Margareta Pagano: Government cannot ignore this demand to guide British industry

Midweek View: The Coalition has done far more than its predecessors to put manufacturing at the top of the agenda

Sir John Parker is one of Britain's foremost industrialists who has run many of our biggest companies and is the former chairman of energy giant National Grid and the chairman of mining colossus, Anglo-American.

A naval architect by training, he cut his teeth at Harland and Wolff, the Northern Irish shipbuilding yard, where he was sent by Lady Thatcher in 1983 to take it private. He stayed on for a decade to turn it around, a tough job which involved dealing with terrorists as well as fiery unions and has been at the sharp end of business ever since.

Such a pedigree doesn't necessarily predict a man's politics, but Sir John does veer to the right – in fact, he jokingly confessed to me not so long ago that he's somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.

So when Sir John calls on the Government to set the framework for a clear and long-term industrial strategy to "guide and enable UK plc", as he did yesterday, then we should all jump to attention.

In his view, if we are to achieve our economic ambitions of growth, government has a critical leadership role to play that needs to be more than just "cutting overheads, important as that is".

While the Coalition has done far more than its predecessors to put manufacturing at the top of the agenda and promote UK plc – a fact Sir John acknowledges – he argues that it's not enough. He wants a more dynamic approach, one in which the Government helps set a 20-year framework within which it works with industry, universities and schools on "picking winners". For example, the UK leads the way in aerospace, bio-medical engineering, pharmaceuticals and mathematical modelling to name a few, and so we need to ask, are we putting all the right infrastructure in place for this to continue? And are those in the supply chain being trained?

When you run a plc you do have to pick winning strategies, select winning people and search for winning products all of the time, Sir John says. So why should UK plc be any different?

It's the right question. But picking industrial winners has always been a hoary chestnut for UK governments; left and right. On the left, the problem has been that the winners picked by Labour were too often losers, while those on the right have shivered at the word strategy because they were so opposed ideologically to anything that smacks of state intervention.

But times have moved on and you could argue that both parties are stuck in a 1970s timewarp which is past its sell-by date; industry is far more sophisticated today, innovation is faster and needs more R &D backing and the workforce in a high-tech economy needs to be more skilled than ever. That takes co-ordination and coherence.

It's certainly not an issue that bothers competitors such as Germany and China which have vast surpluses which they use constantly to back innovation and research. Just look at how both countries are throwing money at developing renewable energy technologies.

There's another issue which gives a neat twist to the debate – proof the state is not always a dead-hand but can be entrepreneurial too. It was a public sector grant from the National Science Foundation that funded the algorithm used by Google, while here it was the Medical Research Council which created the new generation of molecular antibodies.

Sir John's call to arms came at a seminar he hosted yesterday as president of the Royal Academy of Engineering on how engineering can boost growth.

Also there were Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of BAe, Aston University's Professor Julia King, Jonathan Flint of Oxford Instruments and Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for innovation and science. They agreed that government should work closer with industry and specifically with universities to identify new areas of growth, and align the needs of industry with appropriately skilled engineers.

And the best way? By investing in human capital. It's here government can be most effective as it can work with universities and schools to influence the shape of education against the industrial landscape.

It's taken a while, but engineering is at last being appreciated as one of the most honest and noblest of the professions; it's our engineers who design the trains we travel in, the bridges we drive over, as well as the latest medical devices, and we've been appaling at honouring them.

If government is serious about growth it should do two things pronto – lock Sir John into the Cabinet office and put him in charge of devising an "industrial plan", and then give qualified engineers the status of doctor. That should sort it.

Arts and Entertainment
arts + entsWith one of the best comic roles around, it's no wonder she rarely bothers with films
News
people
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Financial Analyst - Forecasting - Yorkshire

£300 - £350 per day: Orgtel: Financial Analyst, Forecasting, Halifax, Banking,...

Business Architect - Bristol - £500 per day

£500 per day: Orgtel: Business Architect - Banking - Bristol - £500 per day A...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup