By Dr Steve McCabe, Birmingham City Business School
In the wild west of America there were stories of so called snake oil salesmen who proffered a product that was claimed to be efficacious for all sorts of ailments. It was, like a lot of what went on in those unregulated days, a scam.
Selling an industrial strategy is like selling snake oil; it is intended to solve a multitude of complex and deeply seated problems.
However, the question being asked is whether this approach represents something radically different? The strategy, including a 10-point plan to achieve the following would certainly seem so:
• Investing in science, research and innovation
• Developing skills
• Upgrading infrastructure
• Supporting business to start and grow
• Improving government procurement
• Encouraging trade and inward investment
• Delivering affordable energy and clean growth
• Cultivating world-leading sectors
• Driving growth across the whole country
• Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places
Indeed, Theresa May stated that the strategy will be “modern” and “underpinned by a new approach to government, not just stepping back but stepping up to a new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success.”
On face value this strategy is resonant with what all governments from the Second-World-War onwards utilised until the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979; one of intervention and regional aid. However, the present Conservative government is using the Brexit vote to reboot the economy in a way that eschews the laissez-faire approach that was the hallmark of Cameron and Osborne.
Therefore, this strategy represents a very welcome change.
The problem is, will it do enough to achieve the laudable goals included in the 10-point plan?
There is urgent need to achieve change on so many fronts that this strategy will probably be perceived as too ambitious by some and too unambitious by others. And from what has been stated by May and business minister, Greg Clark, there will be no return to investment in ailing industries.
This strategy is to build on success and aims to emulate proven performers.
Perhaps, rightly, the focus has been on the skills deficit and the lack of productivity that we experience. These are deep-seated and their existence has been the focus of governments since Tony Blair who proclaimed the mantra, “Education, education, education.”
As someone who works in the education sector I can attest that there has been a massive expansion in university places which is commendable. The goal of 50% of children going to university is to be applauded, the costs of achieving this for students and society notwithstanding. However, the other 50% have been largely let down. Further education has become the poor relation and local colleges which, I believe, should be the ‘engines’ of ingenuity and training for local employers have been squeezed.
The technical colleges set up in the 1950s trained the apprentices and skilled craftspeople who become the bulwark of production that made Britain great in the 1960s. However, in our quest for progress engineering and traditional trades such as construction were seen as old fashioned and jettisoned by many colleges. Thatcher’s obsession with financial services is largely responsible for our lopsided economy in which manufacturing as a share of GDP shrank from 30% some 35 years ago to the present 10%.
If the industrial strategy reverses the decline in manufacturing and restores the importance of ‘getting a trade’ then it will succeed. It will take concerted effort by government at all levels working with business large and small. There will also need to be greater investment than appears to on offer. Sadly, I believe, we will only know whether the strategy has worked in another generation. In the meantime there is the matter of leaving the EU to attend to.
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