Friday, July 08, 2011
Manufacturing is the lifeblood of a prosperous nation
This piece of mine appears in today's Daily Express.
IT wouldn’t happen in Germany. It wouldn’t happen in France.
In fact, it wouldn’t happen in any other western European country.
Earlier this week, Britain’s coalition government announced that it was minded to award a £1.4billion contract for new trains, not to the Derby-based company Bombardier Transportation, but to the giant German firm Siemens.
While the Government’s shamefully unpatriotic decision has quite rightly been attacked as a shocking betrayal of skilled British workers, it is only the latest example of the low regard that our pro-globalisation and pro-EU political elite has for British manufacturing.
For while our economic rivals still maintain a balanced economy, combining a sizeable services sector with a strong manufacturing base, successive governments in Britain have seemed happy for manufacturing jobs at home to be destroyed and for flagship British companies to be sold overseas.
Such neglect of industry is not only economically damaging, in terms of jobs and exports, it is also a betrayal of our country’s great industrial heritage. In the 19th century, Britain, the country where the Industrial Revolution had started in the late 1700s, was known as the Workshop of the World. The Great Exhibition of 1851, attended by more than six million people, showcased the marvels of British manufacturing and technological skill.
“Not only was it a large commercial success, but also a symbol of the awesome strength of British industry at that time,” wrote historian David Taylor. Although at the end of the Victorian era, Britain faced fierce competition in the shape of the USA and a newly unified Germany, both of whom had overtaken the UK in pig iron and steel production by the time of the First World War, supporting manufacturing was still regarded as a priority.
As late as 1970, following a successful campaign to boost exports by the government, Britain enjoyed a record balance of payments surplus of £550million.
Since the 1970s things have deteriorated. Our entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 led to important powers over industrial policy being surrendered to Brussels. And although the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s did have ministers committed to industry, such as the late Alan Clark, the dominant view of the Thatcher period was that the economy would be served best if we left manufacturing to market forces and that moving towards a services-dominated economy, with a deregulated banking and finance sector, was the route to a more prosperous future.
New Labour carried on with this free market, pro-services approach and, while the financial sector burgeoned, over 1.7million manufacturing jobs were lost and the trade deficit reached £3.8billion. The economic crisis of 2008, brought about by a financial services sector which had got far too big for its own boots, showed just how wrong headed government policy had been.
After the crash, politicians of all parties talked of the need to “rebalance” the economy away from its dependence on the City and pledged to support British industry. But although there’s been words aplenty, there’s been little action. In early 2010, another iconic British industrial company, the chocolate manufacturer Cadbury’s, was sold abroad with Kraft, the new American owners, closing the Somerdale plant near Bristol with a loss of more than 400 jobs.
It was depressing to see Labour sit back and allow the takeover to happen, but depressing too to hear the then opposition leader David Cameron express his opposition to a proposed “Cadbury’s Law” to protect British companies from hostile foreign takeovers.
Now, after the latest shameful betrayal it’s time to put manufacturing – and the jobs of workers here in Britain – first. For history teaches us that no country can aspire to long-term prosperity unless it has a solid manufacturing base. The example of Germany proves the point. It’s often said that while Britain won the war, Germany won the peace.
Their governments and financial institutions have supported manufacturing industry much more than Britain’s have. While our governments have pursued policies positively injurious to manufacturing industry, such as the disastrous decision to join the ERM in the early 1990s, the Germans always put industry first. And while our banks and financial institutions, obsessed with short-term profits, have engaged in reckless speculation across the world, German banks have provided German industry with long-term support.
The result is that Germany’s economy, powered by manufacturing companies such as Siemens, Volkswagen, Bosch, Bayer and BASF, is one of the strongest in the world. German politicians do the job that they were elected to do – that is to look after the economic interests of German workers. It’s high time ours did the same.
The Daily Express’s Crusade, to Battle for Bombardier is about more than a £1.4billion contract for new rolling stock.
It’s about making our political elite think in a different way.
There must be no more sellouts affecting our companies and workers. No more blind adherence to ridiculous EU regulations.
And there must be a new commitment to rebuild our shattered industrial base and once again make our country a great manufacturing nation.