Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 3:28 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, in many ways, the situation confronting the Government of the United Kingdom today is similar to that confronting the Government in 1621 with the formation of the Council for Trade and Plantations. The mandate given then was:

“To take into their consideration the true causes of the decay of trade and scarcity of coyne and to consult the means for the removing of these inconveniences”.

Now, there has been a growing tendency to dismiss the growth of trade and the balance of trade as matters of reduced importance to the British economy. The great Board of Trade exists in name only and the Department of Trade and Industry had the word “trade” ignominiously expunged from its title and was replaced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—a most confusing title. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry also held the historic title of President of the Board of Trade, and those Cabinet Ministers who have held this important job have usually been replaced within a year. These and other constant changes in the structure have led to a lack of continuity. This in turn has led to ignorance and a lack of understanding of the vital role that international trade has played and must play in the creation of economic growth and prosperity.

British international trade was historically described as “exports and imports” and concerned mainly the export and import of manufactures and materials. These were later known as “visible exports” and are now described as “trade in goods”. In the 1970s the importance of the growth of the service industry sector emerged as a part-replacement for the decline of the United Kingdom as a manufacturing nation. This sector became known as “invisible exports” and now is called “trade in services”.

I am not sure why I am standing here today. I think it is something to do with Australia. My great-grandfather was the first Lord Mayor of Melbourne. It all happened when, as Scots, we ran out of money and we could not find enough sheep to knock off and flog in the market. Someone said, “These sheep are available somewhere with a much better climate, where the wool grows better. We cannot remember the name of the place but it is a big blob at the bottom right of the map”. So we set up a shipping line and found that with chilling machinery, instead of just taking immigrants out to Australia we could bring back sheep, frozen. That worked extraordinarily well for a while, until we were stuck off South Africa. The ship would not work and there were all these frozen sheep beginning to melt. With the intelligence of those of a different religion, we realised that certain religions liked lamb and mutton much better. So we took them ashore and allowed them to melt a bit and rather pretended, but did not say anything, that they had just been slaughtered because no one would have believed that they had come from Australia—first of all, no one knew where Australia was. This went on and we then found that instead of sheep we were taking workers back.

I had a little moment before I knew that our family had lost its shipping line in the Tasman Sea when out of the blue I got a letter from a bishop who had sent me a little parcel of three stone jars. The letter said, “At 92, my diving days are over. This was the last bit of kit I could find from the wreck of the ‘Brahmin’, which belonged to your family”—I did not know we had owned a ship. But I kept them and this gives me some sort of good feeling.

When we come down to the practical moment of dealing with the balance of trade, exports and imports, and the value of sterling, in many ways the situation is the same as that which confronted the Government in 1621, as I said.

I wonder why we do not teach geography in schools any more—it seems there is a shortage—and why people cannot read a map or a chart. I suffer from one really great disadvantage. I love charts. When I joined your Lordships’ House I knew I was unimportant and did not realise quite how unimportant I was until I was summoned during the nationalisation of the shipbuilding industry and asked—because my family was associated with ships and I must know something about it—if I would please speak. I did, rather nervously, and some people from the Department of Transport very kindly came to see me afterwards and said, “We would like to invite you for a drink and to give you a little donation”. I went to see them and they pulled out a long box, and in it was a rolled-up chart, with lots of red on it all over the place, and little black dots, too. These little black dots, I was told, were British ships at sea or in harbour. The red on it was British and this was where we were, right the way around the world. It was amazing at that time but we forgot our shipping.

If we bother to say, “What can we all do to help?”, first of all, the relationships with the Commonwealth are pretty good. As I mentioned, the same situation confronted the Government in 1621. I am a great fan of the Commonwealth. I always wanted to be a good cricketer but I was not; I was a wicket-keeper. I found that that pays you back pretty hard 25 years later when you find you cannot really walk because your joints have gone. Then of course a bright Australian surgeon comes and says, “We’ll give you a new knee, mate. It’s not very difficult these days”. So I am in the difficult position of wondering whether I should sit down now—which I will—and think about my knee.