‘Reality Check: Do we export five times as much to EU as to Commonwealth?’

Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, … (among others), who attributed it to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.   

The following is one of the regular series of ‘Reality checks’ published by the BBC and, in this particular one, shows how John Major has used just that principle to contribute to ‘Project Fear’

John Major saying: The UK sells five times as much to Europe as to all the other 52 nations of the Commonwealth added together.

The claim: The UK exports five times as much to the EU as it does to the Commonwealth.

Reality Check verdict: Yes we do. The UK’s exports of goods and services to the Commonwealth in 2014 were worth £47.8bn. The comparable figure for the EU was £228.9bn. It’s worth noting that the UK does plenty of business with countries that are part of neither group – for example, we sell twice as much to the USA as we do to our biggest EU partner, Germany.

On Friday’s Today Programme, former Prime Minister Sir John Major said that the UK exports five times as much to the European Union as it does to the 52 countries of the Commonwealth.

Is he right?

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show our exports of goods and services to the Commonwealth in 2014 were worth £47.8bn.

The comparable figure for the EU that year was £228.9bn, which is slightly less than five times the Commonwealth figure.

So the figure the former prime minister used is accurate. But why did he choose this one? We have historical links with the Commonwealth, but our biggest customer in the Commonwealth is only our thirteenth biggest in the world.

There are 52 other countries in the Commonwealth. We know from the ONS Pink Book (table 9.3) which are our biggest customers in the Commonwealth. The top five are India, Australia, Canada, Singapore and South Africa.

But some of the Commonwealth countries are very small, including Nauru and Tuvalu, both of which have populations of about 10,000.

What other figures could he have used? In 2014 we exported £88bn of goods and services to our biggest single customer, the USA, which was twice as much as our second biggest customer, Germany.

We sell more than half of our exports to seven countries, four of which are EU members.

Chart showing UK exports to top seven customers

Source: ONS Pink Book. Note: The figure for the Netherlands may be enlarged by the so-called Rotterdam Effect, in which goods being shipped from its ports are counted as exports to the Netherlands.

This is typical of Project Fear in which ‘selected’ figures are used by the ‘Establishment’ in order to frighten the Electorate to stay in the EU.  The Commonwealth alone accounts for a very small percentage of our exports to the rest of the World.  John Major is manipulating the figures to infer that the Commonwealth alone is one of our major trading partners.  Nothing could be further from the truth when it is noted that our biggest customer in the Commonwealth at the moment ranks only 13th in terms of our largest customers.  Since 2008 Britain’s trade with the rest of the World has been greater than our sales to the EU on an annual ‘average’ basis and has been consistently higher for each consecutive month for at least the past two years.

As the table shows; we sell ‘more than half’ of our exports to just 7 Countries leaving around another 50% of commerce with ALL of the rest of the Countries in the World.  Of those 7 Countries, only 4 are in the EU with our trade to the USA alone more than twice as much to our biggest EU customer; Germany.  Also, it has to be remembered that we have a massive trade deficit with the EU as a whole.

In other words, ‘Lies, damned lies and Statistics’


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