Nice package, shame about the sales pitch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A LITTLE while ago, I was talking with a minister about the standing of Michael Heseltine. What had Michael actually done, asked the minister derisively. I listed some things and added that there was the big competitiveness White Paper coming. Long pause, stony stare. 'I've seen it. You haven't,' he said.

It wasn't so bad. 'Competitiveness' is just a long word for hacking it. Along with 'community' it has become one of those polysyllables no well-dressed politician can be seen without. But it matters more than most of what the Commons talks about. In their announcements, Mr Heseltine and David Hunt, the Employment Secretary, unveiled a series of useful proposals. But their political impact was minimal, bathos by the bucketful. It is worth asking why.

The recent Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee report on British manufacturing did a good job in clearing the intellectual ground: its recommendations were rather more radical than the Government could accept. Among the basic, simple points it made are that the old national-industrial strategies are futile in a world where so many companies are international: 'Decisions concerning UK manufacturing will increasingly be determined by global economic forces, rather than UK considerations. . . .'

That is, if you like, a point against the left. But the committee also demolished the idea that the solution for Britain lies in wage- cutting: 'The industries and firms at most immediate risk are low- skill, low-quality ones, including sections of UK manufacturing.' With the extremes of picking winners and simplistic labour-market deregulation tossed aside, what remains is a relatively small area of policy, on to which politicians are now crowding. The heroic era in which enthusiasts for corporatism and ministries of technology clashed thunderously with privatisers and union-bashers has long passed. The debate has moved on. Among the remedies most frequently mentioned now are the the need for better vocational training; 'one-stop shops' for small exporters and small companies generally; action to stop business-killing late payments; and a serious look at the role of the financial institutions in providing support for manufacturing.

These familiar ideas formed the core of yesterday's White Paper. It had the air of cabinet committee battles lost, of grand projects overruled. But there were decent educational proposals - the new general diploma to help employers to discover which school-leavers have good basic skills will be something teachers and parents will quickly focus on. The recruitment of technology specialists and export counsellors to staff 200 offices that are planned to help small businesses echoes Labour manifestos but is none the worse for that. In the detail, there is plenty of sense.

Rather grandly, the President of the Board of Trade chided Labour for not being more impressed. But the only way to make an impact in an area where the parties are converging is to surprise the country with the boldness of how you have grasped the agenda. And whatever yesterday's White Paper may have been, bold it wasn't. There was precious little new money. That does not necessarily translate into Kenneth Clarke stuffing his potential leadership rival Mr Heseltine, though such a thought appeals to political romantics. But the lack of funding made it more important for the measures to be sold with some panache.

Oddly, given Mr Heseltine's reputation, this modest and evolutionary package was woodenly undersold. There were plenty of 'wide-ranging reviews', promises to develop this proposal further and earnest offers to reconsider that one. 'We will be announcing later in the year . . . We will be publishing a consultative document . . . Work is in hand . . .'

The president solemnly revealed: 'We will work with the British Standards Institution and industry to develop BS5750 and product certification standards further to promote continuous improvement.' Pericles it wasn't. After a few more minutes of this, the opposition benches were roaring with relieved laughter and a Labour spokesman was confidentially informing the press: 'That's it. Hezza's finished.'

He is far from finished; and this was a serious, if compromised and low-volume message. It had the feel of an interventionist surge, broken on the rocks of the Treasury, yet foaming still into a few crannies and rock pools. Given the size of the deficit, could more have been said? It would have been nice to see Mr Heseltine tackling with more gusto some of the political and cultural issues surrounding competitiveness policy. The importance of British commitment to the European Union and past failures in education are among the issues he would have found irresistible a few years ago.

Our culture is badly attuned to a world where jobs depend on thousands of risk-taking small businesses, many of which inevitably fail. We must get away from regarding bankruptcy as an invariable stigma: sanctimonious MPs could have done with a few robust home truths on those lines, too.

But the language of business and the language of politics mix badly. The age of grand pronouncements from government ministries about the future of this industry or that is over: bitter experience and the global market have rendered them redundant, even absurd. Perhaps the most important lesson is that industrial policy, having subsided to the level of detail and fine print, is no longer something that can rouse the House of Commons. Given its record, that may be the best news we've had for some time.