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MADE IN BRITAIN is for anyone interested in Britain’s economy, and how our nation earns its living. Its goal is to look beyond the difficult years facing us now to assess how effective we are at producing and selling things.The starting point for the book was a trip to China’s 2010 Shanghai Expo: 400,000 visitors a day queuing to get a glimpse of 187 national pavilions. Two observations struck me: first, there’s a lot of world out there and Britain doesn’t appear terribly important to anybody else. And second, we appear to have a rather weaker sense of our national economic identity than similar nations.
The French and Italian pavilions were huge and packed with national symbols, many commercial – for Italy, a Ducati motorbike, a massive designer shoe, a ceramics display; France had a wine section, Louis Vuitton bags and a Michelin exhibit.The British pavilion had nothing Made in Britain about it. Our modestly sized offering was less about product and more about art. It really did shine out as one of the most visually striking and original sites. But there was nothing inside except a structure of sixty thousand acrylic needles, each containing seeds from Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex.There was an obvious sensitivity that our pavilion was a clever yet insubstantial symbol of Britain’s economy: flashy on the outside, its critics would say, but empty within. What on earth would we have put inside a more commercial pavilion, had we chosen to build one like the French and Italians?
Well, the answer is that despite the fact that we have only 1 per cent of the world’s population, and 5 per cent of the developed world’s population, we do have a number of world-class industries and firms. We might have chosen pharmaceuticals (Britain has two of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies in the world); we could have put up an exhibit on our defence and aerospace industries (we are large players in both, with a 9 per cent share of the global market in defence and about 17 per cent of aerospace). We could have had a large display on BP, Shell and North Sea oil and gas extraction. And then, of course, we could also have had a large stand dedicated to our world-renowned banking and insurance industries. They may not be visually very impressive but, love them or hate them, they remain two of our big earners. Finally, we might have tried to dazzle the crowd with some of our cars. I say our cars, but our most impressive mass-produced vehicles are perhaps the Japanese models we manufacture and export so well, like the Honda Civic (made in Swindon) and the Nissan Juke and Qashqai, which are made in Sunderland. We can match the world’s best but, for many reasons, the average Briton is probably barely aware that these industries could showcase the country abroad.
While filming and writing Made in Britain, I’ve been lucky to see and experience some of the most interesting products the British are involved in making.My own view is that we have many reasons to congratulate ourselves for our economic achievements, but we have few reasons to be arrogant.
They are a large service exporter in their own right, but also have a significant role in the creation of intellectual property, often for our manufacturing industries. In almost all the smartest and most lucrative parts of the economy, university research seems to have played an important role.
It has played a major part in shaping our destiny. It has fostered our role as a global commercial services centre. And the integration of our companies with those elsewhere has been enormously important in remedying our problems. But we should never cease to ensure we are investing in ourselves as well.
The development of the economy should not be seen as an event but as a process. Things change, and then they change again: the telex, the fax machine and now email all once seemed like the future, but just as fast as the future arrives something else comes along. From what I have seen, there are pockets of despair in our economy that need to be remedied, but otherwise there is no need for any shame at the living we earn and no need for there to be any lack of confidence in our ability to meet the challenges that will come along.
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