Culture to blame for low industrial base

Posted on 21 Mar 2011 by The Manufacturer

BGC’s Howard Wheeldon makes strong connections between Britain's cultural attitudes and her economic woes.

For a nation that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, that had once boasted the largest empire since the Romans, that less than a century ago enjoyed having far greater influence in world affairs than the US and that was, when all is said and done, a nation that peers either looked up to or feared, how sad it is to say that the Britain that we still know and love today is a shadow of its former self.

To think that just 50 years ago we thought that the world was not only round and fair but that it was still one that owed us a living and always would. To think that we had very little idea, let alone recognition, that this fact together with paying ourselves far too much, failing to build and invest on what we had already achieved, failing to modernise and to train our young people sufficiently enough and also to think that we failed to even recognise that competition was growing up fast and would inevitably lead to our undoing. Back then, we were the exporters of the world – in fact even as recently as 1964 we exported more cars than anyone else. We paid lip service to no one and did not know what the words ‘politically correct’ even meant! We exported whatever we could and nine times out of ten we did so in a very responsible manner.

The rest is history and today, rather than being the manufacturing window of the world, we import most of what we consume. We still have some pretty good industries of course, such as those of aerospace, defence and the manufacturing and assembly of cars. Great, and yet there are sadly those today that would even stop us from doing some of that if they could.

For instance, being world number two in defence exports (which brought no less than £7.2bn into the UK economy last year, together with helping to retain the 350,000 jobs involved in aerospace and defence) isn’t good enough for some who would prefer that we gave all of that to US, French, German and Russian competition on the grounds of political correctness.

True, there are still some plusses of course, such as the City of London still being a world leader in the global financial market despite the seeming determination of government and opposition parties alike not to mention European and UK regulators as well to write a suicide note for these industries. What a fine mess we got ourselves into, and yet it seems that no matter that we are left to crawl over the wreckage of what we once had been, we still have that great preponderance to shoot ourselves in the foot again and again!

Leaving all issues of religion aside, it seems to me that the other side of British ‘culture’ today is the one that is most influenced by concentrating on the negative. We are never happier, it seems, than when we are doing ourselves down. We are happy to rile our banks to the point of pushing them overseas without taking note of any of the negative consequences to them and to the wider economy.

Over the years, for some as yet unexplained reason, we have been seemingly happy to allow the European Union to dictate far too many of our laws and to steamroller more and more rules and regulations upon us. We still play the game of course, meaning that unlike others in the EU such as France that are content to put two fingers up to EU law and rules should it suit them we in Britain always stick by the rules. If we do well at something, if say one of our companies happens to be investing and creating new jobs or should we find that we have won a decent sized export order it seems that the level of interest in our press and media is only very subdued. And yet if a factory should be closing and jobs are to be lost this will be the top headline. Bad news sells of course, so they say. Good news doesn’t.

Meanwhile, we are rightly or wrongly ever ready to criticise our politicians should they put one single foot wrong and to also put the knife in wherever we can. And yet our voters are so fickle that those in government just two years ago and who were rightly to be so severely criticised when they were responsible for government are for some reason to be treated like gods. And should a member of the royal family who for some strange and as yet unexplained reason was appointed by the last government as a trade ambassador should then slip on a banana skin it seems that we will just not be content until he is gone. So it is, it seems, with the Duke of York this week and the shenanigans of whatever it is that he is supposed to have done and for which in my eyes at least his position now looks untenable.

I have suggested this many times before, since I began these commentary pieces at BGC Partners four years ago, what a wonderful place this could be with a little bit of hard work. The strange thing that one realises about British culture is not what it is now but moreover, what it probably lacks. For instance, while we are absolutely fantastic at working together in wartime we are quite useless in working together during peacetime and particularly in times of economic hardship. We are always good at competing, of course, but sadly we are also good at competing with each other for the very same ends. We are also pretty good at opening the doors of industry and commerce to Johnny Foreigner not only so that they can more easily sell us their goods but also in the hope that they will buy us up and kill our companies and capacity off. And yet for some reason we turn the other cheek when countries like France and Japan fail to allow our captains of industry in to develop their businesses on a level playing field.

I have said before that sooner or later we muck up everything that we have gone to so much trouble to create. Worse is that we almost always forget the lesson of ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’. Thankfully, we believe that intelligence is no barrier to stupidity and yet time and time again we forget to actually practice it. We love reorganisation and yet we forget the old adage that ‘reorganisation is wonderful method of creating an illusion of progress whilst in reality providing only confusion, inefficiency and reduced motivation’. And what do we know about motivation? Not an awful lot.

We have an unfortunate tendency to hate some of those that are most successful and never happy until we have brought them down. And yet we (or should I say our press and media) just love putting some people on a pedestal even if they don’t deserve to be there. It is said that we love losers and that despite not having that much time in our very busy lives we are, it seems, very good at ensuring that we always make ourselves out to be caring neighbours to those that are less well off and not so lucky as ourselves. We are great too at telling others that they are ‘doing it wrong’ and yet we resent being told that same message to ourselves! We love our football, our rugby union and on a good day, even our cricketers and for the most part we turn a blind eye to the vast sums of money that they earn. And yet we are very content to burn our bankers at the stake completely ignoring that, unlike our rather overpaid footballers, they bring in billions of pounds to the national economy.

We are content to ensure that defence of the realm is done on a shoestring, that our armed forces and their families are made to struggle to make ends meet then serve in Afghanistan only to find themselves made redundant. We skimp on equipment, get rid of perfectly good Royal Navy ships and RAF fighter planes and then let thousands of our armed forces go. We put our campaign in Afghanistan at the top of our agenda and allow the general public to believe that it is the Army alone that is fighting the battle. Little do they know that combined Royal Air Force and Royal Navy – the latter including the Royal Marines – account for over 60% of the current level of HM Forces engaged in Afghanistan. But as we tear the RAF and Royal Navy apart we allow the Army to keep hugely expensive tanks that we will never use. We love the ceremonials of the Household Cavalry, and yet how many of us realise, I wonder, that the through life cost of keeping each and every horse that the Army possess is no less than £750,000 apiece?

I would probably have a nervous breakdown, if only I had time. Thankfully, I do not have any time. I could go on, of course, to talk about the ‘fondness’ we have for our weather and our love of going to the doctors. We positively rattle with all the pills that we take but there we are. Of course we just love our national health service which as we all know is quite frankly the best and must at all costs be spared the knife. We like our free education system too and all the other goodies that came along with the welfare state. We are very good at closing our eyes and ears to things that we do not want to hear and see particularly when it comes to the cost of something and who pays. Don’t worry, as it is just you and me the taxpayer who will sort that out. In terms of managing expectation in health, welfare and education we just don’t have a clue and seem content that as soon as something is developed in the medical arena it automatically becomes the right of all to have. We are great too at failing to recognise that for years and years we have been living beyond our means and that at some point the chickens were bound to come home to roost. We love something for nothing and they tell me that we love to gamble too. Now we are not exactly five but we are, thanks to Gordon Brown and his merry band marauding nits, completely broke. In this sorry tale of woe that is probably more than enough for now but as the late John Ebdon used to say – you see what I mean. If you have done then thanks for reading and don’t fret, we will not only get ourselves through this mess, we will probably come out smelling of roses on the other side! Yes, I’ll be back tomorrow – after all, it’s being so cheerful that keeps me going and despite the fact that I admit to being a Scot in part, for the most part I too am British.