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Waiting for the whole truth on industrial strategy

Borrowing from Lawrence of Arabia’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, has today announced her ten pillars of industrial strategy.  Ten is a nice round number and looks tidy on the information sheet that the Government has produced to sell this idea but in fact, there are seven pillars at most and possibly even six.

Support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is the underlying theme of two pillars and, if you include soft infrastructure (public institutions), there are no fewer than three devoted to infrastructure.  The remaining five focus on innovation, education, trade, energy and strategic sectors.

Boosting innovation is a reliable crowd pleaser.  The Autumn Statement [1] already promised almost £5bn between now and 2021 for research and development and technology transfer activities.

Linked to this, education is also a popular choice.  The education ‘pillar’ specifically mentions effort to stimulate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and adds digital proficiency into the mix.  No one would argue with this – least of all James Dyson who is already ahead of the game by establishing the Dyson Institute of Technology [2] – but there have been cries of foul from interested parties who would have liked to see more language tuition or development of skills for the construction industry, to name but two.

Free trade is a popular theme at the moment and Britain is certainly hoping for an early and positive agreement with the USA.  The new US President seems well disposed towards Brexit Britain but is unpredictable whereas the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, gave a public endorsement of globalisation at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week and may have been hinting that the world’s most populous country might be open for negotiations with the UK.

The two question marks hover over sectors and energy.  Sector support is to be directed to “areas of global excellence” but these are rumoured to include the pharmaceutical industry and to exclude the financial services sector which, by most people’s reckoning, is the principal export and field of maximum national pre-eminence.

Similarly, the energy pillar is vague about what, exactly, this Government understands as a low carbon economy.  It mentions ‘infrastructure’ and ‘technology’ so it is a fairly safe bet that there will be money and support available for energy storage systems, which is to be applauded.  However, there is no explicit mention of renewable sources and no evidence that the public purse will assist private investors in bringing solar, wind, tidal and biomass generation to a level that reflects their true potential.

Once again, this Government has left its taxpayers with the sensation that we are being fed just a part of the story.   The truth, but not the whole truth.