This article is from the November 2012 issue of Total Politics
“In 1958, I was a craft apprentice to an engineer,” Gordon Birtwistle MP told a crowd of Liberal Democrat Party Conference reception guests. “When I started work, manufacturing was 45 per cent of GDP – what would we give for that now?”
The MP for Burnley and self-confessed “complete manufacturing zealot” was speaking at a conference reception hosted by Total Politics and ADS, the trade organisation for all UK aerospace, defence, security and space companies. His argument was that manufacturing, now “seen as a Cinderella industry”, should be used to boost the UK economy. “We’ve got to get back to making things,” he insisted.
And nowhere is this need more urgent than in the industries represented by ADS, as the organisation’s CEO, Rees Ward, argued: “The government needs to rebalance the economy. It needs to drive advanced engineering and manufacturing in this country back up to the halcyon days of two or three decades ago.”
He praised Vince Cable’s understanding of the sector, but reminded the audience of politicians, industry experts and party members that “growth can only be developed through exports. We need to invest. We need the government to back winners.”
Dr Julie Smith, Cambridge social scientist, Liberal Democrat and chair of a new defence working group, added that this growth should stem from the British defence industry: “We need to look to greater collaboration and co-operation with our European allies.
“Maybe we should build more ships and the French can build more submarines – our Tory friends may not like that,” she added, “[but] strategic procurement and specialisation are important, as well as exporting to our European allies.”
At the same event held at Labour Party Conference, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna reiterated the central position of these sectors to growth, stressing that they must be depoliticised: “We have an active industrial strategy. If you are to go on and grow and succeed, one of the things you need is more policy certainty – the challenge for us is where we can clear away party politics and provide you with long-term policy security.”
He also called for cross-party co-operation on mergers with overseas companies, such as the recently collapsed BAE Systems–EADS deal, stating, “We see this very much as a national interest issue. It’s far too important to knock about as a political football.”
Addressing the Conservatives’ ADS reception, Robin Southwell, CEO of EADS UK, praised David Cameron for his support: “The prime minister wants also to encompass the defence sector. We’re very pleased with this.”
Michael Fallon MP, the new aerospace minister at BIS, also emphasised the government’s enthusiasm for such sources of growth, He told the audience, “We make money from making aircraft in this country. This is a growth industry, this is not an industry in decline.
“We are not bystanders in what is going on. We are not sitting on the sidelines. National defence and security interests are at stake here.”