Liam Fox is International Trade Secretary, and is MP for North Somerset.
Yesterday and today I am hosting the inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ Meeting, an event that brings together politicians, officials and policymakers from over 20 Commonwealth nations.
It is a testament to the strength of the Commonwealth that so many of its countries will be represented at this landmark meeting, during which we will discuss the opportunities for trade, investment, and enhanced friendship that lie ahead.
We are meeting at a time of great change for the United Kingdom. As we begin the process of leaving the European Union, there will be challenges ahead, yet also unprecedented opportunities. For the first time in over 40 years, we will have our own, independent trade policy, allowing us to renew bonds of trade and commerce with our partners across the globe. As the Chancellor said yesterday, we are opening a new chapter in our country’s history.
This country has long been associated with both the concept and practice of free trade. We are the nation of Adam Smith and David Ricardo; a small island on the edge of Europe that became a leader of world trade. It is the Government’s ambition to reclaim that crown, building a truly global Britain. Our Commonwealth partners are integral to this vision.
Many of the Commonwealth nations have witnessed the transformations that trade can bring. We may be economically diverse, but the free flows of goods and resources that are the hallmark of an interdependent global economy have impacted the lives of billions of people, as prices fall and new products become available.
Yet free trade has also been the means by which we have liberated millions of our fellow human beings from poverty. Across the world, the last three decades have seen the single greatest decrease in material deprivation in all of history.
I have long believed that free trade is the most powerful tool at our disposal to help those in need around the world. As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union and recasts its place in the world, we will proudly carry the standard of free and open trade as a badge of honour; a commitment to spread prosperity to all mankind.
Yet trade cannot be an isolated policy objective, and commercial freedoms do not exist in a political vacuum. A free and open trading environment is only part of a continuum that extends through security to political and social stability.
Trade can only truly flourish where there is good education, a developed financial sector and sound governance. Here, the diversity of the Commonwealth is its strength. Trade is never a zero sum game, and closer commercial ties between the Commonwealth nations will not only spread prosperity, but knowledge, research and expertise as well.
Sadly, the benefits of free trade all too often go unrecognized, and a rising chorus of protectionism threatens to drown out the case for a free and open global trading system.
Protectionism may be politically seductive, yet it is economically damaging and socially regressive, with tariff costs falling most heavily on the poorest in society, those whose standard of living relies on the competitive pricing of a global market.
Those nations who have long benefited from free trade must not pull up the drawbridge and deny those same benefits to others. All nations of the Commonwealth have the opportunity to work together, championing free trade to improve the lives of our citizens.
At the same time, we must ensure that we have the tools in place to help and protect those who have not materially benefitted from the global age. Every system has its limitations, and it is only by recognising and alleviating the inequalities of globalisation that we can build a fairer, more prosperous world.
The Commonwealth’s 52 member states include some of the largest and richest countries on earth, as well as some of the smallest and least developed.
It is time to lead the world on a new path, building upon our shared experience, friendship and values to embrace economic and commercial freedoms and spread prosperity to every corner of the globe.
The Commonwealth may be a product of history, but we are ready, and willing, to meet the challenges of the future.