Many world changing journeys have started from Greenwich in London, a place dissected by and home to the Meridian Line at 0 degrees longitude, the centre of world time (GMT), and graced by the superb classical buildings of the Royal Naval College.
These travellers drew on the most modern map charting and navigational science in the world at that time, and they helped turn Britain into a Global trading power, epitomised here by the fast sailing clipper Cutty Sark that would rush tea back to the U.K. market from India in record times.
Greenwich was an inspired choice then for Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister fresh from an election triumph, to make a really important speech championing free trade.
He said that a post Brexit Britain should be a “Supercharged Champion” of free trade with other countries. So, it is time indeed for the U.K. to remove its restrictive ‘Clark Kent’ glasses and transform in that metaphorical phonebox.
In calling for this Caped Crusader role, he was right to be modest and realistic regarding Britain’s place in the world. As he said: “I don’t wish to exaggerate our influence or our potential influence, but then nor would I minimise the eagerness of our friends around the world to hear once again our independent voice again in free trade negotiations and our objective is to get things started again not just because it is right for the world, but because of course it is right for Britain.”
This is excellent news for Conservatives worldwide. The reality is that the global rules based trading system – the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – is under enormous strain, with the outbreak of trade wars and the ‘court’ of the WTO, its appellate body, down to just one ‘judge’ as a suspicious USA refuses to appoint new appellate body members.
The WTO should not be feared, it should be celebrated. As a Brexiteer fresh from celebrating the achievement of Brexit after decades working for this end, latterly as an MEP, you might think I would share the same reservations as I have with the EU, but no.
Because the WTO is intergovernmental, not supranational – it respects sovereignty and democracy and does not seek to overrule it, as the EU does. Indeed, there is no ‘Commission’ or ‘ruling body’ giving instructions, it is an extraordinary self-governing body based on consent.
Britain is by history and inclination a global free trader. There is a ‘Free Trade Street’ in the heart of the British potteries industry, in Stoke, that exported china all over the world, such as Wedgewood china to Catherine the Great. Our massive cotton mills took raw cotton and supplied the world with textiles. The Clyde built many of the world’s ships.
And, as Boris mentioned, it was British economists who promoted free trade – Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and David Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage – which I was reminded of on a trade mission when Argentine senators in their fine Parliament argued passionately that they have a comparative advantage in beef and did not deserve the EU tariff barriers erected against them. They are simply very good at producing beef.
So, it is entirely natural for the U.K. and a Conservative administration to take a world lead on global trade. Great then to see the U.K. leave the European Union desk at the WTO and sit right alongside the USA – a happy coincidence (even if alphabetical).
For of the 7 largest economies in the world – the G7 – the other 6 are not currently in the best position to take any such lead. The largest, the USA, is currently indulging in trade wars, even if justified in terms of driving fairer deals, China is a mass exporter but a modest importer, Japan is only just opening up its huge market and reducing many hidden barriers, India keeps protectionist tendencies as a developing nation with 150% tariffs on ‘luxury’ goods, whilst France and Germany remain members of the protectionist EU with a Customs Union of nearly 20,000 listed tariffs.
Suitably cloaked up, the U.K., as the world’s sixth largest economy, could indeed fight for free trade again, refresh and reinvigorate its principles, and help drive lower tariffs and more opportunities for all around the world.
The U.K. is about to do its own trade deals again after nearly 50 years of being a bit part player under delegated EU control, able only to speak on areas of sole U.K. interest. Now we are free to speak up for the principles of free trade with vigour and enthusiasm.
Free trade has helped cut global poverty. In 1990, there were 37 percent of the world’s population in absolute poverty – that is now down to less than ten per cent. Conservative free trade works better than Socialist style development aid and handouts is the inference.
But the transformation has run out of steam, world trade itself has become becalmed, especially since the 2008 credit crunch. Britain is ideologically now back in the right position to start stoking those free trade boilers once again and help get the world economy moving.
As with many adventures of the past, this does indeed promise to be a truly exciting, enriching and global journey.