Michael Kelly: Pakistan too good to miss

Mohammad Sarwar after an election success in 2005. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Mohammad Sarwar after an election success in 2005. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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With a former Glasgow MP now governor of the Punjab, Scotland has a head start in creating the best deals, writes Michael Kelly

I neverthought that I would be able to write that I had shared many a curry with His Excellency the Governor of the Punjab. But I did, often, along with many other ordinary members of the Labour Party. Now, Mohammad Sarwar, the former MP for Glasgow Central, has been appointed to the second most powerful position in Pakistan, governor of a province which contains more than half of that country’s 179 million citizens.

Not that his talents should have been re-exported to the land of his birth. His political skills and achievements here in Scotland were sufficient for a major role to be found for him in the UK. First, his work in race relations has left a lasting legacy in Glasgow. Secondly, in the wake of the Iraq war he held the Muslim vote throughout the UK for Labour and helped counter extremism. The respect and popularity he has gained is witnessed by his current tour as governor. An invited audience of 4,000 assembled to hear him last week in Glasgow. I say invited – 1800 were invited. The rest turned up anyway.

This week he is being similarly honoured in England. Someone with such a network should be involved in politics at the highest level here. However, Gordon Brown failed to get him into the House of Lords and Sarwar turned his attention to Pakistan.

It may be that his loss to Scotland will turn out to be less than was feared. In meetings with MPs, MSPs and Scottish government ministers, he has made it clear that he wants to strengthen the ties between Scotland and Pakistan to their mutual benefit. He was relieved that his welcome by Holyrood and its presiding officer dismissed any concerns he had that his party political past might inhibit him in his new role.

The areas that he has identified as priorities are health, education, energy and trade. The primary health concern is to provide clean drinking water, building filtration plants to cleanse river water of which the Punjab – Land of Five Rivers – has ample supplies. There is a major opportunity here for Scottish Water. The First Minister, at a meeting last week, offered his full support.

On education, Sarwar is chancellor of the Punjab’s 40 state universities. He is looking to establish links with institutions here at both student and staff levels. As well as the boost to student numbers, the benefits for future trade from students educated here are well established. The Punjab’s energy policy chimes well with that of the Scottish government with its emphasis on renewables. Mutually beneficial co-operation is a natural.

There are many other areas where links can be established, or extended. The fire service here already advises most of Pakistan’s service. Sarwar would extend this to the police. Pakistan has a burgeoning pharmaceutical industry which could help bolster Scotland’s much smaller one. Already Sarwar’s former constituency colleague Gordon Jackson QC is planning a visit to the Punjab to set up links between its judges and lawyers and those of Scotland.

However, Pakistan and Scotland are countries at very different stages of development. Scotland, as part of a first world rich democracy, cannot be compared with a poor, developing country that is more in need of help than of offering it. The key element to mutual benefit is trade. If Pakistan is to continue its industrialisation it needs markets for its products. Europe is one of the key markets. It is in this area that Sarwar is looking for support.

The next version of the European Union’s General System of Preferences (GSP), which dictates the terms under which non-member countries’ goods are admitted to Europe, is currently being negotiated. Now instead of it being a purely executive decision for Brussels, any deal has to go before the European Parliament for approval.

In the proposal to go before that parliament in December, Pakistan stands to do well. It is one of ten countries being listed for GSP Plus which would give its exports a considerable boost and, according to David Martin, Scotland’s MEP, create one million jobs in Pakistan. However, there are moves by Portugal, Spain and Italy to have Pakistan removed from the list over fears for their own textile industries.

The support of British MEPs could tilt the balance. Mr Martin is already on board, pointing out that gaining this preference is not a one-way street. Pakistan has already signed up to 27 conventions on improving human and labour rights. If standards are not adhered to these preferences would be lost. It seems an ideal way of both helping a country to grow economically and to ensure that international norms of civil rights become established in a country that has turned too often to military dictatorships. Given the severe problems Pakistan has with the Taleban, women’s rights and the protection of Christians, this carrot-and-stick approach must help strengthen its government’s resolve.

Scotland will not have a clear run at attempts to benefit from increased trade with Pakistan. Already the Danish ambassador has been pictured in Sarwar’s Lahore office determined “to increase Danish exports of goods to Pakistan by 40 per cent in next three years”. And the Danes would compete directly with Scotland over water treatment plants (for one).

Sarwar must be even-handed in his approach to all state suitors. However, his joint interests in promoting his province and the country he holds in great affection are surely not conflicting. His knowledge of Scotland and the access Scottish businessmen can have to him must put us in pole position to structure the best deals for both countries. The Danes plan to open a commercial section in their embassy in Islamabad. The UK is already well ahead in that. However, we should respond by having a dedicated representative in Lahore to ensure that we can take advantage of our position as first in the queue. Sarwar is making offers too good to turn down. His ability to deliver must be matched by commitments here.

The Scotsman Conferences is hosting a series of events capturing the many facets of the Scottish independence debate. 3 December sees a formidable line up of expert speakers tackle “The Independence White Paper: A Business Plan for Scotland?” For more details on this and other great events please visit www.scotsmanconferences.com