will be eliminated that are in some cases “spiky,” like those on textiles and shoes. But the main value in the sweeping pact between the U.S. and 28 member nations is mutual recognition of standards on issues like auto safety, where duplicate testing costs companies millions of dollars. Also: the ability to set standards in emerging industries where global rules have yet to be ironed out.
“I know that when I get in my car that I bought in the U.S. that that’s a safe car, that the seats are going to function, that the wheels aren’t going to fall off, that the glass is safe, and conversely when I go to Europe I know that that car standards are safe there,” he said, adding that this logic should apply to food, drugs and other sectors. “The idea is that we would just accept each other’s standards.”
But despite optimism about the latest round of negotiations and pledges to wrap up talks by the end of the year, the pact faces many headwinds. Europeans are loath to compromise on food issues, and Americans are hesitant to open up local government procurements to international companies. Then, of course, there’s the political environment around trade.
The agreement, however, is imperative if the biggest tradition relationship in the world is to continue to set the tone for the global economy in light of the rise of China and other nations, he said in June.
“It still gives the U.S. and Europe the ability to set global standard, because if we don’t do it either global standards will come fragmented or somebody else will set standards that may not be to our advantage.”
Learn how to reach the British consulate in Atlanta here.