The UK Trade Forum is a place for debate, for education and maybe even for humour, in the evolving world of UK trade policy. The forum was conceived by a group of trade policy specialists who have become frustrated at the dubious quality of interventions in the public debate over UK trade, from apparently “instant experts”. In the sprawling world of trade agreements which can cover anything and everything from the quantity of bananas allowed through customs to whether a government has implemented the right environmental legislation, even we are nervous of being described as experts. So much we know, so much we don’t. And then it appears someone else read an article and became an instant authority…
Not that we’re bitter, after all it was one trade specialist who coined the phrase ‘relevant by accident’ to refer to his surprise at suddenly becoming high profile – without changing his job or mode of operation. The Presidency of Donald Trump and the preparation of the UK to leave the EU have raised the profile of trade policy issues, but they have been growing in salience for some time. In the US the Trans-Pacific Partnership has proven enormously controversial, inciting serious questions about whether it would benefit or harm US businesses and consumer standards. Rather ironically, the same controversy has been brewing in the EU over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the USA.
The End of History was not, of course, supposed to be like this. We were all supposed to welcome globalisation and trade agreements. Deep down though, those who had studied history had some concerns. The repeal of the UK’s protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 split the conservative party for a generation. The Smoots-Hawley tariffs imposed by the US in 1930 were said to have been a major factor in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Free trade has never been truly complete: even supposedly trade liberal countries like Norway and Switzerland protect their agriculture. Heavily.
Actually, trade should be controversial. There are good reasons why foreign companies should be able to take Governments to independent tribunals if they are discriminated against, for they may get no real justice otherwise. And there are good reasons why they shouldn’t, such as asking why companies should get this right over trade Unions or consumers. We could debate Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) for hours, and some do.
As a trade policy maker, you have to decide whether and how to open procurement markets – in the NHS perhaps. Whether to align regulations with another country, and if so, with whom. Whether to insist that other countries restrict state aid to their companies. For how long workers can temporarily work in the country. Whether to accept chickens washed in chlorine. Or lettuce salads washed in chlorine. The kind of forms required at customs, and how much may be charged for checks.
All of this and more is part of modern trade agreements. Because all of this and more is part of trade. It is complicated stuff, but absolutely necessary. Often the only way to ensure our Scotch whisky can be sold overseas without tariffs or other forms of domestic protection is to guarantee it through a trade agreement, in which the other country also gains something.
These are the debates we want to see about the UK’s future trade policy. We want to challenge the instant experts – those who would cry UK desolation or the future of streets paved with gold – with the knowledge of what happens in trade talks, what other countries have experienced, what went right, what went wrong, and what we can learn from all of this.
Please join us, then, in learning, debating, and hopefully helping find the best solutions for the most significant trade problems facing the United Kingdom today.