Last Wednesday was the 216th anniversary of the birth of one of my heroes, Richard Cobden, a key figure in the fight against the Corn Laws in the 1840s and one of the forefathers of the free trade movement in this country.
Cobden believed passionately in the promise of frictionless commerce between nations. Were he alive now, he would be enthused by the idea of an optimistic, outward-looking global Britain determined to strike ambitious new free trade agreements that could open new frontiers for our businesses and deliver greater prosperity for our people.
He would have also understood the significance of today, which marks the start of talks I am leading to secure a new trade deal with Japan, one of our closest friends and a country that shares our commitment to open markets and a strong rules-based international system.
Our deal will be based on the present EU-Japan agreement and will retain its existing benefits. But it will aim to go further and faster in some areas, particularly in digital trade, and show the world what it is possible for Britain to achieve outside the EU.
In the 1980s and early 1990s our two countries co-operated deeply in areas such as the automotive and electronics industries. The policies of the Thatcher government attracted the likes of Sony, Nissan and Toyota to our shores, delivering better and higher paying jobs for our people and lasting benefits to our economy.
We have a similar opportunity now with digital trade. The UK has the potential to be a tech superpower. The industry already employs nearly 3 million people, and the impact of coronavirus means that digital tech adoption has accelerated hugely.
That is why we aim to strike an agreement with Japan that encourages greater digital trade between our two countries, attracts greater investment into the UK from Japan’s leading digital industry, and addresses trade barriers that will make it easier for our world-class tech and digitally-savvy firms to export to Japan.
In addition to more British beef served in restaurants in Kobe, and more people strutting the streets of Yokohama and Osaka wearing Burberry and Barbour, we also want our digital SMEs selling apps to Japanese gamers and data services to Japanese businesses.
As well as establishing stronger bilateral trading ties, there is also a wider strategic significance to a UK-Japan deal. Japan is the largest economy in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that represents 13 per cent of global GDP and includes some of the biggest and fastest-growing economies in the world.
A deal with Japan would help to pave the way towards UK membership, which in turn would help open up new trading opportunities for our businesses across the Asia-Pacific region and help to push forward the idea of a global single market in digital trade in which the UK holds a prominent leadership position.
So the potential prize is enormous, particularly given the present disruption caused by coronavirus. The pandemic has hurt our respective economies, reduced demand for goods and services from businesses, and destroyed livelihoods while threatening many more. I know from talking to people in business just how anxious and uncertain a time this is.
Free trade agreements are not a panacea to all our problems, but they are a powerful way to deliver growth and prosperity at a time when we urgently need it.
As we sit down at the negotiating table, I will drive a hard bargain for British businesses — including for digital industries — and for British consumers, and for a deal that expands our choice and ambition, cuts red tape and reduces trade barriers, providing UK businesses with the opportunities they deserve.
This is a critical juncture in British history and our trading relationships with the rest of the world. As international trade secretary, I am determined that we strike ambitious deals not just with Japan, but with our friends from the US, New Zealand and Australia too, and deliver on the promise of Brexit by creating a more outward-looking Britain.
We are a country full of promise, potential and world-class businesses. Now is the time to make the pivot to Asia-Pacific and provide British firms with the market access and competitive edge they need to thrive.