26 July 2023

Covid, Brexit and the Anglosphere

Frameworks for Future Trade and Economic Growth

Richard D Simmons and Nigel Culkin
2022, Emerald Publishing, 216 pages,
ISBN 9781803826905

Reviewer: Vicky Pryce

This is a great little book – aimed as a teach-in for undergraduates and others on what ‘free trade’ means (lots of different things it seems and you can take your pick!) and how, if done correctly, it could stimulate entrepreneurship and encourage growth. It should also be required reading for anyone making grandiose claims on how Global Britain will allow the UK to enjoy the promised post-Brexit economic dividend.

It turns out that the definition of free trade actually matters and how you approach trade in practice makes a huge difference to the outcome. And how – and whether– innovation is encouraged by the type of trade infrastructure that develops is key. There could in fact be times, as we know from history, when  protecting infant industries for a while may have made sense – and indeed for some developing economies may still make sense.

An innovation in the book itself is to have a series of short sections spread across the chapters in numbered ‘boxes’ with case studies from history which are not only very informative but also at times quite entertaining. Box 11 tells the story of how in the early 1980s France, trying to stop the import of VHS video recorders that it perceived were damaging its own electronics industry, used an administrative order to direct all such shipments through the small town of Poitiers for inspection of the validity of the Certificates of Origin that accompanied the imported goods in question. The post was poorly manned, on purpose it is suggested, and with the checking process, including needing to dismantle the recorders to check all components as part of the inspection, taking absolute ages, imports of video recorders were soon ’ reduced to a trickle’!  

This was a good example of trade protectionism through the back door. But at the end of the day what all countries are looking for is growth. Freeing up trade should play a role. What this book tries to investigate is whether any combination of current alignments which the UK is trying to set up post-Brexit, including being more involved in a stronger political and economic ‘Anglosphere’ ,  may compensate for the fact that trading with Europe has now become more difficult.  

The current UK emphasis has indeed been on rolling over all EU deals with third countries post-Brexit and signing trade deals with the hope that they will all make a difference to growth.  This includes the recent membership of the wider Indo-Pacific trade partnership, entered into after this book was written. But the government’s own calculations suggest that the benefits to GDP from all these new deals will be small and, in any case, will take a long time to come through. And as regards the ‘Anglosphere’, although there have been new deals with Australia and New Zealand, the hoped-for free trade deal with the U.S. doesn’t look likely any time soon.

But what is more worrying is that the world has changed. The authors caution against a ‘naive commitment to unbridled free trade and laissez-faire’, as the potential benefits are ‘predicated on the blatantly unrealistic assumptions of perfect competition, no risk and no uncertainty in a world of no technical change, without wars and without global power politics’. Well, we have been warned!