Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry’s highlight of the General Election campaign was when she was asked about prospects for post-Brexit trade with Commonwealth countries, and completely messed up her response. “The truth is the majority of our trade takes place with the European Union,” she announced (this is, in fact, not true). “And things like our food industry, you can’t export it to Australia – it will go off.”
Obviously this is not correct. Ask anyone who’s ever had New Zealand lamb, for instance – they will have found it delicious, even after it has travelled so far. Thornberry tried to clarify herself, insisting she meant processed foods which “have to be sold pretty immediately,” like “breaded chicken breasts” – but one suspects even they could withstand 24 hours of refrigeration. Some foodstuffs might well be unsuited for export to Australia, but they will hardly take up a significant portion of our post-Brexit exports. And in any case, there are almost 200 countries in the world which are nearer to Britain than Australia.
The underlying basis of Thornberry’s outburst is an outdated view of world trade – very outdated. New Zealand has been exporting lamb to Britain for 135 years. What Thornberry does not seem to appreciate is the fact distance has never been less of a barrier to global trade. While the first shipment of New Zealand lamb in 1882 would have taken several weeks to arrive in Britain, now it can, if necessary, be flown here in just over a day. The losses, in both time and money, from trading across long distances have been massively reduced.
Technological advances have made it easier than ever to do business over long distances, from holding conferences to sharing files. The hassle of laying the groundwork for trading across the world has been cut significantly, encouraging businesses around the world to look more and more globally.
These changes have taken place over many decades, and they will continue to take place. New innovations in transport and connectivity will make distance even less of a barrier to trade in the future than it is now. Nobody, therefore, should be surprised by the fact the proportion of British exports which go to the rest of the EU has dropped from 55% in 2002 to just 44% now.
As the rest of the world continues to outpace Europe in economic growth, this trend will only continue. In just a few years’ time, more distant countries like China, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria will take up considerably larger portions of the world economy than they do now. It is crucial for Britain to seize the initiative and make the most of these growing trading opportunities as soon as possible.
Distance still matters, of course. Nobody is suggesting it is just as easy to trade with Australia as it is with France or Norway, even now. However, it matters less than it did in decades past. Distance is no longer the prohibitive barrier Emily Thornberry seems to think it is. While the EU will always be a major trade partner for Britain, we must not hold back in building a Global Britain, and looking further afield for many more benefits to our economy.
As part of the EU’s Customs Union – which some ex-Remainers are advocating once again in the wake of the General Election – Britain is currently unable to make its own free trade agreements with countries around the world. It is forced to negotiate as part of the EU’s protectionist bloc instead. This has held us back, and as we Get Britain Out of the EU and its Customs Union, we will finally be able to realise the potential of trading across the world. Emily Thornberry might be unconvinced, but the time is ripe for a truly Global Great Britain to emerge.