For hundreds of years the UK has reached out to markets in every corner of the globe, strengthening our economy as well as the economies of our partners and allies.
While other priorities have changed, our commitment to free trade has remained the foundation for British economic and foreign policy. And yet, before July 2016, we had no dedicated Department for International Trade.
A strange state of affairs with a simple cause: our membership of the European Union, which restricted our ability to act independently from Brussels.
In the EU referendum the British public voted to restore our sovereignty, and that will require the restoration of a rich tradition: to make Britain an independent global trading nation once again. Since its creation, the Department of International Trade has been busy turning that democratic mandate into economic reality.
It has helped secure more foreign direct investment (FDI) projects than ever before, supported thousands of businesses to export their goods and services, and started work on scoping the potential for future free trade agreements.
Today, at the midway point of the countdown triggered by Article 50, the prospect of an independent trade policy is within sight for the first time in more than 40 years. During the implementation period that follows, we will be able to negotiate and sign new trade deals that are ready to come into force, so businesses get the certainty they need.
Once again we will be able to set the terms of trade arrangements so they are tailored to the unique strengths of the UK economy, and push the boundaries of what trade can achieve for every part of the UK.
As we leave the EU we will build a new, deep and special partnership with the EU, which includes a comprehensive free trade agreement in the interests of all sides.
But we also want to take advantage of the way global trade is changing. The International Monetary Fund predicts that 90 per cent of global growth in the coming years will come from outside the EU. Global trade, which had been growing more slowly than global GDP over the past few years, is now picking up again and looks set to be robust throughout 2018.
New technologies, in both physical and virtual infrastructure, are producing truly global products and services in a world where geographical boundaries matter much less than before. And for the first time, our services exports – where the UK excels – are outstripping goods export to non-EU countries.
Leaving the single market and customs union is a golden opportunity for the UK to capitalise on this trend, re-think concepts of global trade and take advantage of the progress and pace of change in the world economy.
Global trade is evolving with increasing complexity, with technological development driving innovations and creating disruption in sectors such as artificial intelligence, big data, cloud computing, biotechnology and robotics.
It’s not only businesses that need to adapt to these changes – governments must also be dynamic to ensure their countries do not get left behind.
The UK is already well-placed in this regard, and after Brexit we will look to position ourselves at the forefront of this new technological age when setting the terms of our own independent trade policy, outside the European Union.
That is the big prize after 2019: the ability to develop our economy in areas where we have a competitive advantage. Take financial services, where again the UK is a world leader. A Britain committed to striking new free trade agreements across the globe can help not only in opening up the services trade, but in driving up international standards of regulation and financial stability.
At the same time we will use our restored independent seat to promote further trade liberalisation under the World Trade Organisation, such as digital trade, where most of the major rules have not changed much for the past 20 years.
I often hear people say Brexit will expose an unprepared UK to the harsh climate of globalisation. This is far too downbeat. For the past 40 years the UK has not been hiding from global trade. Instead we have been continuously evolving to reflect global market conditions, and the enduring strength of our economy proves it. Investment and employment are at record levels, exports are rising and the trade deficit is narrowing – by £12.8bn in the last annual figures.
The process of modernisation has resulted in the UK having one of the most open and free economies in the world, one that other countries want to emulate. The size of our domestic market is big draw; so too is the regulatory and business environment, and a workforce skilled in design and services – if you want evidence just look at the record on tech investment, or the fact we create a new tech company every hour.
These qualities will provide leverage when striking new trade deals, and I’ve no doubt the world will be banging on our door to do business. With an independent trade policy the UK can thrive on the world stage, confident in our abilities and with the freedom and flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing world. That is our goal.