History Tells the Real Trouble with British Industry; City Comment

Article excerpt

Byline: ANTHONY HILTON

BRITISH industry may be in trouble because of the strong pound but that is not the root of its problems. It has been in trouble for decades.

Thirty years ago, when the then Prime Minister Ted Heath put the entire country on a three-day week in an effort to beat a miners' strike, he found to his amazement, then horror as the implications sank in, that manufacturing output did not drop. Industry had been working at half pace for years.

Improvements since then have slowed the decline but not arrested it.

There are three immediately obvious reasons for the decline - the quality of management, the lack of investment and the cultural antipathy of the country, or at least the decision-making part of it - going back not just for 50 years but almost to Britain's industrial beginnings.

Indeed, in the middle of the 19th century the marked difference between British and German attitudes was evident. The aspiration of the successful British entrepreneur was to buy an estate so that his sons could aspire to become landed gentry. The aspiration of the German industrialist was to send his sons to college to become better engineers and businessmen.

The way the continuing distaste for manufacturing and trade shows itself may be slightly more subtle now but this is still a country that ranks culture far above commerce and accords far more social status and recognition to a second-rank Shakespearean actor than to a first-rank successful entrepreneur.

This helps explain why manufacturing is not the first choice for enough of Britain's brightest and best. Traditionally, universities reinforced middle class values which channelled students into the professions rather than business. We live in more commercially- aware times but manufacturing still misses out because the City securities houses now pick up the majority of the best brains every year. …