There is an alternative: governments can do what markets cannot

To succeed in age of globalisation, British manufacturers need a government that rejects laissez faire Thatcherism.

In the wake of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral last week, there has been much revisiting of the 1980s and her legacy. Though there are disagreements as to the benefits of her approach, there is one thing on which we can all agree: for better or worse, she did change Britain.

One impact of the revolution her policies unleashed was that too much of our manufacturing base was undermined. Nevertheless, Britain remains the ninth largest manufacturer in the world today, and a global leader in many areas of advanced manufacturing. The best of British manufacturers have shown they can meet the challenge of global competition.

For example, since Labour’s establishment of the Automotive Council – and the continued backing of it by this government – Britain has confirmed itself as a great place to make cars. The sector has attracted investment on an unprecedented scale and is on track to break the record for car production set in 1972.

What it means to be a leading manufacturer is changing as well, as the divide between the service and manufacturing sectors has become blurred. Last week I visited Rolls Royce, a global leader in aerospace. The majority of Rolls Royce’s revenues are generated not from manufacturing but from after sales service contracts. This shows how the benefits of a strong manufacturing base can spill over into other sectors, generating more of those well paying and satisfying jobs that our economy needs.

So the potential is there to grow our manufacturing base further. But British manufacturers need a government that backs their ambition. They need a proper, modern industrial strategy – demanding in its ambition and effective in its execution. This is not something which sits comfortably with laissez faire Thatcherism.

George Osborne – a disciple of the laissez faire approach - promised a "march of the makers". But overall, and despite a significant fall in the value of the pound, the reality simply has not matched his rhetoric. The latest trade figures were terrible, with the recent fall in exports reflecting a downward pattern that started in October 2011 according to the ONS. Companies with cash lack the confidence to invest. Firms needing finance to expand can’t get it.

One of the maxims of the neoliberal economic revolution Thatcherism unleashed was that governments must be subservient to markets. There was, Mrs Thatcher said, "no alternative". Recent history warns of the limits of this approach. It is also becoming abundantly clear that globalisation, far from limiting the space for governments to act, is making such action more important. It is not surprising that northern European economies which have pursued industrial strategies and applied a different model to Thatcherism have largely maintained their shares of expanding global trade through policies that work together to reinforce areas of national strength. 

Governments can do what markets cannot: they can help firms work together to address shared problems over skills or R&D, even as these businesses compete fiercely for custom. Governments can give direction and support to the animal spirits that drive investment and innovation. Through strategic use of procurement powers, governments can provide clear market signals, allowing British-based firms like Bombardier, whose plant in Derby I have also recently visited, to develop the capabilities needed to win public contracts. Public contracts can be used, after all, to advance public goals: to train apprenticeships, to encourage innovation, and to boost local employment.

Baroness Thatcher’s passing has revived strong memories of a bygone era. Yes, she changed Britain, but changed circumstances mean our country’s economy now needs something different too - there is an alternative and we must grasp it. 


A Vauxhall employee works on a vehicle on the production line at the Vauxhall car factory in Ellesmere Port, north-west England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.

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My time as an old woman with a £4,000 prosthetic face, working for the Daily Mail

On the Tube, a man offered me his seat. “I’m not an old woman,” I told him. “I’m a Daily Mail features writer wearing a prosthetic face.” He moved away.

I was, for a time, a Daily Mail features writer. My job was to sanctify and incite the prejudices of its editorial staff and readers – ideally while wearing fancy dress, because that is more palatable and moronic.

I have been, at various times and for money, a Saxon peasant, a Restoration hussy, the back half of a cow, a devout Muslim, an ice dancer and a man. It quite often went wrong.

I was, for instance, asked to dress up as an old woman, in order to find out what it was like to be an old woman. Any newspaper that was not institutionally insane would have simply asked an old woman what it was like to be an old woman but, since the Mail thinks in fantastical stereotypes, that would never happen. The results would be too shocking.

I was given a £4,000 prosthetic face. I went to the East End because that, according to the Daily Mail, is where poor people live. I was supposed to get mugged, so I walked around with £50 notes falling out of my pockets. A boy came up to me, handed me the £50 note I had dropped and said: “You want to watch your money. You’ll get mugged.”

Editorial was disappointed. Perhaps I should try again in Kensington? This was considered unsuitable (nice people live in Kensington), so I went to Tramp nightclub.

“My grandson comes here,” I said to the woman on the door, in my old woman’s voice. “What tabloid newspaper or TV reality show are you from?” she asked. (She was obviously a Daily Mail reader.) On the Tube, a man offered me his seat. “I’m not an old woman,” I told him. “I’m a Daily Mail features writer wearing a prosthetic face.” He moved away.

I was asked to wear a burqa for a week. A black burqa was no good for the photographs – the Mail hates black clothing, even to illustrate a story about black clothing – so I hired a golden one from Angels, the costumiers. I later saw a photograph of myself in that burqa, illustrating an actual news story in the Evening Standard.

In the US, a woman passed herself off as a man, convincingly, for a year. I was asked to do the same, although the budget would not run to a year. Even so, the idea that the Daily Mail would pay a female journalist to pretend to be a man permanently is not, if you know the paper, that weird.

I went to the BBC costume department and was given a fat suit and a wig. I was a very ugly man. As I left the BBC – my instructions were, among other things, to chat up women – a woman said to me, “You’re not a man, you’re a lesbian.” I hid in a pub and engaged in a telephone stand-off with editorial. I explained that I did not want to leave the pub because I didn’t look like a man at all but a very creepy woman, which is exactly what I was.

Suzanne Moore is away

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State