UK manufacturing: The past and its grip on our future

As EngineeringUK says, we need to find 20,000 more engineers a year between now and 2025. Nick Peters wonders if the story of a vibrant manufacturing sector of today is being drowned by a cultural narrative of despair that we must shake if we are to succeed.

The research projects taking at Factory 2050 produce real-world answers to today’s manufacturing problems – image courtesy of AMRC.
Modern manufacturing is far removed from the darkness of those soot-encrusted days of yore – image courtesy of AMRC.

The premiere of the new BBC series Collateral last night (12 Feb 2018) prompted this morning’s Guardian to discuss great ‘state of the nation’ dramas of recent decades.

You know, the ones that contain a hard-edged commentary on the nation’s politics, wrapped in human drama. 

One of the standouts they mentioned was The Boys from the Blackstuff, a harrowing 1980s story of de-industrialisation and unemployment, and what was described at the time as, “TV’s most complete dramatic response to the Thatcher-era and as a lament to the end of a male, working-class British culture”.   

I had already been thinking about that in the context of the efforts by the industrial sector to persuade a reluctant nation that modern UK manufacturing is far removed from the darkness of those soot-encrusted days of yore, that it represents hope, not despair.

I had tripped over a music video by Jimmy Nail called Big River. Nail had also, of course, been part of a 1980s state of the nation drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet, a tale of unemployed men seeking work as builders in West Germany (sound familiar?).

Big River, recorded in 1992, is an unabashed lament for the death of shipbuilding on the Tyne. It speaks of pride, of loss and, ultimately, hope of resurrection.

Of course, Newcastle, like Liverpool on the other coast, has regenerated and both regions are abuzz with industry, particularly automotive. 

And yet, what struck me was that the cultural narrative of decline still exerts its grip.

Old Factory in Decline De-Industrialisation - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Despite it being far from true, the cultural narrative of decline still exerts its grip – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

When we talk of the influence of parents and grandparents being so important when it comes to giving today’s youngsters careers advice, we need to acknowledge that it is not just their own personal experience of either losing their jobs in industry, or never being able to find one, that matters.

It is also the culture they grew up with that painted their backgrounds and gave their lives texture. It’s what culture does, and incredibly, there has been nothing to alter that picture since.

Yes, the focus of state of the nation drama moved to financial services, but it remained relentlessly downbeat and cynical. All modern business is dominated by spivs, all historic business riddled with failure. 

What can we do to change the story?

Simply telling people change has happened is not enough. We have to reboot the narrative.

When I wrote about the new McLaren factory in Sheffield recently, it was on the context of its location on the ground where the infamous Battle of Orgreave was fought between striking miners and the police in 1984.

I tried to frame a modern success in the context of historic pain, trying to reset the narrative. But stories like that have to reach beyond the pages of The Manufacturer.

Perhaps there are dramatists out there who can do the future justice, (although good news is, as we know, a tough sell.) Comedy, perhaps? Me and my Cobot anyone?

The documentary format is the most accessible, although arguably the least influential, but an examination of modern UK manufacturing that untangles the cultural legacy of those days, to give the future a chance, would be a great start.