Our over-reliance on imports is harming the recovery

It is new markets, not existing ones, that are key to securing long-term economic growth for the UK

For all the disagreement about how to fix the UK economy, there are a few truths about the roots of the present slump that most people accept. In the good years leading up to the crisis, Britain lived beyond its collective means, and built an economy that couldn’t last. Part of this excess was fuelled by cheap, irresponsible credit; part of it was built on the UK’s huge and long-standing trade gap. Since 1997, the UK has consistently imported far more than it exported, creating a serious imbalance that paved the way for the financial crash.

Our research, published today, provides new insights into how the UK economy became so unbalanced. Over the last 15 years, the UK has performed extremely poorly by not providing the products which consumers increasingly want to buy. Consumers appetites for certain products has proved insatiable; in 2009 we bought over eight times more consumer electronics and twice as much clothing as we did in 1997. The problem is that most of this growth was met through an increase in imports, and not domestic production.

Many observers see patterns such as these and assume they are driven by well-established economic arguments about international competitiveness, with the high cost of production in the UK preventing more manufacturing taking place here. Whilst this is undoubtedly true of some low cost products - clothing springs to mind - this line of reasoning often falls down, even for low-tech industries. Recent research showed that the UK now imports more than half of its bacon from the Netherlands and Denmark, where wages in meat processing are twice the level here. Even more concerning is our performance in high-tech sectors such as consumer electronics, where the high value of the goods produced tends to override cost concerns. The UK is an anomaly amongst other advanced economies in being extremely weak in these markets.

What is most worrying, however, is the sheer scale of this shift, and the fact that increases in our imports of consumer products have not been compensated by a large enough rise in exports. Take clothing, consumer electronics and vehicles. Together our poor trade performance in these product markets accounts for more than 40 per cent of our goods deficit. This suggests our difficulty in providing consumers with enough of the things they want to buy, even in just a few key markets, can and is acting as a large drag on the UK economy. We have some outstanding consumer facing businesses in the UK, such as Unilever and Dyson. The problem is we don’t have enough of them to reverse the persistent UK trade problem.

So what should the government be doing to put this right? Part of the response should be to try and increase exports of those things that we are good at, including business services like consultancy and architecture. But that will only take us so far - we also need a greater emphasis on trying to foster the emerging consumer markets of the future, and on making the UK a world leader in these areas. This isn’t just about inventing more technologies – it is about how we use them. The UK’s world-class science base is excellent at generating new ideas, but businesses need far more support to overcome the barriers they face in turning these technologies into high-growth markets.

Take 3D printing as an example. The ability to print personalised goods on demand has real potential for the UK economy in the future, but there are many state-controlled levers that need to be co-ordinated to make it actually work in real life. Without the right regulations to foster consumer and business confidence, without standards to make software and materials compatible with each other, without the necessary physical and electronic infrastructure, 3D printing will remain a niche market in the UK, and will probably take off in another country first. We need to get these things right, and quickly, if the UK wants to be a world-leader in 3D printing – and these principles will apply to many other emerging technologies over the next decade.

Policymakers already lay out and co-ordinate their long-term strategy for many established sectors. Just yesterday the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published their strategic vision for UK aerospace, for instance. But we want to see this approach applied to those new and innovative markets that have the greatest potential for exports and domestic demand. We would argue that it is the new markets, not the existing ones, that are key to securing long-term economic growth for the UK.

A port in Hamburg. Britain must cut back on its import addiction, according to a new report from the Work Foundation. Photograph: Getty Images

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”