Liam Fox is Secretary of State for International Trade, President of the Board of Trade and MP for North Somerset.
During last year’s referendum campaign, the public were inundated with various doomsday predictions about the UK’s post-Brexit economy.
But, despite the Brexit gloom, the referendum did nothing to erode the significant strengths of the UK economy, of which there are many.
Bloomberg recently declared that “London’s place as a leading financial centre looks safe”, highlighting the competitive advantage that the City continues to have over its rivals. What’s more, we remain the top European destination for foreign direct investment.
Global tech giants, including Facebook and Google, have confirmed huge expansions in this country, designed to tap into our highly-skilled work force and cutting edge R&D capabilities.
UK manufacturing firms’ order books are at a 29-year high, with surging demand across the world for high-quality British goods. A host of firms are even ‘re-shoring’; moving operations and jobs back into this country from abroad.
This is hardly indicative of a sinking economy. Yet many of those who predicted a collapse have been allowed to continue an overly pessimistic narrative that Britain has suffered ‘economic damage’, or that companies are scrambling for the exit.
Not only is this contrary to the evidence, but it is short-sighted and introspective, at a time when we should be looking outward, to embrace the opportunities that Brexit brings.
Our decision to leave the European Union gives us the opportunity to build on our intrinsic economic strength, to capitalise on our expertise and look beyond the borders of Europe.
The 27 members of the European Union remain a vital export market, but their proportional importance to the UK has been declining for decades, from 52 per cent in 2005, to just under 44 per cent today.
Our largest single export partner, the United States, accounts for almost one-fifth of our overseas sales, more than Germany and France combined.
This trade is freely conducted under existing WTO rules, without the benefit of any kind of free trade agreement.
Even so, later this month, we will begin this country’s formal trade working group with the United States. This is just one of ten working groups that we have established with countries including Australia, China and New Zealand to explore the best ways of progressing our trade and investment relationships.
Ministers from my department have travelled to over 50 countries, and I cannot overstate the appetite that exists for British products, or the enthusiasm that exists among smaller nations for the chance to connect to one of the world’s largest economies.
Free trade can seem like an abstract concept. And indeed the benefits it brings are often described in statistics and graphs. Yet these figures translate into a material improvement in the lives of real people.
Trade and inward investment creates jobs and support our local communities and industry. Trade improves our living standards and makes our money go further. It increases the choice and quality of the goods we see in the shops and the services we enjoy.
Trade is a power for good across the world. Even if, for a moment, we ignore the significant social and humanitarian benefits that free trade has brought to the developing world, it would still be indispensable from a purely economic standpoint. During the 1990s, per capita income grew three times faster in developing countries that lowered trade barriers, compared to those who did not.
This effect is not confined to the developing world. Analysis by the OECD has indicated that, for all nations, a ten per cent increase in economic openness is associated with a four per cent increase in real income per head of population.
In our ambition to be the world’s foremost champion of free trade, our own history is on our side. For more than a century, our country was the commercial capital of the world – amongst the first nations to unilaterally recognise the benefits of free trade and economic liberty.
Move to the present day, and our economy is strong and our products are in demand. From our food and drink industry, to our technological expertise, to our financial services, people across the world buy British because they see the Union Flag as a kite-mark of quality.
The case for free and open trade is strong, and there are almost limitless opportunities for British businesses to expand into every corner of the world, projecting this country’s prosperity far into the future.
Yet we cannot achieve these ambitions if we can only operate within the parameters set by the European Union. As the Prime Minister and this Government has always said, full membership of the customs union is not an option. We want Britain to be able to negotiate our own trade agreements with old and new allies across the globe. That means leaving the customs union and establishing a trade policy tailored for our business, our economy, and our citizens.
Then, we can equip Britain to face the challenges of the coming century.
If we are to do so, then we must broaden our horizons. Globalisation and new technology have eliminated the constraints of geography and time, and we have a golden opportunity to shape our own trade policy to match the new economic reality.
My Department for International Trade is responsible for delivering this new trade policy. We’re a rapidly growing department, with more than 3,100 people now spread across the world, beating the drum for British trade.
Just last month I welcomed Crawford Falconer, the internationally recognised trade expert, to his appointment as the Department’s Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser. Crawford has the expertise and skills to complement our ever-growing trade policy team, bringing over 25 years of public service in trade and foreign affairs.
As well as shaping our future trading relationships, my department is helping British companies to export to the world and meet the huge demand for our goods and services that exists right now. We champion our industries abroad, match businesses to projects overseas, and offer practical and financial support to any UK business that is looking to start exporting, or expand their overseas operations.
Last year, the British people delivered a once in a generation opportunity to fundamentally recast this nation’s role. If we are to deliver for them, and for their children, then we must have the vital tool of an independent trade policy.
The opportunities are out there, and we are making great strides towards building a global, free trading Britain. But it is an ambition we cannot achieve from inside the customs union.
History is on our side. Now is the time to reclaim the narrative, and embrace a vision of Britain that will deliver for all.