'Business is a diplomatic issue', says Hague

'Commercial diplomacy': the Government's favourite buzzword. At the CBI conference, Wiliam Hague said embassies should be exporters' greatest assets.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
It’s not often William Hague is asked to appear before businesses, and at the CBI conference this afternoon, he didn’t seem keen, giving less a speech and more a list of accomplishments, presented at machine-gun speed. But, from what MT could catch, in the Government’s quest to boost export, business has become a diplomatic issue. Hague echoed an assertion by David Cameron this morning that ‘commercial diplomacy has become the foreign office’s number one priority’. ‘Our future prosperity depends on us looking further afield,’ said Hague. Widening British exporters’ field of influence is no mean feat.

Hague was keen to point out that the diplomatic service has been put on high alert re. helping out exporters. Just as Cameron said this morning that businesses should be able make use of services offered by embassies, Hague pointed out that increasingly, those working in British embassies around the world are being given training in commercial diplomacy. The implication was that it’s now down to businesses to make use of the services - although we’d be interested to find out just how many potential exporters are aware that all they need to do to enter new markets is ring up the local ambassador. Presumably that includes complimentary Ferrero Rocher.

Naturally, Hague wanted to push the Foreign Office’s commercial achievements. Much has been made of the Government’s succession of trade delegations: among its notable successes are a deal in Indonesia for Premier Oil, oil fields in Qatar for Centrica, and the acquisition of a baidu brewer in China by Diageo. A new free trade deal with South Korea could, apparently, be worth £500m for UK businesses.

So far, so specific. But £500m is small change, compared with the estimated £20bn the CBI reckons exporters could add to the economy. And Hague was more cautious when it came to the question of how the Government is making conditions easier for British exporters. We need a ‘new kind of growth’, he said. ‘Our Government’s message to all governments should be that there’s no answer without growth’. It’s pretty obvious that new trade rules should apply across the board, but the foreign secretary implied that persuading other governments to co-operate is easier said than done.

Still, he clearly gets it: Hague quoted 19th century foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, who said that ‘It is the business of government to open and secure the road for the merchants.’ And given that stats by the CBI suggest the UK’s largest export economies are the ones currently worst afflicted by the eurozone debt crisis, that’s rarely been more true.

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