By Ian Talbot (University of Southampton)
The seventy fifth anniversary of Pakistan’s independence provides an important moment to consider the relationship between the two countries. This has been marked by close ties of sentiment rooted in the deep associations arising from colonial rule and the emergence of a large community of Pakistani descent in the UK. During the early post-independence period, many of the British diplomats in both the headquarters and the districts possessed years of colonial experience. To cite just one example: Leonard Coke-Wallis, the first Deputy High Commissioner in Dacca had been posted to Bengal as early as 1924. Alexander Symon Britain’s High Commissioner (1954-1961) during a visit at the time of the Golden Jubilee celebration of the Staff College at Quetta was able to impress the Commandant by providing an anecdote about most of the officers whose names were commemorated on the graduation board. The sense of history continued decades later. Nicholas Barrington who held the post of both Ambassador (1987-9) and High Commissioner (1989-1994) so immersed himself in Pakistan culture and history that he developed genealogical charts of the leading landowning families. Even in this century, historical connections are not entirely absent. Mark Lyall Grant’s family connection with the city of Lyallpur/Faisalabad received favourable press coverage during his 2003-6 period as High Commissioner. (His great- great Uncle Sir James Broadwood Lyall founded Lyallpur in 1880.)
The past three decades have seen the emergence of an increasingly self-confident Pakistani diaspora community in the UK. This now numbers around 1.2 million. Pakistani descent politicians have held offices of state at Westminster as well as roles as MPS and local council leaders. Already there has been a Pakistan-heritage head of DfID in the country. There are growing possibilities for diaspora diplomacy in areas of trade and philanthropy. Pakistani communities in Britain, like those elsewhere, continue to engage with politics at home and send back remittances which boost the foreign exchange holdings of the state. The consular activities of the British diplomatic mission have tremendously expanded in the wake of mass air travel between the UK and Pakistan. London’s importance for the Pakistani political elite, often as a refuge, is well-known.
The UK’s ties with Pakistan extends beyond the bilateral relationship to also include the Commonwealth relationship. This has provided Pakistan with technical expertise, educational and professional exchanges, as well as diplomatic support, trade, and aid. In the late 1950s, the Government of Canada constructed the Warsak Dam, close to the Afghan frontier, under the Colombo Plan.
The soft power attraction of the English language and culture has also contributed to a close relationship between the two countries. The British Council and the BBC have played important roles in sustaining the cultural dimensions of ties between the two countries, in addition to promoting positive images of Britain. Long established educational exchanges, such as the Chevening scheme, have played a key role in establishing Britain as a destination of choice for the Pakistani elite. Cricket has provided a popular sporting dimension and has provided photo opportunities and material for UK High Commissioners’ blogs in recent years. Significantly, the prickliness sometimes apparent in the Indo-British relationship is absent, as is the American transactional approach to Pakistan.
There have, as in most nations’ relations, been downturns and disappointments. These have frequently arisen because of London’s uneasy balancing between New Delhi and Karachi/|Islamabad over the Kashmir issue. Pakistan’s national crisis in 1970-1 occasioned the most serious downturn with the country leaving the Commonwealth early in 1972, only returning after a 17-year absence on 1 October 1989.
Global conflicts initially the Cold War and latterly the ‘War on Terror’ have made Pakistan’s stability paramount for London because of the country’s strategic location. Since the 1990s, concerns about a clash between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have formed a backdrop to relations, as did the threat of ‘Talibanisation’ in the noughties. British diplomatic effort has been considerable with at times the High Commission in Pakistan being the largest of all its overseas missions. On its part, Pakistan has always viewed the UK as an extremely important diplomatic partner.
The UK-Pakistan relationship has remained close, not just because of strategic concerns. The sheer breadth of the relationship attests to this. There are currently 12 UK departments working in Pakistan, what has been termed by the current High Commissioner, ‘a full suite of diplomatic work’. The breadth of work undoubtedly strengthens the relationship.
In terms of trade and investment, the UK is Pakistan’s third largest trading partner, after the United States and China. Pakistan is however only Britain’s 53rd largest trading partner accounting for 0.2 per cent of total UK trade. In 2020, there were calls to further boost the £3.3 billion bilateral trade between the two countries. However, British trade with India remains eight times larger and Indian businesses with a turnover of around $70 billion are much more significant as UK employers. Nonetheless, there are Pakistan success stories, most notably Bestway; founded in 1976 as a group of convenience retail stores, it has diversified into pharmacy, real estate, cement, and banking sections. It is the largest overseas investor in Pakistan and has a UK annual turnover of around a couple of billion dollars. In 2017, Britain was the third largest direct foreign investor in Pakistan after China and the Netherlands. This needs to be contextualised, however, in terms of the previous year’s figure which put Pakistan’s contribution to total UK FDI stock at 0.1 per cent.
Commercial ties have been backed up by development aid and technical assistance from the time of the 1951 Colombo Plan. Historically, UK’s aid to Pakistan has been more consistent than that of the US. A marked feature in recent years has been the careful targeting of this aid. The educational development programme in Pakistan has emerged as its largest world-wide bilateral aid programme with £350 million initially committed from 2013 to 2018.
Both Pakistan and Britain are now very different from 75 years ago when the first UK diplomatic mission was established in the British Chamber of Commerce Building in Wood Street, Karachi. Nonetheless, a close working relationship has been sustained between the two countries over the transformative and at times tumultuous changes of the post-colonial era.
Further Reading: Ian Talbot, The History of British Diplomacy in Pakistan (Routledge, 2021)