Short circuiting: the Government is failing to recognise the importance of the electronics industry

Civitas' Stephen Clarke argues that the days of British manufacturing are unfairly consigned to the past.

Last week, in response to higher than expected borrowing figures, George Osborne launched a "coordinated push for growth" across Whitehall. In this push the Chancellor and the Government would do well to take a broader look at the British economy.

Before the financial crisis a political view that we do not make things in Britain any more had become disturbingly common. The official line was that we, as an advanced nation, had become a "knowledge economy" where we conceived and designed things that less intelligent people (and countries) would make.

This dangerous fallacy has now been exposed and there is an acceptance that Britain does and should produce and manufacture things. The Government has trumpeted success in a few manufacturing sectors; aerospace, the automotive industry and the pharmaceutical sector are all ministerial darlings. However Britain’s prowess goes beyond these.

The British electronics industry does not have a very large media profile yet it employs more people, pays those people more and produces more British profits than the aerospace or automotive sectors. According to official statistics, in 2010 the electronics industry employed over 200,000 people, generated a gross value added (GVA) of £13.8bn and a GVA per worker of £68,000. In contrast the automotive sector employed around 120,000 people in manufacturing and generated a GVA per worker of £45,000. The aerospace sector generated a GVA per employee of £54,000.

GVA is an important measure because it indicates how much value has been created by an industry and strips out the value of goods that an industry has consumed or transformed. GVA embodies the adage: "revenue is vanity. . . margin is sanity. . . cash is king". Profit is generated by the value a firm or an industry creates not the value it simply passes on.

The electronics industry creates a lot of value because it produces complex products for niche markets with relatively high margins. The UK stopped producing consumer electronics en masse over a decade ago and since then the industry has transformed itself. The UK is the 5th largest producer of control & instrumentation electronics, the 9th largest producer of medical electronics and the 8th largest producer of radio communication electronics. In addition, Britain is the leading designer of microchips in Europe.

Given such success one could be forgiven for thinking that it is best for the Government to continue to leave the sector to it. Unfortunately the industry faces some serious challenges, with its ability to respond to them hamstrung thanks to years of governmental neglect.

Electronics is an immensely competitive industry. Along with the technology leaders, Japan and America, countries previously specialising in low value, high volume goods, such as China, are increasingly entering the high-value markets in which the UK currently operates. As a result the British industry’s future is unclear; leading industry analysts Reed Electronics Research predict growth of only 5 per cent in the next three years.

The Government cannot afford to sit idly by and let another important British manufacturing sector slide into mediocrity. More needs to be done to stimulate Britain’s venture capital market and the current myriad of public venture capital funds should be replaced with a handful of larger public-private investment funds. More British youngsters need to be encouraged to study Electronic and Electrical Engineering and should be able to afford to do so. Most importantly the Government needs to be ready to support manufacturing: Britain may have world-class electronics designers but without greater investment in manufacturing design jobs will continue to relocate to be near production.

Britain’s politicians were almost alone in swallowing the "knowledge economy" myth. Other countries were far less blasé about the loss of productive capacity. In 2004 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology advised President George Bush on the future of the American electronics industry. They told him that "design, product development and process evolution all benefit from proximity to manufacturing". Clearly he and other American politicians were listening; the US Government has continued to support advanced microchip production, recently investing $1.4bn in a new microchip plant near New York.

Osborne and his colleagues can learn from this. Specifically: electronics form the basis of a successful industrial economy and should be supported. More generally: the idea of the "knowledge economy" has been partially jettisoned, what is now needed is a broader understanding of what makes a "productive economy".

Selling Circuits Short: Improving the prospects of the British electronics industry by Stephen L. Clarke and Georgia Plank was released yesterday by Civitas. It is available on PDF and Amazon Kindle.

A Sony PSP, the wireless chip for which comes from ARM in Cambridge. Photograph: Getty Images

Selling Circuits Short: Improving the prospects of the British electronics industry by Stephen L. Clarke and Georgia Plank was released yesterday by Civitas. It is available on PDF and Amazon Kindle

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.