David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.
Brexit provides the UK with an opportunity to build a new, high-skill, high-productivity economy. A bold agenda of reindustrialisation can revive regional economies and see the levelling-up agenda made flesh. But we can only make the most of these opportunities if we aren’t unnecessarily restricted by the EU’s state aid laws. As a sovereign nation, we should be free to follow an industrial policy that is best for Britain. We mustn’t have the ability of the British state to support innovation to be hidebound by the EU’s strict state aid rules.
There were many reasons that we voted to leave the EU. The ability to set our own laws and have them made by people who were elected and could be held accountable was a crucial part of the decision to Leave. A clear message was delivered in the referendum from long forgotten “post-industrial” towns across the country that we needed to tackle regional inequality. The EU’s apparent insistence on maintaining state aid rules after Brexit would ride roughshod over the first and make tackling regional inequality much more difficult to achieve.
I’ve long taken the view that the restrictive state aid rules imposed by the EU were one of the major obstacles to us achieving a new economic settlement that benefits the whole of the UK. The pursuit of a level playing field for the EU meant that the parts of the country that I talked about in Little Platoons, which were heavily impacted by deindustrialisation, became stuck in an economic cycle of low innovation, low skilled, low wage work.
This was bad for post-industrial parts of the country, but also bad for the economy as a whole, with the UK’s low productivity problem being particularly pronounced in those parts of the country that had seen economic decline for decades. The recycling of UK taxpayers cash (a reminder that we were a net contributor to the EU budget for decades) through much trumpeted structural funding was no substitute for the fact that state aid rules bound our hands and prevented us from a more ambitious strategy to reverse decades of decline.
Now we have left the EU, it’s essential that the EU isn’t able to bind our hands again as we look to shift the economic paradigm to that of a high-skills, high-productivity, high-wage, tech-driven economy. Freedom from EU state aid rules represents an important opportunity for us to deliver that altered economic settlement and to pursue a bold strategy that focuses on a high-tech reindustrialisation of our economy. This should emphasise the importance of manufacturing (including green industry) in reframing our economy.
Crucially, manufacturing is generally higher skill, more productive and more export driven than other sectors. Whereas manufacturing accounts for less than eight per cent of the jobs in the UK, it accounts for around two thirds of our R & D investment – the kind of investment that is crucial to future growth and prosperity. This R & D emphasis also underlines the importance of manufacturing creating what Shih and Pisano have described as the “industrial commons” – skills and knowledge networks and clusters that drive innovation further.
An industrial strategy free from the constraints of state-aid policy means that we can support the businesses and sectors that are at the forefront of the new industrial revolution and also use the power of government to create innovation hubs in the regions, along with government-supported and business-backed centres of industrial excellence. A new industrial policy, free from state-aid restrictions, could aim to deliver high innovation industrial hubs in regions where the transformative power of a government accelerated industrial commons could have an enormously positive impact.
Any discussion about the positive impact of industrial policy and the importance of a state-aid regime that supports it is normally accompanied with the construction of straw-men or, more accurately, straw “lame-ducks” and the argument that any industrial policy will inevitably go down the route of Britain in the 1970s.
This is an ideological worldview that regards the bailing out of British Leyland as trumping any international experience in the decades since. However, what that international experience has shown is that by far the biggest risk for the UK lies in us not pursuing an intelligent industrial strategy.
International experience shows that state aid and industrial strategy can not only help to turn around lagging regions but also place countries at the forefront of emerging technologies. And successful international experience illustrates that an ambitious industrial strategy shouldn’t be about “bucking the market”, but, instead working with the market and using market signals to maximise the impact of government investment.
In many parts of Asia, including Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, industrial strategy has used market feedback to develop a sectoral industrial strategy that has seen living standards and productivity surge. In all cases, the feedback mechanism of the market has allowed governments to identify sectors for future growth and provide government investment that has allowed these countries to be leaders in key sectors.
The mid-century United States, seen wrongly as a laissez-faire bastion, also provides an example of gains that can be made when business and government work together. The hero of that story is Vannevar Bush, who saw the importance of the government strongly investing in and incubating innovation and helping to transfer ideas from the initial invention to the marketplace.
His importance has been summed up recently in the excellent work of Safi Bahcall. Bush understood that innovation and invention is key to future growth and prosperity, but also that early innovation is fragile and risky. Without government support, such innovation might well perish, but government support, through the likes of the National Science Foundation and DARPA allowed innovation to be nurtured at a crucial stage and resulted in a stream of inventions that transformed the economy.
Such a model, in which government nurtures innovation at the most important stage and invests in those companies at the cutting edge of key emerging technologies could be transformational for the UK economy, which already has a world-leading research base but often lacks the ability (or often means due to distorted or inefficient funding models) to maximise the commercialisation of innovation.
Government is in a position to support innovation at the most fragile stage of the innovation process in a way that the market simply cannot. An effective industrial strategy could maximise the UK’s strengths and use the directional sway of government to promote long-term growth outside of the South East. Such an ambitious policy would not, however, be fully possible under the stricture of EU state aid rules.
Brexit represents a remarkable opportunity for an economic renaissance in the UK. We no longer have to have ambition or imagination restricted by the EU’s state aid rules.
This renaissance could place the UK at the vanguard of the most industries and technologies over the coming decades. It could also bring about a lasting and meaningful transformation of parts of the country that have long been characterised by economic decline. This requires a sensible and strategic role for government, based on an independent economic policy that isn’t limited by the narrowly restrictive nature of EU state aid limits.