Britain needs to start making things again

At the end of 2015, inflation-adjusted income per capita in the UK was only 0.2% higher than its 2007 peak. This translates into an annual growth rate of 0.025% per year. How pathetic this performance is can be put into perspective by recalling that Japan’s per capita income during its so-called “lost two decades” between 1990 and 2010 grew at 1% a year. …

Unfortunately manufacturing had been so weakened since the 1980s that it didn’t have a hope of staging any such revival. Even with a massive devaluation, the UK’s trade balance in manufacturing goods (that is, manufacturing exports minus imports) as a proportion of GDP has hardly budged. The weakness of manufacturing is the main reason for the UK’s ever-growing deficit, which stood at 5.2% of GDP in 2015.

Another argument is that we now live in a post-industrial knowledge economy, in which “making things” no longer matters. The proponents of this argument wheel out Switzerland, which has more than twice the per capita income of the UK despite – or rather because of – its reliance on finance and tourism.

However Switzerland is actually the most industrialised country in the world, measured by manufacturing output per head. In 2013 that manufacturing output was nearly twice the US’s and nearly three times the UK’s. The discourse of post-industrial knowledge economy fundamentally misunderstands the role of manufacturing in economic prosperity. …

Second, many knowledge-intensive services, such as research, engineering and design, that are supposed to be new have always been there. Most of them used to be conducted by manufacturing firms themselves and have become more “visible” recently largely because they have been “spun off” or “outsourced”. We should not confuse the changes in firms’ organisation with the changes in the nature of economic activities.

All of those supposedly knowledge-intensive services sell mostly to manufacturing firms, so their success depends on manufacturing success. It is not because the Americans invented superior financial techniques that the world’s financial centre moved from London to New York in the mid-20th century. It is because the US became the leading industrial nation.

Making things matters. This is what Britain forgot