Jeremy Corbyn made a sensible speech this week about industrial policy and the ways in which public procurement can support manufacturing industries.
His theme was that far too much ground has been yielded to the mantra that our economic future lies in service industries, particularly financial, and that it is time (or long past time) to use of the power of the state to defend what’s left of UK manufacturing.
No matter who said this, whether about the UK or Scotland, it would be sensible and timely. If Brexit happens, there will be a different context in which to make policy decisions. Even without Brexit, there is plenty room for reappraisal.
Corbyn argued that vast sums of public money are spent on procurement outside the UK, on the basis of cost, when much of it could nurture business, enterprise and jobs in the UK. He gave defence contracts, railway rolling-stock and – inevitably – passports as obvious examples.
There is nothing new about “Make it in Britain” campaigns and nor will there be anything new about the challenges of implementation. What struck me as extraordinary was the arrogance of the response which Corbyn encountered, particularly from the pro-EU commentariat.
They quickly formed a lazy consensus that by speaking of British jobs and manufacturing, Corbyn was putting himself in the same “economic nationalist” category as Trump and UKIP. On that basis, his argument could not only be dismissed but sneered at without the inconvenience of dealing with substance.
Nicola Sturgeon tweeted – quite falsely – that Corbyn had “peddled falsehoods about migrants (which) is what we expect from the Tories and UKIP”. In fact, Corbyn made no mention of migrants but pointed out that outsourcing British (including Scottish) jobs has often been to countries where low pay prevails. Does Ms Sturgeon approve?
It was a masterclass in the attitudes that have done much to fuel working-class resentment of the EU and an elite who can see no wrong in it. They either never knew or have long forgotten that the Treaty of Rome’s fundamental objective was to facilitate free movement of capital, regardless of implications for jobs and industries.
One can contend this was a price worth paying or that passage of time has created more pluses than minuses. That is very different, however, from a complete refusal to acknowledge that EU downsides exist, have always existed and may be capable of partial correction via the current upheaval.
One piece of history powerfully illustrates the validity of Corbyn’s point. In the 1970s, the Offshore Supplies Office was established with the objective of securing 70 per cent of the North Sea supply chain for UK companies. It was a success story to which the Scottish economy still owes much today. Hundreds of companies were then in a position to spread their wings elsewhere.
Compare that record with the lamentable failure to turn the Scottish renewables industry into the “second industrial revolution” we were promised. By citing EU procurement rules, the companies that should have underpinned that industry – notably Ibiderola and SSE – simply refused to do so, while shovelling up vast subsidies.
I believe far more could have been done to pressurise these companies into toeing the line, as an OSO certainly would have. The least that can be said is that there are reasonable grounds for linking publicly subsidised power generation to a requirement for local content, just as happened in the North Sea long before devolution was heard of.
As in most things, there is a balance to be struck between the reasonable self-interest of any country defending its own industrial base and the demands of free trade and the benefits it brings. Corbyn’s contention is that the balance needs redressing and public procurement policy is one instrument through which this can be achieved.
Looking at the sad decline of Scottish manufacturing industry over the past few decades, I find that a very difficult proposition to dissent from. Or maybe we really are happier crossing bridges made from Chinese steel and looking out on Spanish wind turbines?