Even the more mature of today’s politicians were still in the school playground when these ideas last made waves. In the 1950s and 1960s, UK governments of left and right thought they knew what was best for the economy.
We had massive subsidies for the nuclear industry, early computers and the aircraft industry – Concorde, anybody? We had a laughably short-lived National Plan, an Industrial Reorganisation Corporation which completely messed up the motor industry, nationalisation of failing businesses and subsidies to half-baked worker-controlled enterprises. We had 30 years of puffed-up talking shops like the National Economic Development Council and its misbegotten “little Neddies”. None of these initiatives had much impact on the underlying growth rate of the UK economy, but they wasted lots of public money.
Today’s fans of government intervention find “market failures” everywhere: the term has been stripped of substantive content and now signifies anything critics don’t like about capitalism. Often the factual basis of their assertions – that inequality has increased dramatically in the UK, or that the pre-2008 banking system was largely unregulated – is wrong. Manufacturing is portrayed as virtually extinguished in this country, when its volume is little changed from 20 years ago.
I doubt interventionist policies can alter the balance of the economy between broad sectors, but why should we try? Britain’s 11 per cent of output produced by manufacturing is similar to other countries at a comparable level of development. In our daily lives we increasingly consume services rather than clunky goods, so why reverse the trend of decades? Our financial sector is larger than most, but this reflects comparative advantage rather than a distortion which government must rectify.
What is a twenty-first century industrial strategy supposed to look like? We are told it should not attempt to “pick winners” 1970s-style, but nevertheless government can apparently identify areas of likely importance in the future. Yesterday, Tory MP Alan Mak wrote in City A.M. of a Fourth Industrial Revolution embracing artificial intelligence, automation and hyper-connectivity. Others speak of nano-technology and genetic engineering. Exciting stuff, but what to do about it?
We have had several recent small-scale initiatives which chime with the “new industry” theme – the “High Value Manufacturing Catapult”, the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative, the Regional Growth Fund and so on. Are we just going to aim for more of the same, comparatively harmless if not obviously effective, or is the new strategy to be something rather more sweeping?
I worry that Brexit is being interpreted as an anti-globalisation gesture, justifying restrictions on migration of skilled labour and foreign takeovers of UK businesses. Protectionism is making a comeback as trade deals are increasingly questioned. Freed from EU restraints, siren voices are calling for support for our “strategic” steel industry: why should City bankers be bailed out and not Welsh steelworkers? Some suggest using public procurement to support British businesses. Jeremy Corbyn wants to see an end to deregulation of public services and rules allowing open access to the rail network.
Forget this. If we must revisit the past, let’s reinvigorate the liberalising direction of the 1990s. Over the last 20 years we have seen excessive regulation of business and employment in response to transient government priorities. We should liberalise energy, lowering costs to consumers and businesses. We should deregulate land use, boosting housebuilding and enabling productivity increases. We should restructure the crazy railway franchising system. We should cut back on occupational licensing which protects producers at the expense of consumers.
These and similar measures would raise output per head across the board, in such unfashionable areas as food manufacturing (still our largest manufacturing sector) or transport as well as biotechnology. There is much to do without hubristically trying to manipulate the “balance” of the economy.
This article was first published in City AM.