David Prosser: Manufacturing needs more than just one day in the sun

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The Independent Online

Outlook Good news for Britain's manufacturing sector then, with industrial output rising faster in March than at any time for almost eight years. Britain's struggling economy will take any help it can and the depreciation of sterling seems finally to be providing exporters with some assistance.

Let us not, however, fall into the trap of thinking that the pick-up in manufacturing we have seen over the past few months somehow suggests we have already had some success in rebalancing Britain's economy.

That project has barely begun. Now that Britain's oil is running out, and the new oil of financial services is so much less profitable, there has to be a conscious effort to shift the focus of our economy back towards genuine value creation. The days of low-cost mass production industrialism may be over forever in this country, but that does not mean it is too late to embrace innovative high-tech engineering, science and manufacturing as the main drivers of our economic growth. Germany, after all, has never stopped doing exactly that.

Lord Mandelson, Labour's Business Secretary, had begun to understand the challenge, with a policy of industrial interventionism since the recession began that aimed both to protect existing manufacturing endeavours and to promote new ventures.

Will that attitude survive the political fall-out of the election? Let's hope so, but the omens are not good. From which profession, for instance, does the latest intake of new MPs draw most heavily? Why financial services of course.

We need nothing short of a cultural leap. This remains a country where it is fashionable for bright, intelligent people to mock engineers and scientists as geeks – and to be amused at their own ignorance of such matters. It is no coincidence that the science departments have been among the first places on which the university funding axe has fallen.

Even the opportunities of the green challenge are not being properly exploited. For example, the government is cockahoop about Nissan's decision to build electric cars in Sunderland. Yet Britain is the last place you would want fleets of such vehicles because our energy policy, even though we now plan to replace nuclear power stations due to fall out of commission, will remain predominantly fossil fuel-oriented for the foreseeable future.

Spurning manufacturing for so long had its benefits for Britain. All those cheap imported goods helped keep down inflation and while the City continued to generate ever-increasing tax revenues, Britain had the money to finance growth in the public sector, easing the unemployment figures.

That time has gone. We have a record trade deficit, a public sector that must shrink if Britain is to get its deficit down, and a manufacturing sector that is too small to take up the slack. The spurt in industrial output has barely scratched the surface of how we must change.

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