Vince Cable launched the Government's Make it in Britain campaign today. This is not good news.
On the face of it, who could possibly be against a campaign to "to transform outdated views of UK manufacturing and dispel the myth that Britain ‘doesn’t make anything anymore’"? Surely the idea of finding thirty champions under thirty years of age to promote manufacturing to other young people is an inspiring initiative? What could possibly be wrong with an exhibition at the Science museum showcasing the best of British manufacturing innovation?
The answer is absolutely nothing is wrong with any of it. Indeed, no-one has ever objected to any of the numerous attempts to relaunch the image of British manufacturing in the past. And that is why governments like them. They are a big slice of motherhood and apple pie hiding the fact that governments often have nothing more substantial or radical to offer the sector.
The whole UK economy, but particularly our export industries, face a set of very serious weaknesses relative to our competitors in the global market. We have comparatively low business investment. We have a long tail of relatively unproductive and uninnovative SMEs. Our workers are less skilled and less well-educated than many overseas workforces. And our companies have much less presence in emerging markets in Asia compared to countries like Germany and the US.
Dealing with these problems is not easy. A Government intent on addressing them and giving a real boost to manufacturing companies would certainly have to come up with a set policies that would prove controversial and challenging. These are problems that have been around for years (even decades) and have shown themselves pretty impervious to the traditional piecemeal approach of previous UK governments. A meaningful policy framework would at least grapple with issues such as state investment, major upskilling programmes (and the contentious issue of their funding), large scale public/private finance for R&D, a rapid expansion of the export credit guarantee scheme, an overhaul of tax reliefs and allowances for business innovation, a new look at competition policy in key sectors, and the vast sums of money currently sitting on corporate balance sheets not being invested in growth companies.
So a launch of yet another attempt to change the image of British manufacturing should be ringing alarm bells about the Government's growth strategy planned for launch on 29th November. It suggests that these issues may not be seriously addressed and the bold policies required to turn the UK into a major exporter able to compete and pay its way in the global economy are less likely to appear.
I would love to be proved wrong and maybe I am just too cynical but I do wonder why, if you really have some showstopping policies up your sleeve, you would bother with yet another PR exercise.