UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, says he wants to see more ‘Made in Britain’ stickers appearing around the world. So would I. But we have to create the right conditions for that to happen.
We certainly don’t want ‘Made in Britain’ stickers to appear round the world only because we are subsidising our production. We tried that in the 1970s with shipbuilding, steelmaking and volume car manufacturing. It just loaded cost on taxpayers and created vast monopolies that grew inefficient because they faced no effective competition. But in fact, other emerging economies such as Korea could do all these things better and cheaper than we did.
Adam Smith pointed out 250 years ago that by means of glasshouses and hotbeds you can grow good grapes in Scotland, and make wine out of them – but at around 30 times what it costs to make wine in France. So we should stick with what we are better at than others – design, fashion, finance, tourism, education and luxury goods such as Scotch Whisky.
What we certainly should not be doing is subsidising industries such as renewable energy. If these are potentially money-making industries for the future (as the government say, to justify the subsidies), then private investors would be well ahead of any government investment bureaucracy, that is for sure.
Perhaps Mr Osborne is riled by the fact that Germany, even though its economy is flatlining, has expanded its exports to China, while the UK, even with its devalued pound, hasn’t. But the solution to that is a proper growth agenda. Roll back the acres of regulation on employment and manufacturing, making it easier for people to hire workers and less risky to invest. Then stand back and watch the ‘Made in Britain’ stickers streaming out.