David Egerton’s article, The battery factory that exposed the great Brexit lie, like his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a Twentieth Century History, focuses on the performance of the British economy as a whole missing the detail of today’s manufacturing sector.

I have spent the last seven years, so much less than Egerton, studying the history of British manufacturing and above all I have found that the devil is in the detail.

Egerton focuses on British Volt as a government supported start up; looking back, these have really never worked, Inmos Semiconductors stands out. What has worked is private enterprise. We can look at Renishaw or Meggitt, or rather smaller but no less impressive Wilson Power Solutions, but also ITM Power or ARM. There are many more, but also champions like The Manufacturer and MTDMFG

The issue Egerton highlights is the lack of R&D spend and this is undoubtedly true. Perhaps more important is that way R&D is spent. The British computer industry spent a lot, but it was not integrated with what markets were demanding. What also is true that British manufacturers have been very good at taking other people’s ideas and making them better. Lucas was very good at identifying technology but then working out how to produce it more efficiently. Thorn was probably the master of this. 

Another issue not highlighted was the role of the big corporates. Names stick in my mind. Vickers was an astonishing company embracing anything from weapons and ships to aircraft and computers. Hawker Siddeley was another, but so too English Electric and, of course, GEC. In their time these companies had both the vision and the muscle to pursue profitable inventions. It says a lot that Marconi’s vision of a research laboratory which he built at Great Beddow, still shines brightly as part of BAE Systems.

One seemingly endless debate was specialisation v diversification. Evidence in support of the former may be found in four success stories: JCB, Rolls-Royce, GSK and Astra-Zeneca, although in no case is it truly one or the other. British manufacturing was built by remarkable men.

All too often jealousy and pride got in the way. What might have happened to BMC, had Austin and Morris not kept competing; the same was true of British Thomson-Houston and Metropolitan Vickers under the AEI umbrella? Succession has been a bugbear. With better planning, might Lucas and GEC still be powering on?

David Egerton does of course properly point to failings. Productivity is poor, but I wonder to what extent the figures are diluted by low paid service industry jobs? Brexit was insane, but perhaps we had become too happy to source so much from other countries?

His remedy of focusing on properly resourced service sector jobs may well be right; care homes being a vital example. However, especially with a proper national strategy, today’s manufacturers are more than able to play their part.