Until today, May’s “modern industrial strategy” has been a silhouette, outlined mostly by what it is not – clues were provided by her 2013 ConservativeHome speech in which she dismissed “beer and sandwiches…[and] failed seventies-style corporatism”, and by her CBI speech in the Autumn, when she explained “it is not about propping up failing industries or picking winners, but creating the conditions where winners can emerge and grow.”
That implied to us that this would be a strategy based heavily on improvements to education and skills – how else can you develop an industrial strategy that improves the country’s potential rather than trying to decide the future of the economy centrally? The failures of “seventies-style corporatism” and the unpredicted new industries of the digital age both make clear that any attempt to treat the economy as a train, forced to a particular destination by rails laid down by government, is doomed from the outset. Far better to think of the economy like a car – kit it out with a good engine by ensuring the required infrastructure is in place, fuel it up with a workforce who are well educated, and retain the flexibility to change your course as time goes by and new opportunities emerge.
It seems from today’s announcement that ministers agree. The ConservativeHome manifesto proposed a greater emphasis on revamped and worthwhile technical and vocational education – under May’s plan there will not only be new funding for Institutes of Technology, but thousands of technical and vocational qualifications will be reviewed and simplified. There still remains the question of whether the Government is willing to redeploy funds from universities to vocational education – such a step would be controversial among the university-dominated commentariat but would be a vivid demonstration of May’s pledge to aid the “just-about managing”.
On infrastructure, the emphasis seems to be on broadband, 5G mobile networks and improved transport – all welcome, but all subject to the pitfalls that previous governments have experienced. After all, broadband still isn’t universal, 4G networks are patchy and major rail links in particular are still bedevilled by strike action. We can all agree that future upgrades are a good idea, but we’re yet to see exactly how the Government intends to fix the problems with the infrastructure that we already have.
Finally, it’s interesting to observe the way the Government is trying to redefine how an industrial strategy should work. May’s rejection of corporatism and picking winners is undoubtedly correct – as she writes in the i paper today, “A fatal flaw of old-style industrial strategies was that they mainly addressed existing industries and companies.” It would, however, be difficult to develop an industrial strategy – even a “modern” one – without including business in the process at all.
Squaring that circle is proving a bit tricky. Part of the £4.7 billion research funding announced today will go on 5G, which could fairly be categorised as infrastructure, creating the conditions for growth without dictating which industries the growth will come from. But the rest of it will, to quote the Telegraph, “pay for research and development into smart energy technologies, robotics [and] artificial intelligence”. Call it what you like, to Thatcherite ears that still sounds quite a lot like picking winners.
No doubt all of those sectors will be important in future, but putting taxpayers’ money behind them looks rather more like an old industrial strategy than a modern one – reminiscent as it is of Wilson’s excitement about “the white heat of technology”, back in 1963. If ministers are simply ditching Osborne’s favourite costume of day-glo-and-a-hard-hat for white-coat-and-lab-goggles, it will be more of a refocusing than a break from the previous administration, too.
Key to whether May manages to make her approach truly new will be how her new “sector deals” pan out. Government is effectively challenging any industry that wants to to get together and produce a business plan for how ministers could assist it – through deregulation, new infrastructure, better education and so on. It’s an approach more than a little reminiscent of the Osborne format of devolution, in that it asks those who stand to benefit to do the policy work and trusts those close to the issues to do the thinking rather than presume that Whitehall knows best. If they generate genuinely innovative ways for the state to free entrepreneurs and innovators to do new things more easily, the industrial strategy could justly lay claim to the title of modernity. If, on the other hand, it falls back to the tried and troubled approach of throwing money at business, it risks being seen as the same old strategy we abandoned before.