Alice’s reply to Humpty Dumpty is less well-known than his original remark. He says that “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” Alice responds, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Theresa May set out parts of what she has since called a “proper industrial strategy” in her speech to ConservativeHome in 2013. Government should, she said, “map out the established and developing industries that are of strategic value to our economy”; “identify the training and skills capabilities we need, and tailor its policies accordingly”; “identify geographical clusters of industry…so we can help develop these clusters further”; produce a clear [procurement] framework that explicitly takes into account [its] effect on British jobs, skills and the long-term capacity of our economy, and “pursue a relentless campaign to support entrepreneurs and wealth creators”.
In the sense that the sum of these parts suggest, every government will have an industrial strategy. The state will always have a major role in education, training, planning, tax, regulation, infrastructure and so on – not to mention spending billions of pounds. To say so is not to support it getting bigger rather than smaller, or to suggest that it should be Big Brother rather than Little Brother. It is simply to acknowlege how a modern country works. May floated tuition fee discounts for students who want to study degrees like engineering, and referred to the present tax exemptions for start-up businesses.
However, there is a pressure point for May about her industrial strategy, and it is illustrated by returning to some of the examples she chose. She introduced them by referrring to “our nascent industrial strategy”, and added: “Now, before you think I’m about to reach for the beer and sandwiches, I’m not talking about failed seventies-style corporatism. Nor am I talking about a different type of big government. I’m talking about a more strategic role for the state in our economy.” But does government’s record suggest that it’s well-placed to identify industries of future strategic value? Or, say, that it could introduce a bias to British procurement which brings value for money for taxpayers?
The key question for May’s industrial strategy is not whether or not the state has an important place in a modern economy. It is whether or not she will be able to develop the strategic role for government she envisages without lapsing into trying to pick winners.
The vision that she has sketched out could turn out to mean either, which is where Alice’s response comes in. Greg Clark has the responsibility of turning May’s ideas into policy, and we will doubtless find out more in his October Party Conference speech.