Britain Tries for a Second Industrial Revolution

Mark Stein, manager of General Motors’ (GM) Vauxhall van plant in Luton, 29 miles north of London, starts presentations with an aerial photo of the site in 1965. It shows a vast complex of buildings that employed more than 35,000 workers. He points to a small red circle in the picture. That’s where GM’s current factory is. It employs 1,500.

Making stuff has dwindled from nearly 40 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product in the late 1950s to not much more than 10 percent now. What remains survives for a reason. GM’s Luton factory this year will produce 70,000 Vauxhall Vivaro vans and other vehicles, more than 60 percent for export. Manufacturing productivity grew 4.4 percent in the first quarter.

Prime Minister David Cameron has latched on to manufacturing as a cure for Britain’s economic hangover and its 7.9 percent jobless rate. “If you’re trying to make the economy grow long term on a sustainable basis, manufacturing is where we need to be,’’ says Vince Cable, U.K. Business Secretary. “One of the main growth sectors of the economy in recent years has been banking. For reasons that are blindingly obvious, that’s not going to be so important in future.’’

Starting a new Industrial Revolution will be hard. Government efforts to cut red tape produce plenty of their own. “If you were to write on a board how many agencies and support schemes there are, you would be amazed,” says Bill Parfitt, GM U.K.’s chairman.

Economists and some manufacturing executives also say that boosting manufacturing may be unwise. British manufacturing as a share of GDP is smaller than Germany’s 20 percent, yet it is similar to the U.S. and France, which have big service sectors. Britain may have reached an equilibrium between the two sectors. “I don’t think any economist believes that growth in the next five to 20 years will be driven by manufacturing,” says Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

British manufacturing lacks Germany’s advantages. Germany has long had industrial apprenticeships for young adults: Cable is trying to launch an apprenticeship program in Britain as well. In Germany, robust midsize companies supply big companies and export on their own. In contrast, consider the state of GM’s supply chain in Britain. Only 10 percent of the value of parts used at its main U.K. plant at Ellesmere Port are made domestically. The pound’s 25 percent drop since 2007 against a basket of currencies drives up the cost of imported parts even as it makes exports cheaper.

U.K. producers do excel at making goods where technology counts for more than the cost of labor, says Lee Hopley, chief economist at the Engineering Employers’ Federation. Revenue for Vitec, a high-tech maker of gear for the broadcast, military, and photographic markets, grew in the first half to $282 million from $250 million. “We do make some products in China,’’ says Chief Executive Officer Stephen Bird. “But my intention is that we will continue to manufacture in both the U.K. and Italy because we have great engineers.” A secret to survival is “not competing with cheap Chinese goods,” says Mark Henderson, CEO of MSE UK, which makes blood centrifuges.

Yet after a promising post-recession start, U.K. manufacturing shrank 0.5 percent in the quarter ended in June. The trade gap in June for goods was £8.9 billion ($14.5 billion). Business Secretary Cable says the weaker pound will help the U.K. gain share even in markets where growth is slow, and commercial diplomacy will sell more goods to developing countries. “The problem always has been that our export markets, particularly the euro zone and the U.S., are facing challenges of their own,” says Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics in London. “The idea that we were going to get a helpfully timed export boom was always a bit optimistic.”