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".