The UK is a maritime nation. It is a fact that we must not forget as we forge a strategy to increase manufacturing, exports, and international trade, and to secure our long term prosperity in a post-Brexit world.
Some 95 per cent of the nation’s trade in goods move by sea, and our ports are the key link providing British businesses with access to global markets.
The Port of Southampton is the UK’s number one export port, handling exports worth more than £40 billion every year; it is also the UK’s number one port for exports to countries outside the EU. Manufacturers such as JLR and JCB rely on the port to ship their products overseas.
The Port of Dover provides essential access to markets in Europe, handing trade worth some £119 billion or 17 per cent of the UK’s trade in goods.
These are impressive statistics that shine a light on just how important ports are for the economy. Indeed, that’s also true for the wider maritime sector, which contributes £22.2 billion to GDP and supports some 500,000 jobs.
The UK remains a prominent centre for maritime services such as law, insurance, finance, and ship broking, as well as advanced manufacturing, technology and research. For example, Southampton is home to the National Oceanography Centre and the University of Southampton’s Marine and Maritime Institute, both engaged in world-leading research and training.
But awareness of the vital job that ports do, as well as the contribution of the wider maritime sector, is all too low. That’s why I welcome the creation of the ‘Maritime Nation’ campaign to promote awareness of ports and the maritime sector.
Maritime Nation partners are already working to help improve and build new trading relationships, hosting a CBI-backed event at the Foreign Office on 1 November to support the Department for International Trade’s ‘Exporting is GREAT’ campaign.
The event will bring together leading UK exporters, including those in the maritime sector, and commercial representatives from a range of overseas embassies, including the U.S. and Canada.
The Government’s ambition is to make a success of Brexit. It is an ambition we must all now share, and our ports and maritime sector have a fundamental role to play in realising that ambition. Maritime Nation will help remind us of our reliance on the sea for trade and the significant potential of our maritime manufacturing and services to drive exports.
If Government is to focus on increasing exports and trade it must focus on ports and maritime commerce. However, the importance of maritime to ensuring post-Brexit success arguably goes even deeper than many might appreciate.
Our proud maritime history shows that an outward-looking attitude, pioneering and enterprising, has been the key to our success in driving trade and creating prosperity. Maritime embodies many of the values we need to embrace in order to succeed as a global trading power; a positive global outlook and a determination to seize new trading opportunities across the world.
Britain needs to be a confident maritime nation if it is to be a confident trading nation.
The Royal Navy is an important part of that story. Today, the Royal Navy is much smaller in size compared to its heyday. The reasons for this are many and varied, though perhaps it in part reflects a decline in our confidence as a maritime nation; a confidence we now need to recover both in practical and cultural terms.
That’s not to say Britain should rule the waves again, simply that we may have gone too far in failing to appreciate the symbolic as well as strategic importance of the Royal Navy both at home and abroad. As Sir William Blackstone observed in the 18th century;
“The Royal Navy of England hath ever been its greatest defence and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength, the floating bulwark of this island.”
If we can build a stronger Royal Navy, this will not only help provide a welcome boost to our marine manufacturing industries and ensure our trading interests are properly protected; it can also help re-build our confidence as a maritime nation and consequently help instil those vital outward-looking and enterprising values.
Educating our young people about our maritime history, the importance of our ports and maritime industries, and celebrating our maritime traditions also all have a key role to play in such a project.
In Southampton, every year hundreds attend the ‘Sea Pie Supper’, an expression of the strong traditions and identity of a distinguished maritime city. But a maritime identity is something we can all share across this island; it is a defining part of the wider British identity, albeit one too many have lost sight of.
Indeed, this year Associated British Ports’ Sea Shanty reception makes a welcome return to party conference in Birmingham, a city a long way from the sea but nonetheless reliant on the sea, as elsewhere, to connect its economy to global markets.
Rebuilding Britain as a great maritime nation is an ambitious and long term project and it needs to cut across every facet of policy, from transport and trade to education and culture. However, the journey needs to begin now.
In the short term, let’s make sure that maritime is front and centre of our strategy to boost manufacturing, international trade, and exports, including making sure the ports that facilitate our trade with the rest of the world have efficient transport connections and are able to grow.
Over the longer term we need to raise the bar much higher. Our ports and maritime industries have been the backbone of building Britain’s status as a global trading power. But they are not just the foundation of our trade and prosperity in the past; they are the foundation of our trade and prosperity in the future.