The UK has long depended on heavy flows of investment from abroad to make up for the weaknesses in its own corporate and financial institutions. In 2015 the UK ran a deficit in its external trade in goods and services of 96 billion pounds ($146 billion in 2015), or 5.2 percent of GDP, the largest percentage deficit in postwar British historyand by far the largest of any of the G-7 group of industrialized economies. By comparison, the US ran a deficit of 2.6 percent of GDP, while Germany earned a surplus of 8.3 percent, Japan a surplus of 3.6 percent, and France broke even. In the memorable words of Mark Carney, the Canadian-born Governor of the Bank of England, the UK must depend on “the kindness of strangers” to remedy its trade gap.
The reason for this unusual dependency is that for decades the UK has been unable to produce enough goods that the rest of the world wants to buy. According to WTO statistics, between 1980 and 2011 the UK’s share of global manufacturing exports was halved, from 5.41 percent to 2.59 percent, so that by 2011, according to UN statistics, the dollar value of UK merchandise exports at $511 billion was not far off the level of Belgium’s at $472 billion, an economy with one six the UK’s population, (and not included in the Belgian figures, the value of German exports routed through Belgium ports).
Looking at export industries such as IT products, automobiles, machine tools, and precision instruments, all strongly dependent on advanced R&D and employee skills at all levels, the UK’s performance looks even worse. The period of 2005-2011 is especially revealing because it includes both the years of the Great Recession and the collapse of trade between the advanced industrial economies, but also years in which their trade with China and other BRIC economies such as India and Brazil grew rapidly. Since one of the chief claims of the Brexit campaigners has been that there are now these exciting new markets in BRIC countries waiting for British exporters to conquer, it is worth looking at how British companies actually performed during those years.