Independence brings fresh opportunity as Maritime Britain goes Global

Introduction

Richard Clayton, the Maritime Foundation

The United Kingdom left the European Union on 31 January 2021, bringing 47 years of membership to an end. Brexit opened the way for an independent trade policy for the first time since 1973. But this is not the first time the UK has sought a global role with maritime at its heart: there have been various iterations of this theme over several centuries.

The question now is, how will Global Maritime Britain develop in the modern era? What lessons can be taken from the past into the future, and how well equipped is the UK to fight its independent corner on the world stage? Crucially, what support does Britain’s maritime sector require from national government and, conversely, what backing can the maritime sector offer a government striving to build new bridges and forge new trade alliances?

The UK has entered a very different trading environment. When negotiating a trade deal alongside 27 partners, compromises inevitably had to be made. No longer. This should offer real advantage when negotiating with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, and Mexico. In fact, deals are currently in fledgling form with 69 countries, aggregating about £744 billion.

Looking further ahead, with the centre of economic and demographic gravity likely to tilt even further towards Asia, it makes sense for the UK government to focus more attention there. Negotiations are under way to link with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership, which includes Singapore and Vietnam.

The UK did not lose its appetite for export trade even when its biggest market was on the doorstep. According to the Department for International Trade (DIT), the UK ranks sixth in the world for exports, which account for 6.5 million jobs. However, only one in ten companies exports overseas. DIT would like that to be closer to one company in three.

However, it’s one thing to negotiate the bare bones of a trade agreement, it’s quite another to reach consensus on the fine detail. Prospective partners often erect barriers to protect their own businesses, and these can be hard to break down. Indeed, the UK’s preference for trade liberalisation often meets stiff resistance.

Fresh impetus was provided this year in an announcement from HM government of eight new freeports to act as regional hubs for global trade and investment, promote regional regeneration and job creation, and be ‘hotbeds of innovation.’ These include the ports of Felixstowe/Harwich, Humber region, Liverpool City region, Plymouth, the Solent, the Thames, and Teesside.

The Maritime Foundation has a simple aim: to promote awareness of the UK’s dependence on the sea and seafarers. As this edition of Maritime magazine shows, there’s a great deal of business to be done by British shipping, indeed most of it will be done on the world stage. So, understanding trade policy is vital to investment.

The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which was unveiled by HM government in April this year, reveals the depth and breadth of the UK’s maritime capability. It focuses on marine environment protection and sustainable exploitation of marine resources, and stresses the importance of, among others, the fishing sector and environmental NGOs in securing a sustainable ocean. The review also identifies the role to be played by the Royal Navy in proactively defending progressive values around the globe as being key to the UK’s security and prosperity.

Meanwhile, shorter-term developments have been keeping maritime leaders awake at night. Speaking on behalf of the fishers, Jim Portus of the South Western Fish Producers’ Organisation, calls in this magazine for a government willing to tackle head-on the thorny issue of abuse of the British flag by quota-hoppers ‘and ensure that British fish is caught by British fishermen on vessels proudly flying the Red Ensign.’ Elsewhere, Prof Basil Germond of Lancaster University writes: ‘Global Britain can only succeed if enough resources are devoted to its maritime dimension, from the Royal Navy to civilian seapower assets.’

Orbital Marine’s SR2000 floating tidal turbine after launch in Dundee. Photo: Orbital Marine

In November, the UK hosts the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. Among the many events taking place on the sidelines of the main conference is the International Chamber of Shipping’s ‘Shaping the future of shipping’ discussion. This aims to seek the high-level political support needed to ensure progress of shipping’s decarbonisation activities. Maritime magazine contributes to this discussion with an exploration of some of the opportunities presented by British and British-linked businesses in hydrogen, tidal energy, and wind energy.

Human and climatic sustainability

But we mustn’t overlook the human element, at sea and onshore. Recruitment, training, and career development for a changing maritime world has risen up the agenda. Developing clean energy will require physicists, chemists, biologists, data analysts, and systems engineers, as well as mariners. Global Maritime Britain will inevitably borrow skills and capabilities from across the sectors, from fishing and yachting to coastal security, safety, and environmental protection.

None of the issues touched on here are unique. Wind propulsion is not new, rivalry has been a feature of fishing for centuries, geopolitical challenge was an inevitable consequence of having an empire. Britain’s maritime heritage teaches that this sector is dynamic. It calls for resolutions to immediate problems and convinces us that tomorrow’s concerns will need fresh solutions.

Climate change, however, is of an altogether different dimension. Maritime is part of the problem and it is part of the solution, just as it is a solution to tackling geopolitical challenges, to protecting the ocean, safeguarding workers, and achieving a more sustainable world. If it is to be successful, Global Maritime Britain will leverage the sea and seafaring to keep the lights on around the world, to keep people fed, to keep them safe, and to generate prosperity in a way that respects the oceans and natural habitats.