MANY people in Britain will say that this country doesn’t make things anymore.
They say our past as the planet’s manufacturing hub, where Britain was really the workshop of the world, has been lost forever, as this country either closed its factories permanently or exported them over to China.
They say we now only make our money in this country through services and it is because of this that we’re in the mess we’re in.
As with most arguments, there’s some element of truth in this.
Over the past thirty or forty years, successive governments have been far too keen on thinking that Britain’s economic future lay with the service industries as opposed to the more traditional manufacturing firms, and placed far too much emphasis on the prospects of services, rather than helping heavy industry endure the changes required to be competitive from the 1960s onwards.
As a result, employment in the service industries grew hugely, usually at the expense of manufacturing employment.
Last week there was a debate in the House of Commons about the future of manufacturing in the UK.
I think this a hugely important issue for the country, as well as for Hartlepool.
I spoke in the debate in my new role as Shadow Minister for Competitiveness and Enterprise, and stressed the need to ensure that manufacturing has an important, even central, role in the British economy in the next few years.
We still make things in this country, much more than many people realise. We remain the seventh biggest manufacturing nation on earth.
The value of goods we make and sell to the rest of the world have been on a steady increase since the Second World War, only falling during the big recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, and reached their peak of activity not in the Victorian era, but in 2007.
We have in this country world-class industries that can compete with their counterparts anywhere on the planet.
Sectors like aerospace, oil and gas, automotives and biotechnology are where we in Britain are leading the pack.
Most people will not realise this, but we now build more cars in this country (about one million a year) and more car engines (about two million a year), than we have ever done in our history.
We export about 75 per cent of them too, making a positive impact on our balance of trade figures. Nissan, just up the road, employing Hartlepool people and using Hartlepool businesses as part of their supply chain, is the most productive car manufacturing plant anywhere in Europe, producing more cars per worker than any other plant.
It is relatively easy for somebody like me, coming from Hartlepool, to pay tribute to our manufacturing tradition and look forward to the enormous potential that manufacturing still has for our economic future.
I am very proud that Hartlepool, and the wider North-East region, was at the very vanguard of the Industrial Revolution.
Most of the time when it comes to manufacturing and industrial processes, it is the North-East that was the first – the Stockton and Darlington Railway being the first public railway in the world, Stephenson’s Rocket, the most advanced steam engine of its day, was built in the Forth Street Works in Newcastle, the first house in the world to be lit by a lightbulb was in Gateshead.
However, I don’t want our manufacturing pride to be based on our past. I want us to be the best place anywhere in the world to do high value added manufacturing.
In order to do this, we need an active and intelligent government policy, supporting and defending British manufacturers.
I think sometimes British governments have not really batted for British companies, thinking it’s best to play the game fairly rather than win the match.
I don’t tend to take that view: I want Britain, and British manufacturing, to win the competitive game. I think the job of government is to support and help nurture the industrial firms of the future, those who will provide jobs and wealth and sell goods across the world
It’s a cutthroat business in the modern world, but with decent and co-ordinated government support, British manufacturing can really thrive in the 21st Century.