I never thought I’d write this, but I miss OLTEP. In the run-up to 2015, ministers uttered the words ‘our long-term economic plan’ even more regularly than Emma Dent Coad issues non-apologies for dodgy things she has said online.
If we were bored of the soundbite, imagine how much more bored those charged with saying it were. But on they went, confident that it worked and assured that only be repetition would it reach sufficient voters to change public opinion. Then it went away, and we all felt a bit relieved.
Until now. OLTEP was a bit clunky, but it was a work of linguistic art compared to the new official slogan: “building a Britain fit for the future”. I get what its authors mean by it. We’re going to give the nation an energetic work-out, shed its flab and sculpt its muscles. Bend to touch your toes, now 25 star jumps – nope, not enthusiastic enough, do it again.
The problem is that it’s simply awkward to say. Or indeed to write, as Damian Green discovered last week when he described the Budget as offering “an economic fit for the future”, which sounded medically troubling.
In that awkwardness, it brings to mind two previous, related slogans. The first is the title of the 2010 Labour manifesto – ‘A future fair for all’ – which read like Yoda was promising bumper cars and a merry-go-round in every town. The second is the book by Jeremy Browne, the former Lib Dem MP, titled ‘Race Plan’ – innocently intended to be a metaphorical exercise guide to help Britain in the global economic race, it ended up sounding like a memo from Himmler.
Like it or not, however, it appears we’re stuck with this slightly exhausting pledge of future national fitness. Having been launched with the Budget, it’s now the subtitle of today’s Industrial Strategy White Paper.
The document is Greg Clark’s much-anticipated flesh for the bones of the Prime Minister’s “modern industrial strategy”. As I wrote almost exactly a year ago, those words sparked conflicting emotions in many Conservatives. Was this going to be another attempt to pick winners, with government pouring taxpayers’ money into enterprises that private investors felt were too dubious to merit putting their own cash behind? Or was it going to be about education and skills and regulation, creating an environment in which Britain would be best equipped to adapt to the inherently unknowable challenges and opportunities that the future would bring?
The early insights seemed to lean more towards the latter, happily, though there were still some signs that the Government intended to get directly involved in backing particular technologies or companies.
That’s broadly still the case in the White Paper, though there have been a few changes. The rising public and media attention paid to productivity means that resolving the productivity gap has become the central stated purpose of the strategy – ‘productivity’ gets an impressive 426 mentions in the document.
There are welcome measures in there which will help to make the nation more competitive, from the expansion of maths, digital and technical education to measures to encourage greater Research and Development spending by firms. At their best, things like Sector Deals and Challenge Funds will use Government’s powers and resources to spur new thinking from the private sector, including frank and honest discussions about how state bodies can get out of the way where they are unnecessarily obstructive. But that will take careful management and strong discipline to deliver – I still worry that, if neglected, these initiatives could easily slip into a game of special pleading and backing today’s companies against tomorrow’s potential disruptors.
Some of those risks can be seen in the flip side of the industrial strategy. It’s easy for May to say, as she did last year, that: “A fatal flaw of old-style industrial strategies was that they mainly addressed existing industries and companies.” But when Ministers announce hundreds of millions of pounds for electric car charging points, or financial support for specific robotics technologies, or new spending for hard-wired internet connections (at the same time as backing 5G mobile internet), isn’t that repeating exactly the same flaw?
There is great potential in many of the ideas contained in Clark’s White Paper. A better system to ensure British universities and companies capitalise on the many scientific discoveries made in this country, for example, would be worth billions, and avoid the repetition of some unforced past errors. As I say, the management of the Sector Deals could yet yield excellent improvements in a variety of sectors, too.
At its best, this Industrial Strategy will change the way the British economy works in such a way that it will allow as yet unimagined innovations and success stories to flourish. At worst, it could end up being captured by existing vested interests. Ministers must work ceaselessly to make sure it is the former which happens, not the latter.