Sir Peter Westmacott became Britain’s ambassador to the United States in January, not long after the Conservative-led government undertook drastic budget cuts that helped push the British economy into a double-dip recession. Westmacott, who lives in Washington, visited Boston recently and spoke with Globe reporter Megan Woolhouse about the nation’s plan to attract more businesses to its shores and how the UK’s leaders are hopeful that US investors can help.
The UK attacked its budget crisis by dramatically cutting spending. With the US poised on the fiscal cliff, do you have any advice?
Here in the United States, we have one embassy and nine consulates to try to make a difference to trade investment and jobs. We have a big deficit reduction program in the UK. Where do we find jobs growth and prosperity? Through bringing down barriers to trade, and more and different trade and investment in all directions.
That includes a big initiative to boost US investment in the UK. Why the US, and why now?
We are the biggest foreign investor in America, and America is the biggest foreign investor in the UK. One million jobs in both countries depend upon the investments created by companies from the other country. If we can, just between us, make the difference of 1 or 2 percent in terms of trade, then we can make quite a material difference to our own economic well being.
The experts tell us if we had a [European Union-United States] Free Trade Agreement, that would add 2 to 3 percent to [economic growth in] the United States and Europe.
And Britain, too?
It would help us out of recession. It would help get Europeans out of recession and help prosperity here.
How much more difficult is it to encourage trade and expansion following a global financial collapse?
We have lost somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of our financial wealth as a result of the collapse of the financial services sector. That's 10-15 percent that’s gone and won’t come back. So we’re rebalancing our economy. It’s one of the reasons that the “prosperity agenda” is so front and center and a big part of our diplomacy.
We still seem to be a country, even though we’ve got problems, that does seem to attract attention from the investment community. We’ve got some of the lowest levels of corporate taxes. We’ve streamlined business procedures. We’re investing in R&D so we have a better trained workforce. And we’ve got much better infrastructure, thanks to the Olympics.
The British government has gone to great lengths to get the word out that the UK is, according to the marketing campaign, “open for business.” You were recently a guest on “The Colbert Report .” How did it go?
You’ve got to be ready for almost anything. In the case of Colbert, he is an extremely able and interesting guy who is playing a role of the kind of right-wing lunatic journalist making fun of the other person. And your role is to kind of do the reality check of the persona that he’s adopting and not try to be the funny guy in response. It’s quite difficult to calibrate.
Were you involved in the recent US presidential election? Which candidate did you support?
The big reason we are here is to promote prosperity and security and look after British interests in the United States. But part of what I’m here for as well is to tell people back at home what’s happening. And there is immense interest in political circles in the UK about American politics. I went to both conventions and was in Colorado for the presidential debate and sat a few rows back from the principals.
The answer to your question is I don’t have the right to support anybody. It’s up to the American people who they choose to be their legislators and their president. My job is to try to ensure, whatever the outcome, that the United Kingdom is well represented and properly plugged into the next administration.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.