From music making to motor manufacturing, UK plc badly needs an active industry policy
As G8 leaders stress the need for growth, it is timely to ask where the jobs of the future will come from and what Britain will do for a living. Part of the answer is right beneath our noses: making things. This is not nostalgia or wishful thinking, but a view of our economy firmly rooted in the future.
In a new Policy Network pamphlet I argue it is time to reject the “declinism” that often colours discussion about manufacturing and resolve to get behind making things. Yes, we make less than we used to, but we still make more than we think. Last week’s news about new investment at GM’s Ellesmere Port plant is the latest positive announcements on the UK car industry.
But more making things won’t happen by itself. It requires government to support it and to pay as much attention to the supply chain – the ecosystem of manufacturing – as to eye-catching inward investment announcements. The effect would be good for jobs and exports but, crucially, the benefits would be social and political too.
The loss of making things in recent decades has eroded confidence and triggered political disaffection in some parts of the country. Politicians often make the mistake of thinking the answer to such alienation is to talk about politics differently, or to pursue political reform that will “reconnect”. But political disaffection links to economic disaffection, to the sense that too many people have felt written out of our national story.
The task for politics is to shape an economic future in which every part of the country can participate. Making things should be a big part of that. A modern view of this should go well beyond physical products to include music and the creative industries, where Britain is a world leader. These are what Andy Heath, chairman of UK Music, calls “the weightless industries”.
Why, in the digital age, should our definition of making things only be about what you can see and touch when Britain is so good at things you can’t see or touch? Music, computer games, TV formats – these are making things too. Here are five ideas that could help Britain on that path.
First, equip people to do the jobs needed and boost the image of making things. Too many young people leave school without the skills and qualifications to succeed. Raising school standards to give young people opportunity should be a national passion, especially in areas that have felt left out of our national story. And why should an engineering degree be less valued than a law or accountancy degree? We need to wage a twin battle on standards and challenge the assumption that making things is old-fashioned or smokestack.
Second, remain an open society. Sending out signals that we don’t want the brightest students in the world or the highest-value workers to come here is a huge mistake. Britain is a creative, innovative society because it is an open society. If we cut off the brightest students and high-value foreign workers from coming here we will only penalise our economy.
Third, government must play a role. An active industry policy requires the capacity to deliver it. That means a culture change in Whitehall. Departments ought to be thinking about the health of UK plc in everything they do. At the moment the system is not geared to this and changing it requires sustained leadership from the top. Instead of talking about abolishing the Department of Business, our ambition should be for it to become a powerful department of the micro-economy.
Fourth, we have to sort the finance for industry. The dialogue between government and the banks about business lending has become a dialogue of the deaf. If the banking structure won’t make available the finance needed for Britain to invest, new entrants and players are needed. A government-backed British investment bank, geared to infrastructure and longterm industrial investment, could make a difference. Such banks exist and operate elsewhere.
Finally, we have to believe this can be done and take more pride in what we already make today. Making things is not only part of our past. It’s part of our future too.
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