Parvez Akhtar was the Conservative candidate in the 2009 Bedford mayoral by-election and is a Computer Aided Engine Design Specialist at Ford Motor Company. On the weekend when Pakistan celebrates its independence, he argues that a trade driven strategic relationship with the sub-continent needs re-emphasizing following David Cameron’s recent trip to the region and his comments about Pakistan.
There has been a great deal of discussion and debate around the Prime Minister's comments concerning the war on terror and Pakistan's role within it. Much criticism has been levelled at him, mainly from opponents who have used the opportunity to make political capital out of his rather frank assessment.
The most recent criticism came on Wednesday from the Pakistani Ambassador to the UN, who said that his country had suffered in its fundraising efforts for the flood victims due to those comments. I am sure this recent addition to a long list of criticism of the Prime Minister would add to the anxiety of the nearly one million people of Pakistani origin in UK who have significant ties and links to their country of origin. Many play an active role in life in the UK, but are equally concerned about the growing problems back home and have been very engaged in this recent debate.
During the last general election, the Labour Party's monopoly of the Pakistani vote was challenged, with a significant shift in crucial marginal seats like my own of Bedford which helped us to win. The Labour Party is not wasting any time in trying to court them again by using the controversy around the comments as ammunition because they have been sufficiently worried by the loss of support from a group that has always been loyal. The whole issue has caused much concern amongst the Pakistani community who, frankly, are not buying the Labour spin but can see very little progress in Pakistan's fight against militancy and its mounting economic, political and sectarian problems.
David Cameron needs to persuade the Pakistanis that they can count on Britain not only during their hour of need but also for the long term and that a closer relationship with London will generate valuable returns for Islamabad. He needs to do this with the same vigour and commitment that he has shown during all his recent exchanges with foreign governments. I am confident that by outlining why the new approach is not only essential in the context of the development of Pakistan but is crucial part of the Conservative strategy on foreign affairs, some of the anxiety felt by the Pakistani community will be dissipated.
Sadly many commentators have focused on what was said rather then the shift in our approach to foreign affairs and not enough focus has been placed on the underlying purpose of David Cameron's recent foreign visits. The Prime Minister has used his entire recent itinerary to emphasis the coalition Government's approach to foreign affairs, where business and trade go hand in hand with diplomatic ties and foreign affairs.
In the case of the Indian sub-continent, it does not take too much analysis to realise that a stable and thriving region, with the conflict over Kashmir is resolved, will be less reliant on aid and more conducive to trade. This is not only important in the overall strategy to defeat terrorism but is an important new strand of British foreign policy that promotes trade links whenever and wherever possible. I am sure that in the coming months, this new approach will not be confined to the Foreign Office but become an integral part of every government department and also be rolled out to other areas.
The Indian trip was the start of the new approach and had some very impressive people in the delegation but over the course of this coalition's life, the challenge will be to maintain that and have every strand of national and local government taking ownership of and having a direct link to, the Foreign Office where business is promoted, where trips are jointly undertaken with Foreign Office involvement and where inward investment is sought from foreign companies.
Pakistan was partly reeling from the comments because it felt left out of the potential new opportunities that a trade-driven UK foreign policy may afford. The Prime Minister must re-emphasise that during the coming months because this element of his objectives have been wholly overshadowed by the comments largely due to the strategic role of Pakistan in the war on terror and our deep involvement in a military capacity in Afghanistan.
Many Pakistanis are playing a crucial role in the war and are on the frontline in this fight, but far too many are in denial over the issue. You only have to look at the almost daily occurrence of suicide bombings to realise there is a battle within Pakistan for control of it. In this respect, the leadership of the country has to step up to the plate. An ill advised foreign trip during one of the worst disasters to hit the country tells you all you need to know about the priorities of the President of Pakistan. At times the security services have shown the same blasé attitude when dealing with security situation in the country.
In a global world, what happens in one part of the world has repercussions in another. The instability in that part of the world not only affects the region, but has been proven to have a direct link to us here in the UK and elsewhere in the world.
As Pakistan celebrates its 64-year existence, it knows that it is at a crossroads and badly in need of strong decisive government, which, sadly, it has lacked for almost all its existence. It also needs to be a more willing partner which at times it is not. As our party co-chairman has said, it is right that the Prime Minister is a critical friend not just an important ally.
Following their talks last week, I hope the President takes on board the advice of a long-term friend and begins to put his country and its people on a path to better future where Britain can be not only a strategic partner in helping resolve the Kashmir issue and on defeating terrorism, but an important trade partner too.