Governments should pick winners in the competitiveness race


The government should not shy away from implementing an industrial strategy, and must accept that means picking winners, while scientists and engineers need to become more involved and visible, says Michael Heseltine

Industrial strategy is not everyone’s favourite phrase. You don’t need to tell me – some of my own political friends refuse even to say the words. And I can hear the grumbling now:

“picking winners”


“creating new bureaucracies”.

Industrial strategy is quite a simple concept. It is about government working hand-in-hand with business to help our industrial base get ahead, and about talking to key sectors to help them grow.

It is underpinned by a constant dialogue between the state and the private sector so that each can understand the needs and the concerns of the other. It also involves a more strategic approach to procurement – not just thinking about value for money or quick off-the-shelf solutions, but thinking more long term and investing in the UK’s industrial base.

It’s not rocket science. It is how all advanced economies organise themselves. Some say it is “picking winners”. But that is what all our rivals do. What do people expect governments to do – pick losers?

Why not test day-in day-out, year-on-year, what it takes for each and every one of our companies to be the best in the world and support them to be just that. And let’s shout from the rafters when we achieve the economic equivalent of gold – the multi-billion pound contract in the UK from the Far East, the scientific discovery that secures a British scientist’s place in history forevermore, the world leading innovation that improves daily life immeasurably.

CaSE recently released a report, entitled ‘4Growth’, which argues that the multi-billion pound proceeds from the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction should be reinvested in science and engineering – partly because those proceeds are a return on previous investment and activity in the fields of science, engineering, entrepreneurship, and innovation, and partly because these are the areas the UK must specialise in if we’re to be growing and competitive on the global stage.

It’s absolutely true without investment in people like Marconi and Berners-Lee we wouldn’t have the technologies we take for granted today. Their efforts in creating wireless infrastructure and the world wide web, although made almost a century apart, are both critical parts of our modern economy and speak to the importance of promoting science and engineering.

And it’s not just you talking about it. The TUC have called for an industrial strategy, as has the Times and the CBI. An odd coalition perhaps, but testament to the consensus forming.

We are no longer talking about whether we should have an industrial strategy or not, but instead what it should look like. Vince Cable set his stall out in September and I understand the first wave of sector strategies are coming out shortly. I say well done to him.

And the Prime Minister last week reinforced the message. He said we are in “the economic equivalent of war today” and he is right.

As a man who lived through World War II, I don’t say that lightly. We didn’t win that war by getting our heads down and hoping for the best. We won it by each and every one of us straining every nerve and sinew to beat the enemy. And so it must be that we each do all we can in pursuit of growth.

The Government will reply to my report next week. We shall see what they say. But do not let that be the beginning and the end of the debate. Every one of us has a role to play in making this country a better place to live.

If I have one ask it is this: if you like my recommendations, do them.

If you want a better dialogue with government departments get in there and see them.

If you don’t think the colleges of further education are producing the skilled students you are crying out for then tell them and work with them to do something about it.

If you think the public debate on immigration has become too simplified about illegals and queue jumpers then get on the airwaves and start talking about skilled immigrants.

Gone are the days of waiting for a green light from Whitehall before doing anything. The economic crisis dictates more urgency. It demands that each and every one of us stands up and be counted.

This article is an extract of Lord Heseltine’s CaSE Lecture, delivered earlier this week at the Science Museum