UK Prime Minister Theresa May has unveiled an industrial strategy which seems to place her in a different camp to her political idol, former Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher was famous for battling the trade unions, who were largely entrenched in the industrial sector, which she has been accused of decimating ever since.
Now, her successor is looking to revive industry and is offering a range of sweeteners and sweetheart deals, similar to the one rumoured to have been offered Nissan last year.
In a statement to her regional cabinet in north-west England later today, the PM is expected to talk about a “modern” outlook on industry.
May will tell her top ministers: “The modern industrial strategy will back Britain for the long term: creating the conditions where successful businesses can emerge and grow, and backing them to invest in the long-term future of our country.
“It will be underpinned by a new approach to government, not just stepping back but stepping up to a new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success.”
The north-west has long been regarded as one of the centres of UK manufacturing, but nowadays, the perception is that manufacturing doesn’t actually happen much anywhere in the country.
This is not inaccurate, of course, and Britain remains one of the top 10 manufacturing nations in the world with annual output of probably around $300 billion.
Problem is, $300 billion is about the same as a few Apple Mac computers.
Tech has taken over in the intervening decades since Thatcher first came to power promising to smash the trade unions, but computers and related technology don’t seem to inspire the public as much as industry and manufacturing seems to at the moment.
Industrial mood music
The word “industry” has fallen out of favour somewhat over the years, gone a bit rusty. Probably started in the 1970s and 80s when industrial “action” – meaning strikes and disputes between employers and workers – were frequent enough to cause some fatigue in the public’s minds.
By the time Thatcher, UK prime minister from 1979 to 1990, left office, she had transformed the country from an ageing industrial power with a large manufacturing base into a forward-looking service-based economy.
The most lucrative of those services were in banking and finance, a sector which is still earning the most amount of foreign money for the UK today, vying with defence and armaments for top spot.
However, a combination of the financial crisis, dating back 10 years, and global competition, which probably dates back to the Thatcher era, has led to some stagnation in western economies and the UK has been one of the major nations affected.
Political leaders have been trying to find a solution to the ongoing lack of growth drivers – other than technology, which doesn’t seem to have the political appeal that manufacturing and old-style industry does.
US President Donald Trump made a rallying cry out of his pledge to “bring manufacturing jobs back to the US”, and in the UK, May is probably looking to do something similar.
Brexit blues and reds
With the UK having decided to leave the European Union, the immediate future looks uncertain, and May and her government have been trying to reassure the public they know what they’re doing during the negotiations with the EU.
But the “leftist-Trotskyite” – according to some – leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has accused May of cheap trade tricks.
In a statement to the press a few days ago, Corbyn said: “At every opportunity, the Conservatives have given handouts to the wealthiest and cut taxes for big business – while refusing to provide vital funds for the NHS, cutting social care and ditching rights at work.
“Theresa May’s vision for Brexit is now clear: a bargain basement Britain on the shores of Europe based on low pay and deregulation.
“[Last] week we heard the Prime Minister threaten to turn Britain into a tax haven, slashing corporate taxes and workers’ rights in an all-out race to the bottom.”
Imagine there’s no countries
Some may say the Internet has made geographical boundaries largely redundant, and means business does not need a lot of the old regulations which large trading blocs such as the EU had produced.
Others say it’s precisely because the world is so interconnected now that business needs international governmental co-operation to manage cross-border trade and other related issues. For example, maybe it’s only bodies like the EU which would be powerful enough to make gigantic companies like Apple pay billions of dollars in tax that the iPhone-maker is said to owe.
Apple, and similarly humungous companies like Google, Amazon and others argue that they pay their fair share of taxes, but the EU argues they certainly have not, and court cases are ensuing. Microsoft also had to deal with the EU back in the days when Windows was more or less Planet Earth’s only computer operating system and therefore a monopolistic money-spinner.
Excessively bureaucratic and imperfect though it may be, according to some, the EU is probably ideally suited to a legalistic scrap with any large business or organisation. Who else could stand up to Apple and demand they sell their MacBook Pro laptops for a reasonable price to the average zero-hours contract worker?
Trade unions may not be what people want now, but a 50 per cent discount on a Mac Pro wouldn’t be bad.
Things have moved on
While May and Corbyn bawl each other out across the political divide, the computer and related technology sectors continue to grow and take over more of the economy.
In manufacturing, providers of industrial internet of things solutions are generating billions of dollars, euros, pounds and other currencies as more and more factories around the world go online.
The trend for connecting up every bit of machinery in a factory and entire industrial operation – even across many international borders – to one central command and control centre from which management can monitor everything and make decisions accordingly, is being called a new industrial revolution.
And with increasing amounts of automation at every level, it’s unlikely the growth of the manufacturing sector will necessarily lead to a growth in employment – in the US, UK, or anywhere else.
The manufacturing sector is not of course the only sector automation is affecting.
Last week, IT consulting giant Infosys announced more than 5,000 redundancies, explaining that automation means a lot of the low-level tasks can now be done by algorithms rather than humans.
Some people are saying that automation could do away with a large number of jobs in the financial sector, one of the key components of the economic engine of the UK.
Maybe it will mean more efficiencies, savings and profits for the financial sector, but will it lead to more jobs for the citizens or more taxes for the government, or neither?