For too long, the UK market has been an easy touch for foreign, and particularly European, producers, helping to generate one of the largest trade deficits in goods of any advanced economy in the world. Put simply, we buy a lot more produce from them than they do from us.

Ever since the turn of the century, however, it’s just got bigger and bigger. Fortunately, this widening gap in goods has been partially offset by a growing surplus in services, particularly high value business and financial services.

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Photo by Pixabay

Even so, the UK economy manages to generate a consistently large current account deficit, making it highly dependent on inflows of foreign capital to prevent things tipping over into a fully blown balance of payments crisis of the sort that used to plague the nation in the Sixties and Seventies.

For a multitude of reasons, it would therefore be nice if we made more stuff. With its levelling up agenda, and its determination to make the economy more self-reliant and resilient, the Government thinks so too. Might Brexit provide such an opportunity? UK/EU third country import tariffs for selected products

Source: The Online Trade Tariff/ Access2Markets

Some background. It’s hard to put an exact date on when the UK lost the plot as a manufacturing nation, but roughly speaking it coincided with Britain’s accession to Europe’s common market.

That’s not to attribute cause as such to membership of the EU. Grown fat and lazy on once captive imperial markets, large parts of Britain’s manufacturing base had long since become internationally uncompetitive.

But those markets were increasingly shutting us out in their own drives for self-sufficiency. That’s why the UK joined the supposed alternative of the European Economic Community; sadly, many British firms found the adjustment to this more demanding, competitive landscape difficult, or even impossible.

The harsh medicine of the early Thatcher years sealed their fate.

But let’s not exaggerate here. In point of fact, Britain produces more manufactured goods in absolute terms today than ever. It’s just that service sectors have grown by far more.

Relative to GDP, manufacturing output has been falling for 50 years or more, and is today just a third of its previous level. In itself, this is no bad thing. Thanks to globalisation and technological advances, manufactured goods prices have been falling rapidly relative to others.

Border
Post-Brexit border controls have created delays at ports

Britain’s comparative advantage in services, where prices have been racing ahead relative to goods, has therefore stood the nation in good stead, enabling citizens to buy cheaply from abroad what they no longer produce at home.

Yet the transition has also been a socially destructive one. Once proud manufacturing regions have been rendered all but obsolete. We have, in a sense, traded our dignity for cheap foreign pap and a life of perpetual service. In some respects, we’ve only ourselves to blame.

Britain’s markets are more open to foreign invasion than almost any other country on the planet. UK consumers are also seemingly far less loyal to national brands than their European peers. “Buy British”, and “I’m backing Britain” campaigns have fallen on deaf ears. We like the choice and price of what our relatively unprotected borders give us.

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‘It’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.’
     – Goldman Sachs boss David Solomon on home working.

We will soon see a full return to normal, and business should prepare as such now. Most of us avoided the inane press conferences last year as much for our sanity as for our need to get on with running our businesses regardless. However, there was an exciting slip of honesty from an open, ungeared comment by Boris Johnson this week. Asked if he thought city centres needed adaption for a new normal of people working from home, the PM said he thought people are keen to get back to seeing people under normal circumstances.

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Restrictions should be dropped “completely” once the top nine priority groups have been vaccinated, a senior Conservative MP has said as he warns ministers against “changing the goal posts”. 

Mark Harper, former chief whip and chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), said he feared the goal posts for reopening society were being shifted beyond the original focus of NHS pressure and daily fatalities. 

“I think what people are worried about is you then keep hearing other things creeping into the argument about the rate of infection and other things keep being thrown into the debate which sounds like it’s changing the goal posts,” he told the BBC’s World at One. 

“I think we should keep focused on protecting the vulnerable, reducing deaths and hospitalisations and the pressure on the health service – and those are the two things I think that need to drive opening up.”

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Of all the charges made against Brexiteers, the notion that we ‘don’t understand the modern world’ is the one that some Remainers have most often returned to; their equivalent of the boxer’s stinging jab that relentlessly wears down an opponent. In a global system increasingly dominated by a handful of big players with huge populations and land mass – the US, China, India, Russia – being a medium-sized nation in Europe without the umbrella of the EU was supposed to be a mug’s game.

In the European Parliament, that arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt would often refer to the countries of Europe as ‘dwarfs’ who needed to band together to compete in such a world. We all remember Barack Obama trotting out a similar thesis during our referendum campaign, delighting David Cameron’s Downing Street team by saying that Britain would be at the ‘back of the queue’ in trade talks because he would look to deal with ‘a big bloc, the European Union’ first.

When Boris Johnson decided last spring to stay out of the European Union’s Covid vaccine programme out came the jab again from the usual suspects. The Prime Minister was accused of being ready to sacrifice British lives on the altar of a hopelessly outdated Little England ideology – ‘silly Brexit games,’ said Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey. The EU’s massive combined purchasing-power was going to leave us scrabbling about for crumbs.

The Brexiteer answer to such charges has always been that, in fact, there are many advantages to acting as an independent nation state – quicker decision-making processes, the ability to pursue national priorities, more accountability to the public. These arguments have often been summed up by deployment of the word ‘nimble’.

Well, ‘nimble’ has just beaten ‘big bloc’ hands down on the most important post-Brexit issue Britain has yet faced and is likely to face for many months – the provision of life-saving and economy-saving vaccines.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has compounded its hideously embarrassing, ultra-bureaucratic failure to secure its own supplies by resorting to bullying, tantrums and ultimately full-on meltdown in the form of its triggering (and subsequent u-turn) of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to implement a hard border.

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