The new UK trade policy will be guided by the views of the political leadership. From what we have heard so far, there is general support for free trade among this group. Prime Minister Theresa May has expressed concerns about UK companies being bought by foreigners, but she has also talked of “embracing the opportunities to strike free trade deals with our partners across the globe.” Boris Johnson, the new foreign secretary, has been a strong TTIP proponent (“There is absolutely nothing not to like about the TTIP.”) Secretary for international trade Liam Fox says he is “scoping out” a dozen potential trade deals. Prior to the vote, David Davis called for the UK to step up the negotiation of free trade agreements after Brexit (“The greatest improvements will come if we grasp the opportunities for free trade with both hands.”); and after the vote, the new Brexit minister said, “we can do deals with our trading partners, and we can do them quickly.” And business secretary Sajid Javid has already begun traveling the world seeking trade deals for the UK.
Of course, actual implementation will be carried out by trade specialists, and it is these people who are most important to the future of UK trade policy. The political leadership might be vaguely for free trade and trade deals, but it is the trade experts who understand the nuances. A wide range of issues might be included in a trade agreement, and free trade can be promoted in a variety of ways. It is the experts who will be in the best position to shape the content of the UK’s trade agreements.
As of now, these trade experts are not in place. It has been widely reported that the UK has very few government officials (some have given the figure as 20) capable of conducting a trade negotiation, and will have to hire hundreds of people for this task. This is certainly true, but the difficulty should not be exaggerated. Perhaps the EU really does have 600 trade experts on staff, and maybe Canada has 300, but it is easy to imagine that not all of these people are absolutely necessary. In part, the number needed depends on what the UK plans to be negotiating in a trade agreement. Arguably, as discussed further below, some current trade agreement issues do not need to be in there. Thus, while there has been talk of the UK government’s business department hiring 300 trade specialists, the UK could, conceivably, make do within significantly less than this.
Once the UK trade team is in place, it can begin to formulate a specific vision and model for UK trade policy and agreements. In doing so, trade policy officials should look for input from stakeholders; obviously, it is important to understand what your constituents think. But the key here is not to be unduly influenced by narrow and parochial demands. For example, the Economist noted the following: “[UK] officials will have to survey British industries to discover what protection motorcycle manufacturers and salmon fisheries might require from foreign competition … .” However, while the government should be aware of which domestic industries are demanding protectionism, it does not have to accede to these demands. Rather, it should stand up to interest groups wherever possible. UK motorcycle manufacturers and salmon fisheries might benefit from import protection, but the larger public does not. Lobbying for special protections and favors will no doubt be a part of UK trade policy‐making, as it is everywhere, but a good government will not give in to everything demanded of it. Instead, it should carefully consider the impact of a policy on society as a whole.
Brexit, if it goes ahead, is a chance to start fresh on trade policy, without the encumbrances of decades of interest group influence that most governments have to deal with. UK politicians and policy‐makers have a chance to set up a sensible trade policy from the outset. They will face resistance, of course, but nevertheless it is an opportunity to think about trade policy without all of the baggage that most governments are saddled with.