Viewpoint: Keep the change (source: Lloyd’s List)

The shipping industry has always spun on an axis of change, so whatever people think of the advent of trade wars and Brexit, these types of upheaval are commonplace. There should be no room for self-pity or sympathy for ditherers who whine, when what they need to do is seize the opportunity

London International Shipping Week next year is to have as its theme international trade in a changing world. Our industry can help to make this change a success

BUSINESS “is competitive, unpredictable, risky, multi-faceted and fast”, wrote Dr Stuart Ballantyne in the Spectator Australia.

He was writing an angry article about the way that the UK carelessly discarded its ties with the Commonwealth and the ongoing dithering over Brexit.

I have to declare an interest in the fact that he is a very old friend of mine, who began a successful ship design organisation in Queensland in 1976, after qualifying as a naval architect in Glasgow.

He also notes that if you are running a business that is going to come out winning, there is no room for “ditherers”.

It was tough stuff, but he is as angry as I am about the way in which our kith and kin are forced to jump through hoops to work, live and study in the UK, while mainland Europeans waltz through immigration.

If it had been the same in the early 1970s, I dare say he would have never bothered to study at Glasgow University, but made do with the facilities in Sydney.

Can we rewrite this relationship with the Commonwealth, which once filled several hundred British cargo liners, year in, year out? We in the UK need to try a lot harder.

Inherently fickle

He would assert, quite rightly that the maritime world he lives in remains both unpredictable and fast-changing, because nothing stays still for long in business, trading relationships or the shipping industry that carries it all.

So I was fascinated by the recent announcement that the London International Shipping Week next year is to have as its theme “international trade in a changing world”.

As something to hang a couple of hundred events on, compressed into a few days, I suppose it is sufficiently wide ranging, at a time when people seem to be facing rather more unknowns than they do normally. But if we can agree that there never has been a time when change has been absent from our working environment, it somehow rather falls flat.

But perhaps it is more subtle than I suggest. Shipping is the carrier of choice for international trade and there is no argument about that. But it has also been provided with the natural gift of tremendous flexibility, in that its assets are completely mobile and are not dependent upon a fixed base, like so many other industries.

Shipping will react to change in the same way that it always has, by adapting to the changing circumstances in a way that is far more difficult and costly for land-based industry.

A canal is closed. Political problems beget trade embargoes. Ships that have been optimised for one particular trade find that they are adapting with difficulty to their new routes. There is an amazing technological breakthrough that makes whole fleets redundant almost overnight. Scale economies are made possible by brave naval architecture and engineering.

It has all happened in my working lifetime. Shipping companies come and go. Some relocate their places of registry to a more benign location, after their traditional flag loses its charms. But the industry as a whole will adapt, even though the changing times force some operators to shrink, disappear or find themselves swallowed up by acquisitive competitors.

It’s all change, and it always has been like that. There should be no room, notes Stuart Ballantyne, for self-pity or sympathy for those ditherers who are late out of the blocks and left behind by change.

Quick adjustment

We can deplore trade wars and embargoes for the effect they have on the volume of trade available for our industry to carry, but it probably will adjust to the new circumstances, because if it doesn’t, it will suffer more.

Can the shipping industry encourage international trade, or does it, as the archetype of derived demand, merely carry the stuff other people trade?

I actually think that shipping operators can be highly influential in facilitating that trade, particularly among businesses that have little or no history of international exports.

If we go back to the Commonwealth and the disaster it faced when the UK joined the European Union, the international shipping industry, in conjunction with the various bodies in Australia and New Zealand, looking desperately for new markets to replace the cargoes carried to and from the UK, did a brilliant job in encouraging this mission of diversification. A lack of ships, or new routes, available at a reasonable price, was never an obstacle.

So, let us wish LISW19 the very best of luck in its endeavours, in the hope that it will be an “encouragement” to international trade, and that the maritime industry will be seen more widely to be supremely adaptable and flexible, and shipping seen as the very best trade facilitator.

And let us have no more dithering over Brexit, with its fostering of a climate of uncertainty.

Shipping, for its part and whatever flag it flies, will help to make this change a success.