15 July 2021

Stolen Heritage:

The Strange Death of Industrial England

Anthony Warwick-Ching
2020, Matador, 560 pages,
ISBN 9781838593988

Reviewer: Kevin Gardiner, Rothschild & Co/Cardiff Capital Region Economicn Growth Partnership

This is a highly partisan account of UK deindustrialisation. Refreshingly, there are no econometrics. Unfortunately, there are few numbers of any sort, and no charts or tables.

A stage-setting quotation is taken from a Question Time appearance by Yanis Varoufakis. Nonetheless, I read on, and though sceptical of the author’s thesis I will keep the book for its useful (and nostalgic) potted histories.

The coverage is patchy, as Warwick-Ching acknowledges. It includes oil, excludes the bulk of processed food and drink, and has little to say about the pharmaceutical sector. But it is good to be reminded of some great names and seminal events.

This ex-trainspotter has fond memories of English Electric, Brush and AEI; a school friend was apprenticed at the Swindon rail works whose closure in 1986 features here. Other old and not-so-old names include Cummins, BTR, Metal Box, Raleigh, Pilkington, Siebe, GKN (the latter perhaps not getting as much space as it might have?) and many others. The sorry sagas of British Leyland, GEC and ICI are recounted, but Racal’s less unhappy transmutation into Vodafone is mentioned only in passing.

The author’s argument is a (very) familiar one. He sees deindustrialisation as bad for us, and attributes it to three “villains”: bad macroeconomic management (particularly under Mrs Thatcher); City short-termism; and privatisation.

There is a case of sorts to answer. The level of UK manufacturing output, not just its contribution to the economy, has been broadly flat for many years: deindustrialisation is more pronounced here than in other big developed economies. Government policy has probably focused more on consumers than producers; some privatisations had little economic logic to them; and investors can be greedy and in a hurry.  

However, the author (in my opinion) overstates that case. He cites two journalists suggesting (seriously) that 1976 was the high point for the UK economy. I was there, and it wasn’t. Nostalgia has its place – see above – but I wish I’d been told those were the good old days at the time.

We do still “make stuff” in the UK: we have many world-class manufacturers. When we talk of competitiveness these days we focus much more on products, and less on prices and costs (or at least, we should do).  

There was always a lot more to the UK economy than manufacturing, and there is a lot more to the non-manufacturing segment than the City – which of course (declaration of interest: I work there), pre-dates the Industrial Revolution and arguably helped foster it (Cain and Hopkins, “British Imperialism”, 1993). There is, in turn, a lot more to the City than its well-documented excesses.

An uncomfortable reality, unimagined by Warwick-Ching, is that the long-term outlook can change suddenly (as it did, for example, in 1973). Much of the short-termism that he rightly decries is amplified by the media which provide so many of his sources.   

The UK has indeed been running a structural trade deficit for many years. At the Bank of England economics department in the early 1980s we saw it coming, and knew then that it had little to do with the real exchange rate. But the national balance sheet dwarfs it.  

Warwick-Ching and his sources blame a failure to invest. This is facile – it is not an answer, but a restatement of a perceived problem. He does not seem to consider the possibility that making things – and providing services – which people want to buy, and doing so profitably, enduringly and at scale, may be rather difficult. Nonetheless, per capita UK GDP has roughly doubled since the 1970s, lifting living standards and jobs with it, and doing so with much less inflation and industrial conflict. The music was better then though.