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 Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496