If George Osborne could turn a policy as well as he turns a phrase then we’d be in a good place surely. The last budget included the breast beating, tear jerking, rabble rousing: “We want the words ‘Made in Britain,’ ‘Created in Britain,’ Designed in Britain,’ ‘Invented in Britain’ to drive our nation forward. A Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers. That is how we will create jobs and support families.”
Pretty nauseating at the time but even more painful to read this morning. Just a few months on from his speech and my home town of Derby looks like losing a very large number of jobs making two very different products: train rolling stock and Thornton’s chocolates. Both things that make life that little bit better. So currently the march of the makers follows a direct route to the end of the queue at the already overstretched East Midlands job centres.
Train carriages have been produced in Derby for 150 years – its not as if we don’t know how to do it. The killer blow for probably several thousand workers at Canadian owned Bombardier’s Derby plant is the loss of the Crossrail contract to Siemens. Media coverage of the government decision suggests that the German company’s price and environmental performance made it the best bet for tax payers. Leaving aside the question of why the UK government isn’t applying the kinds of regional and social policies that other EU countries do (within EU law) to appoint a ‘local’ company for a UK project, it is worth considering how it is that Siemens won the job. Three points:
Germany has always made investments in education across the board – it is not obsessed by higher education to the exclusion of all else but considers the needs of society and the economy as a whole (a social class thing? I think so, and another marker of our deferent and immature society). The half baked, hasty but revolutionary changes to UK higher education distract attention from our continued failure to think about how to support lifelong learning across the board. They will cause havoc within a part of our education system that seemed to be functioning rather well if the influx of foreign students is anything to go by. But they also fail to take adult education of the whole working population seriously. Germany trains for quality throughout the labour force and throughout careers, and there are days when that shows.
Then there is the long standing commitment to environmental performance in manufacturing. The arguments have been written ten metres high since the early 1990s about how economic and environmental performance go hand in hand. Germany, along with other northern European states are starting to enjoy the dividends of economies structured for long term stable returns that – on a good day – put the eco back into economics.
Thirdly, the Euro. I’ve had to listen to some people casually assert that ‘the Euro experiment is over – thank God we didn’t get press ganged’. So it is also worth bearing in mind that one of the other reasons Germany has one of the most robust economies in Europe, and some of the best public infrastructure, is that it participated centrally and fully in the creation of a free flowing European economy. UK participation might have helped to ensure that that economy functioned in a more balanced way, with manufacturing and other economic functions more evenly distributed across the Eurozone. In addition to all this Germany has managed to pay the bill for the enormously ambitious and expensive project of full reunification.
Derby has been making things well and selling them at a good price since our ancestors founded the factory system on the banks of the Derwent in the early days of the industrial revolution. The city is not about to lose the habit. But this is a government populated by people who have never held down a job beyond the short cab ride between the City and Westminster. They are not well equipped to understand the kit you are likely to need when you set off on a ‘march of the makers’.