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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder