Vince Cable is right to support British business in procurement

Have Britain’s politicians finally realised that EU rules are not an impediment to an active industrial policy?

Today Vince Cable told the BBC that the British government must be more "strategic" in how it procures, so that "as much as possible goes to British businesses". Far from incurring the wrath of the European Union, the evidence suggests that this new course of action would see Britain finally joining the European club.

Since 2000 the European Commission has initiated only 10 infringement proceedings against the UK for procurement violations. In contrast it has initiated 63 against Germany, 52 against Italy, 31 against Spain, 20 against France and 12 against the Netherlands. Infringement proceedings are initiated when the Commission believes that a member state has broken the rules. Britain is an outlier when it comes to procurement; strategic support for domestic firms is the norm.

Not only is "strategic" procurement the norm but it does not necessarily result in a protectionist "race to the bottom". Despite Germany topping the infringement rankings, German firms are also the most successful in winning foreign procurement contracts in Europe. German firms captured 26 per cent of the market between 2007 and 2009, Dutch firms captured 10 per cent, Italian firms 7 per cent and French firms 5 per cent. British firms came in second with 17 per cent of the market.

As well as procurement, Vince Cable also talked about supporting strategic industries, such as aerospace, where the UK has a comparative advantage. Financial support for domestic firms or industries, like discriminatory procurement, is also supposedly banned by the EU. However, here again the evidence suggests that Britain’s approach is out of kilter with the rest of Europe.

According to the European Commission, in a typical year between 1992 and 2010 Britain spent only 0.45 per cent of its total public spending on the economy on manufacturing, including many of the sectors, such as life-sciences and aerospace, which the Business Secretary touted. In contrast, in a typical year over the same period France spent 7.67 per cent, Germany spent 13.29 per cent, Italy spent 8.66 per cent and Spain spent 16.36 per cent. In terms of total spending in support of their economies, Germany spent, in a typical year between 1992 and 2010, £16.64 billion more than the UK and France spent £9.17 billion more.

In supporting their manufacturing sectors many of these countries incurred the ire of the Commission. As of June 2010, the last data available, Spain had 15 cases of state aid that had been determined illegal by the European Commission and needed paying back, Italy had 14, Germany had 7 and France had 5. The UK had only 1 case of state aid declared illegal. Once again, Britain is an outlier.

It is ironic that the UK, a country regularly singled out for its ambivalence, even opposition, towards the European Union is often found to be one of the most committed adherents to EU rules. When Bombardier failed to win the Thameslink procurement contract last year, politicians of both parties blamed one another and the EU rules. Vince Cable’s pronouncement today hopefully indicates that British politicians are finally realising the folly of this. When it comes to conducting an active industrial policy, EU rules are no impediment, just ask Europe.

Stephen Clarke is a Research Fellow at Civitas

Vince Cable. 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

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I didn't expect to have to choose between a boyfriend and Judi Dench - but it happened

He told me I'd spoiled the cruise by not paying him enough attention. But what was I to do when Dame Judi Dench asked for a chat?

This happened around 20 years ago, in the days when a new boyfriend was staying at my house. One quite memorable mid-morning, the phone rang while we were in bed and it was the editor of the Times; then it rang again (when we were still in bed) and it was Dame Judi Dench. Yes, Judi Dench.

I was as surprised as anyone would be. True, I had recently written a radio monologue for her (about a wistful limpet stuck on a rock), but I hadn’t attended the recording, so I had never met her, or expected ever to hear her say, “Hello, is that Lynne Truss?” in that fabulous Dame Judi voice that only she possesses.

She said that she and her husband, Michael, were often invited to perform public readings; could I help by writing something? Stunned, I said that I would love to. She gave me her number. I hung up.

I can’t remember why I didn’t jump straight out of bed to start work on the Dame Judi project. But what I do remember is that when the phone rang yet again, we ignored it, on the grounds that, post-Judi, it could only be a disappointment.

A few months later, I was invited on a winter cruise, sailing from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Singapore. I took the boyfriend. It was only when we were changing planes at 3am that I spotted, among the other dog-tired passengers, Dame Judi with a group of friends.

Nervously, I went and said hello, what a coincidence. She said that we must talk. Then the holiday began and the boyfriend and I had a wonderful time. We met nice people and enjoyed the ship, although we consistently failed to identify our allotted muster station.

At the end of ten days, we were sitting on deck at Singapore, when I said, “Well, wasn’t that lovely?”

The boyfriend took me aback by saying, “Actually, glad you asked. No, it wasn’t.” I had spoiled the whole experience, he said, by continually talking to other people when I should have been talking to him.

I was very upset. All this time, he’d been unhappy? Casting my mind back, I realised it was true that I had made friends on board (and he hadn’t); also, at dinner, I had openly talked to the person sitting beside me, because I thought you were supposed to.

And now I stood accused of cruise-ruining! “I’ll get us some tea,” I said. “Oh, yes?” he fumed. “You’ll be gone for an hour, as usual.” And I said “No, I won’t. I promise.”

And so I went inside, wiping away my tears, and someone started chatting to me and I squeaked, “Can’t stop.” After that, I just slalomed through the throng with my head down.

Then, as I re-emerged into the sunlight with a prompt, relationship-saving cup and saucer in each hand, there was Judi Dench, and she said, “Shall we have our little chat now?” 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad