My history of British Manufacturing

My history of British Manufacturing
My history of British Manufacturing

Sunday 16 June 2024

130,000 visits to this blog of occasional writing.

I began this blog in 2008 whilst I was studying for my Professional Writing MA at Falmouth. 

To begin with it was book reviews and then I focused on the financial crisis working towards my MA project an unpublished novel called Broken Bonds

My time as CEO at Lincoln Cathedral brought me close to Magna Carta with the 800th celebrations  

The next phase of posts concerned my work with the Lincoln Drill Hall arts centre and the Lincoln Book Festival. I highlight the BBC Proms at the Drill Hall

The Brexit debate then grabbed my attention and political themes, not least the refugee crisis, followed interspersed with Shakespeare

I also write a blog on aspects of military history, the history of British Manufacturing and the man, my great great uncle,  who discovered Charlotte Brontë 

Saturday 25 May 2024

This Time No Mistakes by Will Hutton

I have admired Will Hutton for many years and devoured his book, The State We Are In, and his writing in the Observer. His most recent book is This Time No Mistakes - how to remake Britain.

Following a helpful introduction, Hutton begins by exploring the economic story of the USA. He looks at the freewheeling entrepreneurs: JP Morgan in banking and Carnegie in steel and their push for monopoly. [the links are to posts I have written for my History of British Manufacturing.] The monopolies were countered by antitrust legislation. The otherwise free market system though had inbuilt instability and banks and businesses crashed all too often  After four decades of spectacular growth, the Wall Street crash and subsequent Great Depression demanded action which took the form of Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

This had three main strands: regulation, the provision of credit with protection and a massive investment in infrastructure with a focus on employing those otherwise out of work.  So we have the federal mortgage lenders, the SEC and a raft of social security legislation. It worked and formed the consensus of western economics for nearly half a century. Hutton acknowledges also the massive benefit to the US economy of production for WW2 of which I wrote in War on Wheels and Dunkirk to D Day.

The consensus began to crack in the seventies with the oil shocks and inflation.  Hutton suggests that it was raised interest rates to cool inflation that led to the strengthening dollar and the flight of US manufacturing overseas. In the UK, as I wrote in Vehicles to Vaccines, it was North Sea oil that had a similar effect. Hutton suggests, in a later chapter, that UK interest rates raised for the same reason added to the strength of sterling.

The forces of the right, believing in the market and the small state, were ready in the wings and entered the scene with Ronald Reagan as the charismatic US face; much the same as Margaret Thatcher.

Neither Clinton nor Obama altered this new direction and left  a country of disgruntled former workers ready to embrace Trump's  brand of nationalism.

This very much sets the scene for the book.

Hutton then looks at the Tory years with particular focus on Thatcher and the way manufacturing was decimated. He explores the Brexit arguments and then the failed administrations of May, Johnson and Truss.

The next focus is on laissez faire and the way successive governments have embraced this doctrine combined with the straight-jacket of the small state.

In critiquing the doctrine he draws on the writing of Adam Smith, Chadwick and Engels, the action of Luddites, Tolpuddle martyrs and the Chartists, and finds practical examples of good practice in the Rochdale Cooperative and Robert Owen’s New Lanark. Interesting for me who has written on him he draws on John Ruskin's works on political economy in particular Unto his Last. Hutton of course writes on Marx and his critics.

1859 was a key date with the formation of the Liberal party. Hutton follows this by writing on influential thinkers: Green, Hobson, Hobhouse and their pupils Asquith and Keynes. 

Interestingly he quotes from Churchill's Poverty: the study of town life

“ A poverty-stricken working class could not possibly spend sufficiently to drive the economy forwards, while the aristocratic elite and upper-middle class were too small to compensate. Instead, they saved, with the savings’ surfeit flowing overseas to empire and the financing of other countries’ industries.” 

I have to observe that this is what we are witnessing in today's economy.

The growing union movement and the Liberal party found common cause and together selected Lib/Lab parliamentary candidates.

A somewhat belated fruition of this was the reforming Liberal Government of 1906-1911 and Lloyd George's budget.

I found it interesting that in 1918 when the franchise was enlarged to give the vote to some women, consideration was given but rejected for proportional representation, a topic to which Hutton returns a number of times in the book.

The interwar years contained the disastrous return to the Gold Standard and the hardship this caused. It contained too the ground breaking writing of Keynes whose influence Hutton warmly embraces. Sadly for Britain, governments did not share in the embrace but instead built tariff barriers around Imperial Preference which shielded Britain from healthy competition. The adherence to the small city remained key.

Moving to the post-war, Hutton rejoices in Beveridge and is admiring of Attlee and his government. He possibly offers warmer praise for Harold Macmillan and his Middle Way.

As a critique of post-war industry, Hutton offers this:

“ cosseted, dividend-hungry, rentier shareholders, aggressive shop stewards, disengaged finance and unenterprising managements looking for safety behind tariffs and cartels, rather than putting money into research and new products.” 

This is very much what I found in my research into British manufacturing since 1951 as expressed in Vehicles to Vaccines.

Looking at governments, he sees missed opportunities and barriers. For Wilson the barriers were the multiplicity of trades unions, but also a city wedded to laissez faire. Heath is criticised, but Hutton points out that he did want to remove barriers that reduce competition. The SDP and Blairism in practice are both filled with missed opportunities, although the Blair/Brown years did bring vital change, not least in the focus on early years in Sure Start.

Looking at a way forward Hutton would like to seeing a co-operation of New Liberal and Ethical Socialist. The fundamental shift through is from the emphasis on the 'I' to the 'We'. He draws on the thinking of the Fairness Foundation. 

There is much to be done. Hutton suggests that massive investment is needed to counter climate change, in infrastructure, skills, scientific research and levelling up. Increased borrowing would be possible if lenders could see that their money is being wisely spent. Increased taxation would be needed to service the debt. Our tax take is lower than many countries - but a poorly designed tax system needs attention. 

A sovereign wealth fund is needed. Hutton looks at how British funds and banks currently invest - most goes to real estate and overseas. This needs to be reversed.

Housing, education and health care are key issues where those already on the ladder not only have massive advantage but also live in silos removed from the rest of society.

None of this will just happen. A whole host of national and business governance issues need to be address in tandem. Hutton does not avoid the elephant in the room: we must build a vibrant relationship with the EU.

"The aim must be to create an environmentally sustainable, high-productivity Britain that is less unequal, fairer and economically dynamic, and which, while global in its reach, is firmly anchored in its own continent. That is what Britain must invest for – a ‘We Society’ around which the private and public sectors can coalesce."

Monday 20 May 2024

Shakespeare and me

I am revisiting Shakespeare.

My first encounter with William Shakespeare was at my prep school, Davenies, in Beaconsfield. In the grounds there was a dell which formed the perfect open air theatre. The first performance I remember was Julius Caesar because my dad and I made a wooden sword for me to use. The second more memorable performance was Henry V where I played the Bishop of Ely. I remember that the Buckinghamshire Advertiser commented on my youth; I think I also played a younger part. The enduring memory is of my lines:

Awake remembrance of these valiant dead, and with your arms renew their feats. 

I took these lines as the text for a sermon on Remembrance Sunday many years later. I was for some years a Church of England Lay Reader.

Shakespeare passed me by at secondary school apart from a non speaking part as a slave in Troilus and Cressida

In my twenties I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Young Vic.

Some thirty years would pass before I studied humanities at Vaughan College of the University of Leicester.  On our Ruskin College residential weekend we encountered Titus Andronicus and the gruesome but brilliant Anthony Hopkins film. This led to the purchase of a couple of academic books on Shakespeare which I now discover I hardly read. More significantly I took the whole family to Stratford to see a brilliantly dark Midsummer Nights Dream.

From there it was Hamlet at the Old Vic with Sinead Cusack as Gertrude. I was entranced. 

Our move to Cornwall brought a wonderfully light Twelfth Night at the Hall for Cornwall and at the Minack an atmospheric Tempest. In the continuation of my humanities degree at Exeter, I studied a module on Shakespeare looking at Hamlet  

We now move to the RSC in London and first King Lear with Corin Redgrave as a Lear who made me feel the play was all about fathers and daughters. The RSC at the Barbican offered performances of Titus Andronicus , Macbeth and Measure for Measure.

This year my interest had deepened with a BBC Documentary William Shakespeare Rise of a Genius and three books of which I will write in subsequent posts: Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, Judi Dench and James Shapiro's 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear..

A lovely birthday present from my children, theatre tokens spent on a ticket for Richard III at the Globe. An all female cast, with the Globe’s artistic director as a truly evil Richard. As Judi Dench observed in her book on Shakespeare, it is women who stand up to Richard whilst all the men meekly follow his lead. I have been to the Globe before, I think to see The Merchant of Venice, some years ago  

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Living in cloud cuckoo land

The UK has massive backlogs of repairs to hospitals, schools, courts and roads. Local authorities are collapsing. Armed forces can’t recruit not least because living accommodation is in desperate need of repair. Local authorities are having to cut vital but not legally required services, not least in community and youth services. We were woefully illprepared for Covid. Having cut all available corners from PPE stocks to care home resources. Add to this a cost of living crisis with food banks stretched to the limit. 

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the UK was becoming just another medium sized nation dwarfed by the superpowers but with leaders of both political parties who could not shake off their sense of this being the mother country of an ‘Empire on which the sun never set’. This has meant that public expenditure has always been distracted by a defence commitment that was disproportionate.

Our public services are stretched beyond endurance, yet we are the sixth wealthiest country in the world and government is hinting of tax cuts! Here is a link to an article post budget which explores the detail. Brexit has critically damaged our economy  

We are living in cloud cuckoo land. 

Where has that money gone?

Part of the answer is the obscene gap between rich and not even poor but most people. The wealth of the rich is not employed productively but is invested in overpriced dwellings which aren’t even occupied. Austerity and an insane dash for growth through unfunded tax cuts have compounded the problem  

It seems that one result is that Labour has ditched much of its green investment plan. This investment is fundamental to both our green transition but also industrial renewal and making good our infrastructure.

If we don’t manufacture, what of services? Financial services don’t rate highly when British companies choose to list in New York

We need some honesty from our politicians.

The Brighton Pavilion a symbol of the glamour of Victoria’s reign now undergoing urgent repairs - perhaps a metaphor of these times.

Friday 19 January 2024

110,000 visits to my blog

I began the blog in 2008 when I was studying for my MA in Professional Writing at University College Falmouth. 

At the start I wrote about some of the books I read. Of these Engelby by Sebastian Faulkes was particularly memorable. I looked at Teen Fiction but also dipped my toe into Shakespeare (1599 by James Shapiro) to gain a sense of 17th century England as the setting for an historical novel. 

In the end I settled in the banking crisis as the setting for my MA project with a title Broken Bonds about one of the creators of the financial instruments that led to the crash, and yes, his bond of marriage also broke. 

There is then a gap as I returned to full time employment as CEO at Lincoln Cathedral where I got to know Magna Carta for its 800th anniversary. This blog has some of my thoughts on the Great charter and its implications today.

After leaving my job at the cathedral I was fortunate enough to be appointed chair of the Lincoln Arts Trust which ran Lincoln Drill Hall. The blog has a number of post about this wonderful arts venue and its history. I was also appointed chair of the Lincoln Book Festival and wrote a number of pieces on this and other subjects both for the blog and the Lincolnshire Echo. 

In January 2016 I went to Lesvos with my wife and two other friends to work at the Moria refugee camp. The main writing on this was the Lesvos blog.

2016 was also the year of the EU referendum and I wrote a number of pieces in passionate support for remaining. At around the same time a number of us started CompassionateLincoln in support of refugees but also our local homeless.

2018 marked the centenary of the end of the Great War and a highlight for me was the visit of the Proms to the Drill Hall. We also held a commemoration of Lincoln in WW1.

I used the blog for my early thoughts on what became my two books on UK manufacturing.

The blog continues to be a place where I offer thoughts on a range of mainly political issues although a current project exploring Shakespeare may feature in due course. Earlier blog pieces on Macbeth and Titus Andronicus may be in point. 

Lincoln Drill Hall

Saturday 29 April 2023

We are all the beneficiaries of slavery

 We are all beneficiaries of the slave trade – like it or not. 

The work The Guardian is doing on the actions of its founders and the work commissioned by the King will enhance the historical record, but they are unlikely to change the broader picture identified by Eric Hobsbawm and others. 
Cheap cotton picked by slaves fired the industrial revolution. 
Everything else flowed from it. The need for machinery demanded coal and iron. These begat steam engines, the railways, factory system. The benefits were not, and are not, evenly shared. My friend’s grandmother, who worked in a cotton mill at the age of thirteen, and so many like her, suffered along with her brothers and sisters transported against their will from Africa. 
Yet industrialisation transformed our lives. Taking the example of cotton. Roger Osborne offers a  very telling statistic. ‘In 1790, 4% of the clothing in Europe was made of cotton; by 1890, it had grown to 73% and the population had roughly doubled to 400 million’. 
Industrialisation was not without its critics, not least John Ruskin. Its legacy though is a world of disparity in wealth both between and within nations, let alone the shadow of global warming. 
The evil of the slave trade lies there at the heart. Individuals and families may have been responsible, but they are dead. It is with each of us in the post-industrial western world  that discussion of reparations must start

Sunday 18 December 2022

The case for a universal basic income

 The stories emerging from the cost of living crisis make the case for a universal basic income overwhelming. 

A starting point is that, as a wealthy country, there is enough to go round. 

If we go back from there to how income has been distributed historically through the operation of the market we come to a wonder of how it ever worked at all. And of course it didn’t

Subsistence farming and labouring gave way to industry which paid the minimum needed to attract workers from the fields. It is of course more complicated  

Since the 2008 crash, the public sector has born the brunt and wages have been squeezed. Will Hutton suggests that 'the strikes are a baleful legacy of a 12-year obsession with tax cuts and a small state'. You can read more in the Observer of 18 December 2022. 

If we take nurses, historically they were women living as single people in the nurses home. Pay was set to be enough to attract women to follow their vocation. The vocation is still present but individual situations have changed. 

Now nurses may be single parents responsible for a family. Historically they may have been married women bringing a second income to a family. Now they may be the main breadwinner, female and male. If they are single and live in rented accommodation, rents have been driven up by the market. 

It is not the job that defines the income need; it is the particular situation of the individual or family unit. It makes no sense to build an employment model in the NHS based on the needs of single parents; equally it is ludicrous to assume that the income merely adds to the family cake. All this is quite separate from any discussion on the comparative worth of different jobs.

As I argued before, the Manufacturing sector provided jobs with pay sufficient for family needs. Most manufacturing jobs has been replaced by lower paid service sector jobs, often not full time. 

Basic pensions and benefits just about provided enough. The energy crisis has driven a coach and horses through that, but, all being well on a temporary basis. Help toward energy by definition leaves space for other help. If that help is not forthcoming, the heating has to be turned off. 

It should not be down to help.