Dr Andrew Murrison is the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Morocco and Tunisia, and is MP for South West Wiltshire. These views are his own.
After the Lisbon Treaty, it was inevitable that Britain’s legendary mercantile facility would start to wither. International trade was subcontracted to the EU, and successive governments assumed that Brussels was busy forging profitable trade deals from which all member states would benefit. Well, Brussels was busy all right, but not with free trade. Its fonctionnaires were building a customs union – a very poor fit with Britain’s entrepreneurial, free-trading mojo.
The art of commercial negotiation having become a redundant skill set at Whitehall, it’s little wonder that ministers are now struggling to find Britons to match our EU interlocutors, and are poorly placed to mount the kind of global operation necessary to regain Britain’s pre-eminence in trade and commerce.
On reaching the Americas in 1519, Hernán Cortés burnt his ships. Pointing up the beach, he told his astonished crew that, since retreating to Europe was no longer an option, the only way was forward to the possibilities he anticipated in the New World.
Britain now stands on the brink of its Cortés moment. When Article 50 is triggered there will be no way back. Brexit Britain’s success will hinge not just on whatever WTO-plus deal we can broker with Brussels, but on our ability to trade freely worldwide in markets, including small ones.
And those small markets matter, because they contain the dynamic and upwardly mobile, and because collectively they will represent a huge slice of the world’s commercial action in the decades ahead. During the 1970s, the UK’s industrial strategy promoted big industry and little else. It failed. Unlike its predecessors, the nascent Industrial Strategy, whose green paper was published on Monday, appears to be resisting the lure of the big. The plan in its final form must recognise the potential of small markets and strategise access to them. Brexit success is a thousand small deals with small companies in small countries.
What can government do? After all, business generally finds a way without its direct involvement. Indeed, the capacity of government and its emissaries to land new contracts in big mature markets is finite, but their involvement can easily be a deal clincher in smaller, centralised economies whose captains often seek the assurance that goes with the State’s imprimatur.
Theresa May approaches her own Cortés moment as commercial traveller, not conquistador, and her crew must be salesmen – or be left on the beach. Their potential to catalyse the free and fair trade with small and medium-sized economies on which Brexit success will depend is considerable.
So, firstly, trade must be a standing item on every ministerial agenda. No corner of government from Transport to Health, from Defence to Education is excepted.
Secondly, more man hours are needed to support bilateral export negotiations, including the diversion and recruitment of personnel with appropriate skill sets and potential to the Department for International Trade.
Thirdly, sector-specific interest groups of potential exporters should be supported by government, using models like City UK.
Fourthly, the unassuaged appetite for the English language overseas must be addressed building on the great work of the British Council.
Finally, we have great entrepreneurs, but all SMEs with export potential, regardless of their attitude to risk, must be made aware of the extent of support already available from UK Embassies and from UK Export Finance which is so widely admired as a vehicle for unlocking commercial opportunity. Together they give muscle and a competitive sharp elbow to UK businesses accustomed to operating overseas and to those exporting for the first time.