Business and government must work together to defend free trade

Tom Cargill

May 18, 2020

While the principal effort of the UK remains, rightly, fighting the Covid-19 pandemic at home, a new battle is emerging over the future of global trade, and the values which underpin it. The result, perhaps even more than the pandemic itself, will define our future prosperity, security and influence as a country. How we conduct and win that battle needs to be a core driver of our approach to all of these issues in the upcoming integrated review.

There are positive signs that the principal government department responsible for trade is gearing up for the fight. Liz Truss, secretary of state for international trade, recently published a joint article with counterparts from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore calling for the open, resilient supply chains that underpin free trade to be maintained. This was important at a time when some influential countries are promoting increased protectionism, using the pandemic as a reason to do so.

The commencement of formal discussions between the UK and US over a free trade agreement, and a similar announcement regarding talks with Japan, is also an important opportunity to promote and project the shared benefits of free trade to the peoples of two countries on the frontline of the growing global competition for influence.

This growing campaign is particularly important to the UK, because trade, investment and exports are critical to our prosperity, and therefore our security. In past decades, the UK has not performed as well on exports as our rivals and competitors, particularly to the emerging markets that will likely dominate the 21st Century economically.

As we emerge into the post-coronavirus world, the UK will need to export more to maintain the high standards of living which many British citizens take for granted. Trade also sits at the heart of global influence and soft power, as business links so often underpin the wider cultural, sporting and political relationships that bind countries together. In the ever hotter competition for hearts and minds around the world, the UK is well placed, but risks resting on its laurels as other countries accelerate their international trade, cultural and sporting links.

The UK has an enviable trade record in many respects, and there is a proven demand for the high quality, high value, reliable goods and services our country excels at producing. However, we need to do even more to encourage and support our businesses to export, particularly to the fast-growing markets of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. This will require a revitalised export infrastructure to help UK business identify and win opportunities in complex markets, and harbour real risks as well as opportunities.

Often the private sector simply needs government to stay out of the way. However, current circumstances require an unprecedented partnership between business and government to boost exports and the free trade agenda that supports them.

The stresses on the global trading system, the undermining of level playing field provisions by some countries, combined with the need to supercharge exports post-coronavirus demand unprecedented energy, focus and collaboration. Trade needs to sit at the heart of our fightback both domestically and internationally, and be a core focus of our strategic thinking.


Written by Tom Cargill

Tom Cargill is CEO of British Expertise.


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