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Global Britain – Fact or Fiction?

Global Britain

The latest in our series of lunches for CEOs held at the Law Society in London we asked our eminent guests to share their thoughts on ‘Global Britain’ and how they interpret its meaning on the world stage.

By way of context the term ‘Global Britain’ was first used by Theresa May in October 2016 and last year the government announced the creation of a ‘Global Britain Board’ to coordinate activity across departments, agencies and overseas networks. In trading terms, Britain’s exports for the year to November 2018 were £630bn, up £13.9bn on the previous year. While the EU is still our largest export market interestingly it has been in decline, falling from 58% to 44% over the last 10 years.

In addition, the UK is the world’s second largest exporter of services which account for almost half of all our exports with 42% going to the EU and 58% to the rest of the world. We have also embraced e-commerce which has become a major component of world trade. Around 20% of all goods in the UK are bought on-line but perhaps more interestingly, last year one in seven global on-line shoppers bought UK goods.

We asked our guests what they understand by the term ‘Global Britain’ today, what should it mean in future and what government support is needed and also what their respective organisations are planning to do differently to be able to compete on the international stage?

Howard Kerr the CEO for BSI Group shared with us a little about BSI. They were set up to support UK businesses from a commercial perspective to facilitate competitiveness on the global stage. 10 years ago 70% of BSI’s business was within GB, this year 65% will be from outside GB.

He went on to say that the UK has traded internationally for more than 500 years, yet as a country we do not think globally. However, what is often overlooked is the level of ‘Soft Power’ e.g. the strength of the English language and our laws around the world. There are more than 120,000 Chinese undergraduates studying in British universities, these future potential business partners already have a positive leaning towards British people, our brand and our integrity. He went on to stress that ‘Global Britain’ is fine and its intent is good if it means something and is not just another vacuous political slogan.

The UK has traded internationally for more than 500 years but yet as a country we do not think globally.

Neil Gallagher CEO for GLH Hotels picked up on the point that Britain and London in particular, is a trophy destination, however, he suggested that we have made it extraordinarily difficult for non-English speaking tourists to get into the country. Particularly if you are from outside of the EU and not an English speaker, it is very difficult to get into the UK unless you are part of a tour group. Stressing that if we are to promote Britain as a tourist destination then we should be making it easier to enter the country e.g. a visa should be in the language of the tourist and not just in English. Further to this he observes we seem to be very good at exporting talent to other countries but not very good at importing it.

Many British universities are considered to be in the same, top tier category as Singapore and China institutions in their ability to transfer academic research especially technology into businesses.

Duncan Garrood CEO of Ten Entertainment Group, also in leisure and hospitality, confirmed that in his experience GB’s reputation with potential overseas talent is one of hostile uncertainty. Consequently the flow of talent has dried up especially in recent years and in his opinion it is the #1 issue preventing growth. In consequence this is high on the risk register in the hospitality sector as it could prevent businesses from growing. He considered the tag line ‘Global Britain’ to be quite contradictory … “we want to be a global player, but we are wary of people coming to do business with us!”

Scott McMeekin CEO of Dearman is an American citizen and he commented that he found it particularly easy to live and work in GB especially compared to Switzerland and France. Furthermore with regards to British universities he considers them to be in the same top tier category as Singapore and China in their ability to transfer academic research, especially technology, into businesses.

Neil McDermott CEO for Low Carbon Contracts Company advised us that his organisation, as an independent member of BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), could see the levels of investment in science and innovation in GB as being huge giving us a real opportunity to continue to take the lead globally in this area.

We want to be a global player, but we are wary of people coming to do business with us!

Eric Coutts, CEO of Edmond de Rothschild warned us of being overly complacent regarding the extent of our ‘Soft Power’. He observes our influence is declining and Brexit has not helped us in any way. And on the subject of Brexit, he was aware of the dependence on EU funding of a major scientific research institution based in London and the significantly negative consequences entailed by a departure from the EU.

We should not try to be everything to everyone but rather concentrate on a few segments of industry where we can really excel.

The discussion shifted once the B word had been raised and particularly in the context of reputation.

Phil Piddington, Managing Director of Viridor, one of the UK’s leading recycling, renewable energy and waste management businesses, made a very salient point that the world is watching and whatever the outcome from the Brexit negotiations, we will need to re-establish our international reputation and in the UK politics and politicians needs to find a way of preventing damage to our reputation.

He went on to comment on the German and the Japanese way of working in particular when it comes to international agreements. In those countries different / competing organisations come together and bid collectively often offering significant benefits, in particular in the supply chain, leaving GB at a distinct competitive disadvantage.
He concluded on the importance of recycling waste and rather than exporting our waste to countries such as China and Malaysia we should be investing in converting recycled waste and keeping it in this country.

The world is watching and whatever the outcome from the Brexit negotiations, we will need to re-establish our international reputation.

Vivek Banga, Managing Director of Polaris UK suggested GB should not try to be everything to everyone but rather concentrate on a few segments of industry where we can really excel. For instance, the insurance sector, where it is widely recognised that GB excels.

Mark Taylor CEO of InXpress operates in the e-commerce sector moving goods purchased on-line, globally. He believes we should be focusing on higher quality luxury items and not the lower quality cheap products as we have far greater expertise in this area.

Another point made was the need for an attractive tax system – “we must make it easier for people to do business with us.”

In summary, it was interesting to observe that the tone of the discussion developed into one of defending Britain’s position in the world. Particularly around what we can offer the world by way of ‘Soft Power’, through Britain’s ability to shape the preferences of other nations through appeal and attraction. This was viewed to be prevalent in markets as diverse as legal, insurance, R&D, technology and academia.