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UK Goods Trade Down £44 Billion in Five Years – but Government Still Tries to Sell it as ‘Cause for Celebration and Renewed Pride’

When you exclude precious metals that offer “no real economic benefit to the UK” the figures look much different

A placard asking if Brexit is worth it. Photo: Zefrog / Alamy
Brexit was meant to make trade easier and boost the UK economy. It never did. Photo: Zefrog / Alamy

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Last month, the House of Commons debated the UK’s trade performance. The then Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch, said the latest trade data, “should give everyone in this House cause for celebration and renewed pride in our country.”

Those promised sunny uplants, according to Badenoch, had been scaled; the UK’s post-Brexit trade was up and the Conservatives thanked for it.

“According to the latest UN statistics, the UK, outside the EU, became the world’s fourth biggest exporter in 2022,” she claimed. “Exports are now 2% above 2018 when adjusted for inflation.”

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To many, it was proof Brexiteers were right. But, as always seems to be the case with such things, you just have to dig a little to show that not all that glitters is actually gold. 

Or, in this case, it is.

The detail in this case is found in two areas: inflation and precious metals. When you take into account the real term rise in inflation and take out the London-based trade of ‘empty calorie’ export goods (ones that don’t really benefit the British economy) such as gold trading, things look very different indeed.


First off is inflation. According to the Bank of England, £100 in 2018 was worth roughly £125 in 2023. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows UK goods exports increasing by 7% between 2018 and 2023. But when you take into account inflation, it actually showed an 8.3% decrease – down some £30 billion.

This is, admittedly, just goods exports: service exports are up and can be examined another time. But even this drop of 8.3% of export goods needs further examination.

Fool’s Gold

Especially the line that is marked by the government as ‘unspecified’.

For instance, one of the nations which has seen one the biggest post-2018 percentage rise in UK exports has been Switzerland. There, UK goods exports rose in total real terms some £4.9 billion: a 62% hike between 2018 and 2023, adjusted for inflation. But – and this is the vital bit – the UK government’s data shows £7.7 billion of this amount as that is ‘unspecified goods’, up from £1 billion in 2018. The majority of this appears to be gold trading.

This seems to be a trend across many countries.

China has seen exports of “unspecified goods” from the UK – again mainly precious metals –  rising from £405 million in 2018 to £5,336 million in 2023.  If you factor in inflation, it’s an increase of some 955%. 


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As the ONS told Byline Times, the UK post-2018 has seen “a large increase in exports of precious metals once the effect of inflation has been removed.”  

If you factor in inflation, the global value of the UK’s ‘unspecified’ export goods has risen by 6.5% from 2018 – up some £48,439 million globally. 

This includes a spike of 117% to Germany, 404% to France, 423% to Italy and 53% to Spain. 

But – and this is crucial – according to Sophie Hale, Principal Economist at the Resolution Foundation, precious metal trading has “almost zero real economic value”. Such trades offer only value for the financial sector but with no real economic benefit to the UK, unlike other exports like cars or pharmaceuticals.

The main thing this spike in precious metal trading seems to do is to make Brexit look more palatable than it really is. Indeed, so major is our reliance on such fool’s gold trading that, according to Ms Hale, “the UK and Switzerland are the only two countries where the value of precious metal gold has a material impact on trade performance.”

Giving gold the finger?

So what happens when you take out all that glitters from the equation? The UK’s goods export data looks even more dire without precious metals.

According to the ONS, “goods exports (excl. precious metals) have decreased by 12.4% (since 2018) when adjusted for inflation.”

This means that the UK’s post-Brexit dividend, factoring in inflation and taking out the “calorie-free” high frequency trade in precious metals, is a loss of export goods to the sum of a staggering £44,352,000,000.  

A real-term decline of £662 per person in the UK.

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The UK’s cumulative trade to the BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – was worth some £35.8 billion in 2018 (inflation adjusted).  In 2013, it had dropped to £31 billion – a decline of some 15% from what many hailed as the UK’s post-Brexit saviours.

Japan and South Korea also saw a sharp fall, despite the UK’s much heralded trade deal with Japan, dropping 18% and 25% in inflation-adjusted trade value respectively – a combined loss of £3.3 billion over five years.

A problem of production

Overall, the UK’s productivity levels are falling. The net value of the UK’s output produced domestically as a percentage of GDP affirms this. This industrial output has been falling steadily since the 1990s – hitting a low of 16.7% of our GDP in 2022, down from 18% in 2018.

It’s also important to note that the value of the UK’s imported intermediate outputs (what the UK has to buy in so as to produce its finished products) is just shy of its all time high. The UK’s reliance on imported goods has rarely been greater. As the Productivity Institute notes “the UK has experienced significantly slower productivity growth than comparable countries over the decade and a half… Three fundamental challenges need to be tackled urgently: underinvestment, inadequate diffusion and an absence of joined-up policy-making.”

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All of this impacts the bottom line. The UK has run an import-export deficit for every year since 1984. The account deficit widened by £11.3 billion between 2022 and 2023, from £77.2 billion (3.1% of GDP) to £88.5 billion (3.3% of GDP). 

Indeed, when you look at our goods exports, we have dropped from sixth in the world in 2005 to thirteenth in 2022, behind Russia, Mexico and Canada.

So it seems to be true, then, as the 2022 Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee concluded, that the “only detectable impact” of leaving the EU so far has been to increase the burden on businesses.

Perhaps pro-Brexitters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg should, with their claims that “the evidence that Brexit has caused trade drops is few and far between”, read the data before making such grand statements. 


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Rather listen to Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council, who once said, there is a “special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan on how to carry it out safely”.  

The current state of Britain’s goods exports shows just where that unplanned pathway has led us – down and, now, even further down.

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