Thursday 17 November 2016 7:00 pm

Let’s leverage Britain’s heritage as a great trading nation to lead the world in free trade again

Britain has a trading legacy that few countries can rival, for hundreds of years sitting at the heart of global maritime trade, with our ports serving as a marketplace for the world.

To many, this is just a legacy, alongside other traditional British hallmarks such as bowler hats and red phone boxes. But the truth is that trade has not lessened in importance, it has just changed its shape.

Much is made of the UK’s long-running trade deficit, and there’s no denying that we import considerably more in goods than we export. But the part of the picture that is less often mentioned is our consistent surplus in services, the dominant part of our economy. They may be less tangible, but we should be no less proud our world-beating financial, legal, IT, advertising and professional services exports.

The Department for International Trade (DIT) has an important – and not unchallenging – task ahead in boosting both goods and services exports. The department has been set up to support British businesses and to help them realise their global ambitions, as well as getting the message out to other countries that the UK is open for business and rife with investment opportunities.

Read more: Britain needs a culture shift if it's going to lead the world on free trade

All organisations benefit from outside perspectives, so it is very welcome that international trade secretary Liam Fox has sought to bolster the expertise already in the department with experience from the worlds of business, politics and finance. I will be very proud to play my part as one of four new non-executive board members who will sit on the DIT Departmental Board as it strives to boost exports, encourage investment, and forge new trading relationships with the world.

As I see it, the department symbolises the quest to bring the best of British past and align it with the best of our future.

I was born in Johannesburg and have lived in many countries over the course of my career, but I have always felt myself drawn back to the UK. Studying at Oxford University in the 1970s, and being fortunate enough to work in both Buckingham Palace and Downing Street over the years, I am very aware of Britain’s great past. But we cannot rest upon our laurels, or take for granted our future success.

I remember the 70s all too well, how protectionism and looking inwards held Britain back. I’m passionate that free trade is best for growth, with the City, in particular, thriving because of the UK’s status as an open trading nation. Free trade encourages growth, builds on our country’s prosperity and cements our position as global leaders across a range of sectors. There’s never been a better time for us to get behind free trade, to marry the legacy of British trading confidence with our innovative and flourishing marketplace.

Read more: Britain has a moral duty to lead the world on free trade

When I started as director general of the Institute of Directors, I was well aware the organisation needed to move with changing times. We work in a “disrupter” economy, with ways of working and doing business constantly evolving, and we need to keep up. We had to attract younger entrepreneurs and startups. Talking of bowler hats and pinstripes, one of the first things I did was to overhaul our dress code – a requirement many found too exclusive.

The international trade secretary wants to push forward and embrace change, while also reclaiming our status as a major global trader. This is a tough balance to strike, but alongside the other non-executive board members I hope to help the department do away with restrictive barriers and move with the times, as well as keeping the things that work.

People talk of the “Westminster bubble”, but I’m keen that the views of companies, employees and the wider community are heard. The non-executives will bring experiences from different countries and different sectors, to ensure the department is truly outward-looking. For my part, I plan to feed in the experiences of the thousands of IoD members across the country I have heard from in the last five years, the types of small and medium sized companies on whom our trade success will be built.

That way, we can build a department that is not only outward-looking but world-leading.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.