21 March 2018

Brexit can pave the way for a northern renaissance

By Callum Crozier and Simon Clarke MP

Since Victorian times, the North of England has been synonymous with the “making of things”; the doers, the strivers, the everyday hard workers – not just the talkers.

The North has a proud history as pioneers across industries. From rail, with George Stephenson, an engineer hailing from Northumberland, pioneering the now world-standard rail gauge; manufacturing, with Teesside leading the steel and iron industrial revolution of the 1800s until the late 1900s, to mining, with the North East producing a quarter of Britain’s coal through the late 1800s and 1900s.

The North East was truly the beating heart of the UK economy, and key elements of this legacy live on for us to build on today. The North East is currently the only net exporting region of England and has a lot to boast about. While its export of goods as a percentage of GVA were the highest of all English regions at 29 per cent, Middlesbrough, one of the North East’s largest towns, is home to the most integrated industrial cluster in the United Kingdom, with 60 per cent of the UK’s energy-intensive industry concentrated here.

But there is a sadder story to tell. Since the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the North of England, and specifically the North East, has suffered dramatically – partly from emerging challenges overseas, and partly as a result of the protectionist economic policies of an over-politicised supranational organisation.

One of the key arguments deployed by the Remain campaign in the North East was the statistic that 55 per cent of the region’s exports are to EU nations. This statistic is accurate, and not surprising, because the protectionist trade regulations of the EU have for years constricted the UK’s ability to export to non-EU nations. In effect, the EU is a closed-shop of nations with a discriminatory trade outlook towards non-members internationally. This is bad for free trade, bad for Britain, and bad for the “makers of things” in the North of England.

On leaving the EU, a bright future is ahead for the North of England, one very similar to our past as a manufacturing capital with global exports, on which the North of England literally paved the roads, laid the rails and built the foundations of the world.

Now it’s time to use our ports in the same way. The North East is ideally placed to benefit from a free port in the post-Brexit era and to become the birthplace of the Great North Free Port. This is a key benefit of Brexit, leaving the EU and Customs Union. This is because we can establish free trade zones around our strong port infrastructure across the North – starting with Teesport. If successful, a Great North Free Port would almost immediately create 1,300 jobs directly and (conservatively) add tens of millions to the local economy.

The opportunities are huge and can restore the North to its glorious past as the makers, creators and exporters. This is summed up no better than the words of the Liberal politician Hugh Reid: “The iron of Eston [Teesside] has diffused itself all over the world. It furnishes the railways of the world; it runs by Neapolitan and papal dungeons; it startles the bandit in his haunt in Cicilia; it crosses over the plains of Africa; it stretches over the plains of India. It has crept out of the Cleveland Hills where it has slept since Roman days, and now like a strong and invincible serpent, coils itself around the world.”

Those words succinctly demonstrate the global relationship which the North East long embraced up until the final third of the 20th century. It is shameful that successive governments allowed the EU to curb our global trade with their inward-looking policies that have now left our exports with the rest of the world at a mere 45 per cent, despite 80-90 per cent of economic growth taking place outside the borders of the EU.

The North of England and its economic power will prosper in the post-Brexit world, as we form strong trade relationships and export our home-manufactured goods across the globe.

Callum Crozier is Policy Director at Policy North; Simon Clarke is MP for Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland.