Friday 10 March 2017 4:59 am

Prioritise Commonwealth trade post Brexit: It’s what UK businesses want

Lord Digby Jones is a crossbench peer and former director general of the CBI.

The UK’s vote to leave the EU presents British businesses, large and small, with significant export opportunities with the rest of the world – and in particular with Commonwealth countries. In fact, UK businesses are calling for much closer ties and the government must listen.

Polling commissioned by The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) and PLMR asked UK business leaders which Commonwealth nations the government should prioritise as the most important trading partners post-Brexit. They emphatically backed greater Commonwealth engagement. Australia is the number one priority country with 90 per cent of firms, followed jointly by Canada and Singapore with 82 per cent. New Zealand and India came in third and fourth, while South Africa came fifth with 70 per cent of business support.

The government must get its act together. It is trade which will increase living standards and create extra revenue for better public services. This prosperity will not come from our European neighbours or our transatlantic cousins alone.

During a recent private breakfast I chaired which included a number of leading Commonwealth high commissioners and businesses operating in the UK, I learned, to my disappointment, that the British government has only met a particular African Commonwealth country for conversations over international aid money, not British trade and investment opportunities. This undermines not just the growth of the country in question but also dents UK businesses’ chances to sell their wares.

Read more: Back of the queue? No, Britain’s Commonwealth allies will welcome Brexit

During my early days as UK trade minister in 2007, I understood my role to be selling my country around the world. I asked the civil servants, “What about the Commonwealth?” They replied blankly, “What about it?” The vacant stares didn’t end there. I was determined to be the first trade minister to visit New Zealand since 1973. I was thwarted in every attempt, to such an extent that I said that I would pay my own way to ensure that this happened. I doubt civil service thinking has changed much since then.

During my New Zealand visit, I told the audience that I support increased efforts to boost Commonwealth trade because of the ultimate sacrifice given by millions of Commonwealth men during the First and Second World Wars in which my own family suffered, as well as a genuine need to heal the raw sense of abandonment felt by Commonwealth nations when the UK joined the EEC in the 1970s. The UK should start with a humble apology for its 1973 behaviour and an expression of real, meaningful willingness to “make it work for everyone” this time around.

Other notable findings from the polling show that over 50 per cent of British businesses prioritise Malaysia as a key market, over 40 per cent do so for Kenya, and almost a third highlight the Caribbean. This means that the government focus should not solely be on usual highlighted nations such as Australia and Canada.

Read more: Post-Brexit trade deals will not be plain sailing

Interestingly, there is a regional divide. Despite Scotland’s proud historical achievements in and imprint on Commonwealth nations, its current business leaders do not prioritise these nations as highly as their UK counterparts. Half the number of business leaders in Scotland highlight South Africa as their counterparts in London, while Canada is Scotland’s top priority.

My local Midlands area shows the importance of India, with 93 per cent prioritising closer ties, 20 points higher than the UK overall total. Meanwhile, London businesses prioritise Canada first and South Africa second. The capital’s positive diversity was also reflected in strong mentions for Kenya and Caribbean nations in post-Brexit trade deals.

With this in mind, the UK should utilise its large and growing Commonwealth diaspora for increased exports in goods and services. The UK must engage every person in the national contact book to ensure that Brexit is a success, not just for its citizens but for the wider Commonwealth. Trade is the only vehicle to do so.

Read more: Why Britain’s free movement future lies in the Commonwealth

The government should also understand the necessity of getting visa liberalisation policy right for Commonwealth businessmen. In particular, we need a more favourable visitor visa for India akin to the recent UK deal with China – for which the RCS made a strong case in a recent report backed by the likes of BA, Heathrow, and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Visas are a sticking point for emerging nations in free trade discussions. Therefore, offering small but symbolic reforms will go a long way towards aiding Britain’s free trade objectives as articulated by our Prime Minister.

There is an expectation from UK business that its government will prioritise Commonwealth trade. The inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ meeting, which began yesterday in London, presents an opportunity to start getting it right. I believe that my most recent successor responsible for international trade, Dr Liam Fox, understands this. Now he must act on it.

Finally, I am optimistic – particularly with the Commonwealth. The government should start saying “We are up for this!” and take the Commonwealth seriously on trade. It is clear that the country’s businesses are.