Time for a Minister for Manufacturing?

Creating a Minister for Manufacturing could be the most important reshuffle decision Cameron makes

Is manufacturing being neglected?
Peter Botting
On 22 August 2012 14:50

So, it’s that time is it? Reshuffle time. And there's no better time to dedicate column inches to who's up and who's down than "silly season" - the parliamentary vacation vacuum that starves reporters and pundits of real stuff to talk about.

Westminster gossip is almost always about the above -- who's up and who's down -- rather than what is right and what is wrong or which policy is best. Reshuffle gossip, rumour, speculation and political fantasy football dream teams are the career changing Premier League for this type of personalised politics.

The thing is, of the 101 personnel variations and agenda-driven political constellations that are confidently proposed and promoted by pundits and staffers, by definitio,n 100 will be inaccurate. Totally and painfully wrong.

So let me wade in and add to the battalions of optimistic, hopeful, lobbying and vacuum-filling words that are earnestly penned and typed by pundits and pored over, urged on, and prayed over by parliamentarians.

I agree with many commentators that a reshuffle is largely immaterial to a government. It is too often a presentation exercise and I think it's good that we have not had one so far; Ministers need time in their post to know their brief before they can do their job.

A reshuffle risks being a chair or title swapping exercise. The good -- those who now know their subject and do their job well -- are moved into jobs about which they know little or nothing. They spend valuable months learning about their new brief before they can manage it or even understand what their Permanent Secretaries are Sir Humphreying about. It can of course be a politically useful exercise in culling the low performers and buying off, or promoting, the talented.

DC and Co. can and will decide that so-and-so now sits on this chair instead of that chair and that so-and-so no longer has a chair at all. Meanwhile, young Johnny or Jane Career-Hungry-Hopeful now gets a Parliamentary Private Slave footstool. 

The problem is, reshuffles like this are far too often done in the interests of internal party politics complicated by 2012 coalition politics. Reshuffles are seldom done in the interests of the country, which is why the competence, skills, and knowledge of the ministerial candidate can matter less than the leader’s need to keep various parts of the party happy. But there is another thing that DC could do, which would be in the interests of the country.

DC could check that all the chairs have the right names.

I did some work earlier this year for a fun, unassuming and serious MP called Graham Evans who, like me, is interested --  “because it is what I know, Peter” -- in an apparently dull subject. This subject seldom makes the news and most people, including many Conservatives, would rank it below the EU and the Euro, immigration, the NHS, Academies etc. It is a bit mucky or at least it can be. But it makes money.

It is called manufacturing.

Why isn’t there a chair called Manufacturing? If Bill Clinton "got it" about the economy, surely we should "get it" about manufacturing? Why don’t we have a Minister for Manufacturing?

Everyone swallows the fiction that the UK is doing fine when it comes to manufacturing, proudly citing the fact that we are the fifth largest manufacturer in the world in terms of value of output.

That attitude is dangerous, complacent and wrong. If we measure manufacturing in terms of per capita value added, Britain is 12th in the world.

The financial crisis woke us up. The UK cannot rely on the financial services industry. According to the Office for National Statistics, the financial sector’s maximum export volume of £55 billion in 2008 was eclipsed by manufacturing’s £195 billion of exports. But how much absolute and relative attention do we pay to manufacturing?

Germany and Britain were both in a tough place after the war. But the Germans seem to have always appreciated, valued, and provided long-term support for manufacturing. Much more and much better than Britain has ever done. Is that why they are now so economically strong?

Mucky manufacturing and high tech manufacturing should both be actively supported by this government. A long time ago I ran a group of three manufacturing businesses in Germany - they were all mucky. But there were over 135 jobs financed by that mucky manufacturing. And local politicians were full time manufacturing cheerleaders.

Instead of governments turning up their nose at manufacturing and manufacturing jobs, we should be making heroes of those who manufacture and export. School leavers need tangible evidence that a job in a factory can be a great career decision.

We need engineers, scientists, and chemists -- and apprentices -- making things and wearing white jackets and overalls. Let the salesmen wear suits.

Which brings me to my shocking fact. Brace yourselves. If you search the List of Ministerial Responsibilities, Including Executive Agencies and Non- Ministerial Departments for the word "manufacturing" it appears only once as one of 23 responsibilities carried by the Secretary of State for Scotland. The word manufacturing does not appear at all in the responsibilities for Mr Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Creating a Minister for Manufacturing could be the most important reshuffle decision Cameron makes. 

Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral to theNO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk

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