How many cheers for British companies?
- 6 March 2012
- From the section Business
With growth so weak for so long, and because of the widespread view that Britain is too dependent on consumer spending and financial services, there is an important political battle over how to transform the UK into more of an export-led, investment-driven economy.
There is no mainstream politician from any party who does not talk about the imperative of "rebalancing", or promoting the manufacturers and the business services that generate overseas earnings - to help Britain reduce its endemic current account deficit and in time the indebtedness of the economy.
So in theory industrial policy matters in a way that perhaps hasn't been the case since the 1980s. Except for one thing: all the main parties have consistently been clearer about what industrial policy is not about, rather than what they can do to make an immediate positive difference to the prospects and confidence of wealth creating businesses.
They are united against protectionism, against imposing any kind of restrictions on the ability of overseas businesses to compete with British businesses. And they turn their noses up at the idea that government can consistently be better than markets at allocating capital to the companies and industries most likely to create jobs and tax revenues.
But they want to directly interfere and intervene far more than was the case before the 2008 crash and recession. There has been a pronounced shift about where the boundary should be drawn between what can be left to markets and where it is proper and sensible for ministers to intervene.
That's certainly true of Labour. It's pretty true of Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary. And it is even true to an extent of the Tory chancellor and prime minister.
However there is no money in the government's kitty. Which is a problem, in that when I talk to those who run our biggest high-tech manufacturers, they routinely say that the big difference between the UK and the US is that in supposedly free-market America there is vastly more government financial backing for research and development and innovation (through defence procurement, university links with industry, and so on).
Listening to the Business Secretary Vince Cable on the Today Programme this morning, he was explicit that he had one hand tied behind his back in respect of the industrial policy he would like to conduct, because of the imperative of restoring the health of the public finances (though he has found a £9.3m grant for Nissan to lever in its decision to make a new model in Sunderland, which should generate an extra 2,000 jobs).
Even Labour's leader, Ed Miliband is careful not to promise there will be any new money to help the regeneration of industry. In a speech this morning to the manufacturers' lobby group, the EEF, Mr Miliband will focus on attacking the government for wasting what resources it does have and on non-financial forms of industrial support.
Given that there is a lot of anger about the way the government slashed the subsidy for small-scale, low-carbon power generation, through the feed-in tariff, he is bound to accuse ministers of inconsistency in their avowed backing for new green industries. And he is likely to say that the government could do more through its own procurement and purchasing to support innovation - which is likely to strike a chord with many of the businesses to whom I talk.
But his main theme is that we would benefit as a nation from being more patriotic about our companies and wealth creators. It is pretty difficult to argue against that, in the sense that there may be some sales and productivity benefit derived by Germany and the US from the conspicuous pride shown by many of their citizens in the success of their industrial giants (although whether those incremental benefits are measurable, I rather doubt).
But industrial patriotism is a bit more complicated for the British than it is for Germans and Americans, in that our economy is and has been so much more open than theirs.
Far more of the big manufacturers and service businesses in Britain are overseas owned. So when we are cheering for British businesses, should we shout louder for Vodafone, a British multinational, than for O2, owned by a Spanish multinational.
How about in aerospace? A big hip-hip for British Rolls-Royce, but a lesser one for the huge UK-based plants of Franco-German EADS?
Or in motor cars: should we be whooping for Jaguar Land Rover's global success, or toning it down because the owner of the group is Indian Tata?
It is all a bit tricky. And it opens up a very difficult area I've discussed here many times: have we been a little bit too ready to sell our best businesses to the highest bidder, regardless of the nationality of the bidder?
Or to put it another way, in being passionately and ideologically opposed to protectionism, have successive British governments been a little too dismissive of less pernicious forms of economic and industrial nationalism?