All right, perhaps a slight exaggeration in the title – without wishing to give out spoilers already, yesterday’s speech by Liz Truss was of her usual standard, ie appallingly abysmal, and going over every single line might kill me. Besides, the Gov.uk website from which I’m pulling the text has about half the speech removed for political content anyhow, so how about this: I’ll cover the most important bits. I’ll decode it all so you know what this government is really thinking about trade at this moment in time.
For make no mistake, this was an important speech from the International Trade Secretary in that it lays bare a great deal of current Brexiteer thinking. That most of that is delusional in nature goes without saying, and is what you’ll see as I start to lay into the text. Which I’m going to do now. Promise. I’m stalling in that way you do before ripping off a plaster – you know it’s going to hurt and you should probably get it over with and on with the rest of your life, but the thought of the pain paralyses you. Okay, here we go. Liz Truss. I can do this.
‘It’s fantastic to be here this afternoon at Policy Exchange to talk about trade and to talk about Britain’s future as an open, enterprising economy where everybody shares the benefits of trade. And in order to recover from Covid, we need to make sure that we have thriving businesses who are seizing the opportunities of the future and creating jobs. At the Department for International Trade, we are determined to make sure that we enable those opportunities. That’s why we are building more successful trade routes, especially in digital and services, we’re driving an exports-led recovery and we’re bringing investment to every part of the UK.‘
I’ll give Truss some credit for laying out her stall early here. The meat of this speech is all present in the opening, in fact: just because we have created huge trade barriers with all of our nearest neighbours does not mean this is a protectionist government. No, no, no sir. In fact, we want the economic recovery from Covid to be exports-led and if that doesn’t work, it isn’t the fault of Brexit but rather, that British businesses aren’t ‘seizing the opportunities of the future’ we have so carefully paved the way for. Don’t blame the government when Brexit doesn’t work out. Blame the British business community who just couldn’t live in the new world.
‘Our trade strategy is grounded in the fundamental changes happening across the world; namely, that we are seeing a growth in the world’s middle class, and two-thirds of the world’s middle-class will be in Asia by 2030. Secondly, that we know that digital trade is becoming the dominant form of trade. And finally we can see a huge rise in demand for the kind of high-value industries that the UK excels in – we’re expecting that to double over the next decade.’
Truss is trying to say here in her own inimitable way that the trade of the future is Asian trade. This is just a riff on the ‘shackled to a corpse’ meme so beloved of Brexiteers – Europe is dying, Asia is the rising force, that simple. In other words, stop complaining about large trade barriers we have erected with an entire continent only 22 miles away and realise that there are going to be shedloads of Asians to sell to in the coming decades that will more than make up for this fact.
‘Understandably, after nearly fifty years of being in the protectionist EU, we lost our trade muscle memory that we’d built up as a sovereign trading nation. But we’ve been building it back: negotiating our own trade deals, defending our key industries and getting out on the front foot. Some people in the Twittersphere and beyond find this rather unsettling. But my view is now is the time that we need to dump the baggage of the previous debates and look forward to the future of trade, not the past. Many of these naysayers have thinly veiled vested interests to protect. They want the status quo rather than a dynamic future.’
Of course, the ‘protectionist EU’. That thing whose whole purpose is to create an open market across the whole of Europe, that protectionist EU. The idea here is try and make you forget about the immense level of protectionism Brexit has created because hey, the EU was protectionist anyhow, right? This paragraph even contains the ultimate in Brexiteer double think: having railed on an on about how trading post-Brexit Britain is going to be the freest thing ever for several minutes, Truss slips in the line, ‘defending our key industries’. What this means is: yes, okay, we’ll be protectionist, but it will be a special kind of protectionism, of the kind only something as wonderful as Brexit could provide.
This kind of thinking is what makes debating Brexit with Leavers so impossible. You start off by saying that Brexit has actually made Britain more protectionist than when we were in the EU. They respond by saying something along the lines of, ‘Good! We’re taking care of our own now! Wages will go up!’. You then point out that so will inflation, so everything will be more expensive and they say, ‘No, not with all of these new trade deals we’re striking! We’ll get better deals now that we’re out of the protectionist EU!’. There is no way to argue against this in any meaningful sense since the person you’re trying to debate with is making two arguments which happen to be the opposite of each other at the same time. Post-Brexit Britain can be ultra-protectionist and super-duper-free trading at the same time! You just have to believe hard enough.
‘There are some people here in Britain who have said if goods are not produced exactly according to the way they’re produced in Britain, we shouldn’t be importing them. But we’ve got to look at the logical results of those types of attitudes. It would mean British businesses losing out on overseas government contracts. It would mean British consumers paying higher prices in shops and it would mean huge swathes of developing countries losing out on their potential to become more successful.’
This one is easy to decode: if you’re worried about dumping and the lowering of food standards, you have every right to be. If we stick to ‘old ways of thinking’ on this, business will lose out. Brexit cut us off from just in time goods from Europe, so the only way to make up for that is to let countries sell whatever the hell they like in Britain.
By extending and deepening our trade routes, we can buy more of what we need at competitive prices. We are also broadening our range of reliable suppliers. That’s what the Trans-Pacific Partnership is all about. We currently import £28 billion of goods from those areas, but by joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we can do it on reliable terms.
Translation: we’re betting all the post-Brexit chips on the Trans-Pacific Partnership somehow replacing free trade with our nearest neighbours. The American trade deal, which Truss never mentions in her speech, is being killed off as an idea, slowly and quietly. Don’t worry though – Asian trade will save us. Really, it will.
The rest of the speech mostly backs up “ideas” I’ve already highlighted. There is a lot of guff about ‘digital trade’ without any real detail. So, I’ll just close with this:
I want Britain to become a nation of exporters again, and it’s not insurmountable, we did export £600 billion in goods and services last year. But only one in ten British businesses export. In Germany and Denmark, twice as many businesses export per capita, and businesses in Slovenia are three times as likely to export their goods.
Jeez, Liz, I wonder why Germany, Slovenia and Denmark have so many export led businesses. Maybe there is a common thing that ties them all together? Perhaps your department should look into that.