On the outside, shouting in

Features editor

It seems like there will never be a time when a president of the Royal Academy of Engineering won’t have to chide the government about its industrial policy. The question of how the UK can ‘get industry right’ is a perennial one; it’s doubtful that there was ever a time when it did — with the possible exception of the industial revolution itself, but that’s one for historians.

It’s now Sir John Parker’s turn to plough this particular furrow. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper last week, the chairman of the mining group Anglo American said that the government should be more protective of strategic sectors, citing the example of the attitudes of the French, German and Spanish governments towards their aerospace sectors; and should take a 20-25 year view of which sectors should be regarded as strategic. These should have strong export prospects and robust supply chains, he said, and should receive support during tough patches. There should be cross-departmental policymaking, he added, with research and development and skills training targeted towards these strategic sectors.

Parker also criticised the decision to allow polytechnics to become universities, as it removed the inbuilt technical and vocational slant of the courses that these institutions offered. He pointed up the disparity between the lack of engineering skills training in the UK —something often mentioned by engineering companies — and the political desire to clamp down on immigrants. If we don’t produce our own engineers, he said, then we’ll have to import them; and if immigration policy means that we can’t, then we’re in even more trouble.

The prospect of the government ‘picking winners’, whether it’s in terms of companies or sectors, isn’t one that will fill many engineers and manufacturers with delight. There’s nothing wrong with the idea — it only makes sense that there should be strategic thinking — but experience suggests that government just isn’t good at making these decisions. Many companies and industry bodies can tell stories about how they fruitlessly tried to attract the attention of policymakers, to little avail, and how valuable contracts went to overseas suppliers.

The government is still trying to find the right balance in industrial policy. The interventionist ideas of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t work. The non-interventionist ideas of the 1980s didn’t work either. We’re now in the position of having several sectors which are performing strongly, but under foreign ownership, such as the automotive OEM sector (although its supply chain is also doing well and is much more UK-owned); and sectors like aerospace where multinationals rule the roost and the UK holds a strong specialist area. The question of how much the nationality of the ownership of companies matters in a globalised industry is still very much open.

The message that comes across from Parker’s comments is about advice. Politicians aren’t engineers and they never will be: in an ideal world, they will be people with a wider mixture of backgrounds than they currently have, certainly, but they will still always be, at heart, generalists. That means that they need to be advised by people who are expert in their fields; that, in turn, means that the conduits for that advice need to be embedded into the policy-making structure. In other words, there needs to be stronger representation of engineering and manufacturing thinking in government departments.

This would seem to be self-evident, but it’s only recently that scientific advice was embedded across all government department, with the Treasury finally getting a scientific advisor this year. But the needs of science and those of industry, although linked, are not the same. Surely it’s time for engineering and manufacturing advisors to have an official role within each department. Moreover, the government needs a chief engineer. That way, eminent people such as Sir John Parker wouldn’t feel that they are on the outside, struggling to be heard.