Britain’s manufacturing force may soon disappear: Analyst

357326_Britain-workforce-industrialBritain tends to measure out its modern history in wars and their last survivors, from the Somme to D-day. But its now dwindling band of industrial and manufacturing workers will likely remain unhymned.

Imagining the past is the business of the historian and the historical novelist, but sometimes the past springs more readily to life at the sight of something small and ephemeral with nothing – no other mind – standing between you and it.

In my case, the object in question is a copy of a weekly magazine, the Shipbuilding & Shipping Record dated 27 April 1961, which a nephew, knowing the foibles of his uncle, gave me for my birthday a few years ago. I don’t think it cost him much – I imagine about 10 times the original two-shilling cover price – and I received it in the spirit I imagined it was given, as a teasing oddity that might be glanced at and then lost.

Which is what more or less happened until its recent rediscovery under the small drift of literature that lives on the bathroom stool, since when it has given me hours of wistful amazement – not so much from its editorial reports, which are interesting enough, but from the many pages of advertisements paid for by the companies that once comprised Britain’s marine engineering industry.

Shipyards … I expected shipyards, just as I expected the names of shipbuilding towns, and several of the old firms are there: Henry Robb of Leith, Hawthorn Leslie of Hebburn (building ships “true to the tradition of functional and aesthetic efficiency”), Thorneycroft of Southampton.

But many more pages advertise the things that went into ships – the parts rather than the whole – and from their variety and their addresses you begin to understand what the phrase “supply chain” once meant to Britain, and how maritime activity touched the unlikeliest places, many miles from the sea.

For example: Stothert & Pitt of Bath built anchor and warping gear; Adams Hydraulics of York made sewage ejectors; Simms of East Finchley supplied starter motors for lifeboats. The ads run for more than 70 pages and are never shy to picture the product in honest black-and-white. Gleniffer engines, Drysdale pumps, Anderson cranes, switchboards by Campbell & Isherwood, turbines by Greenwood & Batley: travellers through Britain can sometimes still see from their train window a yet-to-be-developed acreage of rosebay willow herb where that kind of factory once stood.

The unsettling thing for the reader of a certain age is to realise that he grew up in that world, which now looks so remote. Around the time of the magazine’s publication, a headmaster in his study was telling me that an apprenticeship as a draughtsman would be the start of a sound career.

A year earlier, in my seagoing phase, I’d looked admiringly at pictures of deck officers in white shorts (“tropical kit”) in a careers pamphlet for the merchant navy. We would always need British draughtsmen and British ships, wouldn’t we? But 20 years later that question was no longer rhetorical, and could be answered, “No”. The disjuncture shook millions of lives.

Britain tends to measure out its modern history in wars and their last survivors. When my headmaster was outlining a bright future in a drawing office (though it was unlikely that a BA Cantab had ever seen inside one), men who fought in the Boer war still took their place in veterans’ parades and the band played Goodbye Dolly Gray.
As the years passed, the men of Mafeking were replaced by the men of the Somme, until those too died, and made way for those who took part in Dunkirk, El Alamein and D-day.

The history of civilian working life has no equivalent in terms of public remembrance, save perhaps for the Durham Miners Gala and the occasional re-enactment by Jeremy Deller, and perhaps it should stay that way; what could be sadder than parades of silver-haired men and women in blue overalls, striding to nowhere with their flat caps, headscarves and lunchboxes.

Nevertheless, a time is coming when they too will be seen as a dwindling band of survivors from a time that those who didn’t live in it can barely imagine. Windlasses from Thomas Reid & Sons of Paisley, anchor chains from Hingley’s of Dudley, steam tugs from Cochranes of Selby: from the pages of the Shipbuilding & Shipping Record comes the faraway moan of the factory hooter, a sound that one day we might learn to think of as a requiem – the equivalent of the two-minute silence.

So, can British manufacturing be revived?

The last time the United Kingdom exported more goods than it imported was 1983. For most years until 1997, its trade surplus in services more than compensated for its deficit in goods, but since that year the value of the deficit in goods has risen eight times, while the surplus in services has only doubled, which has made the UK a net importer overall for the past 15 years, with its share of world trade declining by 25%.

A sterling depreciation and political promises to “rebalance the economy” don’t seem to have helped matters much. The shortfalls in the last two quarters of last year came to £45.2bn or 5.5% of GDP; according to Larry Elliott in the Guardian this week, Britain has never seen a bigger current account deficit than it is running right now, and most of the cause is manufactured goods.

Another balance of payments crisis looks to be heading our way. The wonder is that, firstly, so many places still exist where George Osborne can get into his hardhat and high-vis jacket and pose beside a forklift truck; and secondly, that the Labour party seems so reluctant to engage with anything that could be termed an industrial strategy, which could reroute investment from its favorite refuge in property towards productive manufacturing.

Easier said than done, of course, but under-investment in industry has been identified over at least the past half-century as the key to Britain’s economic decline; you might imagine Labour would posit some solution.

I found a document online called One Nation Economy, an early segment of the party’s policy review that’s now being conducted by John Cruddas. It was platitudinous: “Britain’s working people are our country’s greatest asset.” It said Labour would support green industries and “build long-termism into the economy” by abolishing the quarterly reporting of a company’s profits and making sure investors put long-term growth above short-term profit. (How? Not disclosed.)

I don’t mean to traduce the document, but it wasn’t inspiring. Here is Cruddas’s saddest sentence: “These [proposals] will be submitted to the relevant policy commissions within the National Policy Forum and through that root play a part in building a manifesto worthy of the British people in 2015.” Yes, that root.

Extremely bad weather is no longer a novelty

It suited fiction once upon a time to portray the first portents of the world’s end as tiny, innocent-seeming irregularities that the characters in the film or book hardly noticed. But these days we’re quickly on the case.

We know that the dust mottling the car roof has come directly from the Sahara, and though this may not be another symptom of climate change, it gets added to the ominous list.

In 1987, we were such innocents. When the great gale ravaged southern England that year, nobody connected it to a secret climatic movement that was slowly gathering strength. It was just extremely bad weather. Unusual, odd.

In a piece for Granta, Jonathan Raban recounted the scene in Hyde Park the day after, when the park was littered with crashed trees and “as noisy as a logging camp”. People felt themselves drawn to the park without knowing why “and each one felt a surge of private exultation at the sight of what the storm had done. It’s so sad, people said, trying to quench their smiles – for they didn’t feel sad at all. They were thrilled by the magnificent destruction of the wind: it was as if the world itself had come tumbling down, and even the shyest, most pacific people in the crowd felt some answering chord of violence in their own natures … ”

We were still in the Age of Ignorance.

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