Wales needs to break away from Westminster’s abysmal approach to global trade
Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru Arfon MP
As the Trade Bill gets its second reading in the House of Commons today, the Covid-19 crisis has proven that we need to take a new approach to trade policy for our country. We must consider not only our international priorities and our deep commitment to our environment, but also the interests of our communities, businesses and institutions. To achieve this, trade policy must come closer to home. There must be a greater role for our Parliament, to make it our trade policy, more resilient and with a stronger commitments to climate action.
The last four years have shown that the British State is not strong, not stable, often not even half-competent. Growing social, economic and constitutional divisions at home, stirred up with brutal glee by Tory fundamentalists, have been matched by an increase in disruption and belligerence abroad. So, the government has fallen back on that old reliable (but misplaced) British exceptionalism. It won’t touch us, we’re British. And even if it does, our bulldog spirit will pull us through. Add to this the surrender of policy to traditional Tory xenophobia, a see-sawing stance on China and the White House’s pivot from Europe towards Asia, and a thorough underestimation of the EU’s new-found unity and discipline, and you see how they got us into this fine mess.
Despite four years of miserable failure in negotiations with the EU and the destruction it’s causing, the economic and political elite in Westminster still clings to its one-size-fits-all policy, the size that fits the south-east of England. It’s this approach which has created the greatest regional inequalities in Europe and has amplified divisions between the nations of the UK. And it has mismanaged the positive and empowering potential of international trade by deliberately creating winners and losers.
We are a trading nation, exporting a wide variety of goods and services, ranging from world-renowned Welsh lamb to passenger aircraft wings, from cars to semiconductors. With the value of Welsh goods exports alone totalling £17.7 billion for the year ending June 2019, international trade is the lifeblood of our economy, allowing Welsh firms, organisations and public bodies to access a global market that draws in investment, income and jobs.
Yet the British government, despite its abysmal record on negotiating with the EU (to which Wales exported over £10 billion of goods and services in 2019) denies our Parliament the right to approve trade deals struck in our name. Our function it seems is merely to try to manage the outcomes of these trade deals. No matter that their provisions are agreed in secret, despite growing signs the British government is lurching desperately into a bad trade deal with the US, with no deal with the EU, we are onlookers. They refuse to create legally binding trade standards to protect production and quality in areas such as agriculture. We have to lump it.
Our Parliament must have a say if we are to have any hope of negotiating trade deals that address the growing gulf in our society, that respond to and encourage Welsh businesses to export, and ensure that our domestic economy can recover from Covid-19. Anything other than equal say is further proof that the British State has learnt nothing from the divisions of the last four years and is willfully ignoring their causes.
We must look ahead and learn lessons from Covid-19. The just-in-time delivery model has fundamental flaws. Britain’s dependence on cheap imports and the manipulation of trade as a hostile political tool has left it weaker and friendless. Clearly, we should encourage home production and strengthen our supply systems. And there should be no more of the blithe know-all assurances that we can just butcher whole sectors of the economy and buy from abroad. That will no longer wash.
This is not to oppose international trade, to the contrary. We demand the power to develop a more resilient and sustainable trade strategy that will enable us to grow our trading capacities. And a strategy that encourages buying locally produced goods and services to support our local economy, a ‘Buy local’ campaign, whilst engaging more sustainably and sensitively with the international market.
We must also take stronger measures to ensure trade does not come at the cost of the natural world by building into trade agreements conditions relating to ecosystem protection and climate targets. Together with a greater focus on building a domestic circular economy to reduce demand for imported raw materials, measures such as these could reduce significantly the carbon footprint of Welsh trade.
Even as Covid-19 continues to haunt our society and the repercussions of the virus grow, we must learn from the crisis so that we can rebuild effectively and quickly. We can refashion trade to achieve our ambitions, from powering a more prosperous economy to minimising and reducing our impact on the natural world. This ambition starts with engaging with the communities, businesses and institutions of our country to build a better, more resilient future.
International trade will remain a cornerstone of our economic model. But together we now have an unexpected opportunity to change it for the better, for good.