View from City Road: Governments do not know best

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The Independent Online
Is Michael Heseltine finally showing his true colours? When he took over at the Department of Trade and Industry, large parts of industry cheered. They had read his book, written while he was in the wilderness, and it was packed with interventionist thoughts.

Then they waited as the new President appeared to avoid anything that might offend the Treasury. In October, at the Tory conference, he said he would intervene before every meal, but it was only in December that the first small clue that he meant what he said emerged: an extra pounds 700m export credit cover was released. It signalled a successful assault on an entrenched anti-ECGD lobby in the Treasury.

In yesterday's Budget, more help for exporters was announced. These moves are now being joined by plans to adopt a Japanese-style approach to winning big contracts abroad and a proposal to create a long-term strategy for the aerospace industry.

The conclusion must be that the tussle between the DTI and the Treasury is now more evenly balanced than it has been since 1979. That must be a good thing.

But the trend to interventionism leaves an uneasy feeling. Apart from the disasters of past government intervention - British Leyland, the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor, British Shipbuilders - many business people would admit that what really makes them try harder is pressure.

Mr Heseltine should remember that the history of British industrial policy teaches that governments rarely know best.