This is not something that every Conservative government has recognised. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher would have thought that it was morally wrong and markets could be left to their own devices. Which is part of the reason that the UK has an economy that depends on drilling for fossils, a volatile and badly managed financial service industry and a capital city full of exiles from dodgy regimes living and rentiers.
So it is fantastic to see a government from the right saying how much they want to build a modern industrial economy that is fit for the future and even recognising the obvious fact that this means switching over to renewable energy as quickly as possible.
There are just one or two problems with the strategy.
- It is a tired repetition of a ragbag of policies that have already been announced. A strategy is a long-term forward commitment not a sound bite in which you relaunch the same old failed policies
- There isn’t much money behind the strategy. The UK is losing access to European project funding – some of which really was a seriously bureaucratic waste of time – but much of which was useful. The EU had a regional policy designed to direct funding to the more hard up parts of the trading block. There is no serious coverage in the entire strategy document of exactly how and when the UK intends to replace any gaps created by the closure of these EU schemes. In other words all the increases in funding are mentioned but none of the cuts. It isn’t clear that there is a single penny of net new money.
- The vast majority of the money is being spent on the wrong things. Hinkley Point nuclear project gets billions. Wind energy on land gets nothing. Road schemes and clumsy high publicity rail projects get billions. Simple effective improvements to transport between key locations such as Leeds and Manchester are seriously neglected. (They are arranging for you to be able to read emails whilst you trundle along in an uncomfortable stopping train). Oil and gas extraction gets a great wave of funding support. Actual wave power and other alternative energy generation gets pathetic amounts of token investment.
- Industrial success depends on access to markets. We are now almost certain to lose tariff and paperwork free access to the EU because it is impossible politically for Theresa May to resolve the Ireland problem. Either she sets up a border between Northern and Southern Ireland and provokes a return of the troubles and a veto from the Republic, or she sets up a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and her alliance with the DUP collapses. Either way the damage to industry dwarfs any conceivable gains from the industrial strategy.
- Industrial success depends on access to talent. Yet May is determined that there will be strong immigration controls as a result of taking Britain out of the EU.
- Industrial success depends on constantly updating the skills of people of all ages so that they are well prepared to respond to technological change. School funding is being cut by 5% in real terms. Colleges are being offered headlines about extra funding for T levels and for work experience – along with yet another set of real terms funding cuts. Universities are being discouraged from recruiting overseas students – something which will put a huge hole in their revenues. Adults wishing to retrain are still left facing the need to take out loans and build up debts. Every sector of education is being neglected by a government claiming to have a strategy for the future based on improving skill levels.
- The few genuinely promising ideas are being done on a pathetically small scale that is dwarfed by actions in other countries such as China. The UK is planning to slowly roll out a few more electric vehicle charging points. China has put billions behind making all their new vehicles electric.
On the other hand I also suppose that we would all be a lot more grateful for some significant action. It would make a nice change from announcing the same failed policies again and again in the hope that noise will substitute for substance.