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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.