As a veteran oilman, Lord Browne — the former head of BP who is now president of the Royal Academy of Engineering — knows more than most about national assets and how a combination of political will, private enterprise and engineering know-how can exploit them to their maximum potential.
It is his generation of the energy sector that led the charge to the North Sea and the creation of an offshore industry that helped sustain the nation through the darkest days of the world’s last great economic slump.
In a speech to the Academy last week, Lord Browne got to the heart of arguably the most important questions facing the UK and every other developed economy: who decides where we are going as a country and who is going to get us there?
In the case of the first question, there is a growing clamour for some good old political leadership. Calls are growing for the government to start coming up with some bold responses to the big challenges confronting the nation.
If we want to be world leaders in the key industries of the future, if we want to tackle climate change, if we want to have a secure energy supply and a transport system that works, someone has to make those decisions and have the will to see them through.
As Lord Browne puts it: ‘The greatest challenges are, in fact, political.’
What we need, in fact, is some vision.
It is fair to say that vision has taken something of a back seat in the increasingly managerial politics of the last 25 years, during which time the instinct of both main parties has been to step out of the way and help the market to run as efficiently as possible without necessarily pointing the way it wants it to go.
Visionary thinking has been in rather short supply (although John Major’s Cones Hotline was a valiant attempt) and has been replaced by subtle shifts of emphasis based around who will commit what proportion of resources where.
Lord Browne is surely right to say that when it comes these defining national questions, leadership is needed from the state, and that the state should also use its unparalleled clout as a customer to back its decisions with hard cash.
This isn’t to suggest that we adopt some sort of Soviet-era approach to our key national priorities (meet the 2011 quota for electric car production or face a six-month exile on the Isles of Scilly).
It means that once these priorities have been set, the government champions them in a robust manner that gives those pursuing them every chance to succeed and as few reasons as possible to fail.
What of the second of our two questions, the ‘who will get us there’ part?
Of course, as Lord Browne points out, it will be engineers. The challenge for anyone who cares about the future of engineering and technology in the UK is to make sure that nobody is in any doubt over the critical role the sector will play in helping us meet our aspirations.
Andrew Lee, Editor