I remember on my first visit to Mumbai in 1983, being taken aside by a shopkeeper who asked me, in a conspiratorial whisper, if I had any Camay soap on my person. It was then explained to me how hard it was for her to get some of the simple luxuries we took for granted in the UK. A decent bar of pure, white soap was just one of them.
Sensing she had a sympathetic, if somewhat baffled listener, she continued to flatter, `Also if you can bring me anything British.’
Going back to my childhood in Kuwait, where everything was imported, the mark of `Made in Great Britain’ as a guarantee of quality was something I was brought up to be proud of. So indeed I flushed. But of course that was during the golden age of the 60s. Since then UK manufacturing has been in relative decline. As a share of real GDP, it has fallen from 30% in 1970 to 12% in 2010.
Last year Nicolas Sarkozy hit a raw nerve when he announced that the UK “has no industry any more”. Maybe unfounded, as we are still seventh in the world, but there was some truth in his jibe. It’s not as clear cut as it used to be since outsourcing of production overseas to save costs. Everyone has been and is doing it. It’s a by-product of globalisation.
This interdependence of economic activities is all very well. We’ve factored in the good bits like cheaper goods, greater choice and not having to maintain dirty, archaic work places. Now what? It’s not just the closing of some of our traditional factories, the forgetting of long-learnt skills, the loss of independence should concern. I was told a few years ago by someone who had a clothes line `it doesn’t really matter where in the world you get things made up, its still manufacturing!’ It’s hard to argue with that. However, the fact remains that something about seeing so much of what we once made here being reproduced at a different quality level half way across the globe doesn’t seem `quite right’ in the way that it did before.
Of course to boost Britain’s manufacturing is now a complex task. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers believe it will only happen with `more investment in our transport infrastructure and if incentives are introduced to encourage the creation of new products and markets.’
Thankfully the UK Government is on to this in part with their new initiative named Reshore UK. They have started with setting aside £70m just to recruit trade advisors (the service sector again). Though if we want the textile, software production and call centre companies to say `Sod the higher wages, it’s time to bring our bits and pieces back home,’ would not that money be better spent on the companies themselves ?
Whatever the case, today it seems not only politicians but industry and the public want to see more home based old fashioned manufacturing. The sort of goods you can assemble here and then physically stick on the back of a lorry and send elsewhere. Or, pack in your British made Hype cabin bag and take out on your next trip to India.