The Wall Street Journal Europe on March 14, 2001.



London Letter


To be, or Not to be, British


By Salil Tripathi


Mr. Tripathi, a London-based writer, was formerly economics correspondent at the Far Eastern Economic Review in Singapore.


LONDON -- Picture these: A scarf of the England football team. A map
of the London Underground. A used ticket of the Dome. A picture
postcard of Eton, the elite public school. A copy of the Financial Times
newspaper, or the Spectator magazine. A shopping bag from Marks and
Spencer's. A credit card issued by the Standard Chartered Bank. This list
speaks so much of England that it could be easily mistaken for a Sotheby's
sale of items commemorating life in Edwardian times. But something else is
common to these quintessential British items -- a foreigner runs each of
these institutions. Oh, and to this list, add Barclays Bank and the London
Stock Exchange.


Britain should see this unusual coincidence as confirmation of its ability to
attract international talent in the age of globalization. Instead, what we hear
are anxious comments questioning the ability and commitment of the
foreigners hired to run these institutions. Some of the corporate executives
have faced particularly sharp scrutiny and criticism, as if they were
teenagers taking the keys of beloved Rovers from their apprehensive dads,
when in fact they are more likely than not to be ace drivers brought in to
jump-start a spluttering organization.


And who had caused the various messes? British managers, who could not
project visitor arrivals realistically, or make underground trains run on time,
or anticipate changing consumer clothing tastes, or get a bunch of overpaid
footballers to score some goals, or become a competitive bank in the
rapidly changing world of emerging markets.


Many British managers are very good at a great many things. But in an
outwardly oriented economy you hire the best talent for the job. Not just at
the top, but elsewhere as well. And not just in your home isles, but
wherever you're located. The British government realizes that. Which is
why, among European countries, Britain is relatively more pragmatic in
making it easier for foreign entrepreneurs and information technology
professionals to move in.


But this is being done stealthily, almost apologetically. That is because
tabloids and some politicians busily stoke jingoistic public opinion. Little
England even raises its head with when Japanese investors complain about
British reluctance to embrace the euro.


The case of the Hinduja brothers, Srichand and Gopichand, is instructive.
The influential Indian businessmen had donated a considerable sum for that
cultural vacuity-on-the-Thames, the Millennium Dome. One of them
happened to have telephoned the Minister for Northern Ireland Peter
Mandelson, who was in charge of the Dome, to find out about the status of
their citizenship application. The matter turned into one of the biggest crises
to have hit the government. Mr. Mandelson had to resign after it was
discovered that he, too, had placed calls in connection with the application.


Mr. Mandelson was cleared of impropriety last week, and I'm not
defending the Hindujas' actions. But what's interesting (and appalling) is
that many critics zeroed in on the Hindujas's foreignness, and blamed them
for importing looser morals, as if sleaze were a foreign element introduced
into British veins.


Unfortunately, the leader of the opposition, William Hague, continues to
add fuel to the fire. In an important policy speech to his Conservative Party
at Harrogate last week, he told "good, patriotic" British people to save
Britain from being turned into "a foreign land" and criticized the
government's "soft touch" for asylum seekers.


If Britain is serious about becoming a cosmopolitan hub that attracts
capital, talent and best practices from abroad it should not be raising the
barricades, but lowering them. This should not be difficult; London is a city
relaxed about foreigners, who don't feel as if they are constantly reminded
how different they are. In fact, Mr. Hague's speech has fallen completely
flat. Yet wary of the jingoism, the government moves apprehensively,
unnecessarily creating a divide between economic and political migrants. It
prefers the former in certain professions, although shortages abound in
many blue-collar industries -- catering, trucking, tourism and nursing, to
name just a few. The latter group, the so-called asylum seekers, cannot
work.


The result of this class system is that refugees are caricaturized as
dole-seeking parasites. This view finds echo even in allegedly
better-informed corridors.


During a coffee break at a recent U.N.-sponsored workshop, the head of
public policy at a large British company said -- with a touching sense of
conviction, unsupported by facts -- that all refugees in Britain are economic
migrants who would never become law-abiding taxpayers. Many in Britain
believe that benefits here are so generous that people from around the
world are scrambling to get on every available dinghy to come to these
shores, even though some other countries are more hospitable and the
preferred choice for migrants.


Indeed, the issue of asylum seekers has become a political hot potato in
the lead-up to the general elections, which are widely expected to be held
in May. Both the government and the opposition remain firm in trying to
out-hawk each other, egged on by tabloids and even the unions
representing the Home Office bureaucrats who process entry applications.


Britain does grudgingly end up accepting those it admits. But then they are
somehow also held at arms' length. The American-born poet T.S. Eliot
once said famously that he wanted to be an Englishman, but had to settle
for being a British subject. Lesser mortals, born a generation later, have
found it even harder. It is worth recalling that Britain changed its
discriminatory practice of issuing British passports without the right to live
in Britain, the so-called British Overseas Citizens category, only after Hong
Kong was safely back with China, reducing the possibility of thousands of
Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers flooding Britain. How dynamic Britain
would have become had they come!


Britain can, if it chooses, continue to see foreigners who can invigorate its
culture and provide sparkle to its economy as gatecrashers admitted as a
favor done to them. But in a world where more and more people are going
to live in more than three countries in their lifetime, only those cultures and
economies which make these footloose people feel at home will succeed.


                   -- From The Wall Street Journal Europe