Reflections on British Industrial Strategy today

Professor David Edgerton FBA, Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London gave the after-dinner speech at our Court and Partners’ Dinner on 16 January 2024.  He reviewed UK’s industrial strategy and innovation, within a worldwide perspective with illustrative examples from various industries.

His first example was from aviation.  After conceding the wartime production of transport aircraft to the US, subsequently the first airliners to cross the North Atlantic after the war commercially were American aircraft powered by piston engines. Whilst the first jet-engined airliner was the De Havilland Comet, which commenced passenger service in 1952, there was a hiatus of several years while structural issues were corrected. Despite the potential of British turboprop aircraft like the Bristol Britannia coming available, this gap in long-range airliners was plugged effectively by US-manufactured jet aircraft such as the Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8 and others.  With nearly twice the capacity of the Comet their productivity dominated the market. Learning from these lessons, the UK might have prospered better by developing more powerful, economical and quieter engines and matching these to a new larger airframe.

In the late 1960s and 1970s the UK stopped making passenger ships whereas Italy, Germany, Finland and France started to build cruise liners―a new market―and have become market leaders. In the same era, Germany and Denmark led the development of wind turbines. UK leads in building and operating wind farms but uses wind turbines developed by others. Similarly, UK’s nuclear power stations were developed using its own designs, but the UK now imports reactor designs. France became a leader in nuclear generation by giving up on its own reactor designs and building US designs.

Borrowing, copying, and imitating is a great driving force in this world, not innovation as such. Our lives have been transformed not because we have innovated but because someone else has.

Presently the UK has one radical long-term industrial strategy: Brexit. Since the 1980s we have had two sorts of industrial strategy: firstly foreign direct investment, as with Japanese car-makers and secondly innovation and entrepreneurship as a science superpower. However, an innovation-based strategy faces enormous difficulties. For example, British Volt wanted to use British battery technology to take on the established industry but the project collapsed unbuilt in 2022.

Another example is from pharmaceuticals. The British AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was developed at Oxford University, but was mass produced in India for poorer nations. It was not the vaccine most used in the UK, USA or EU. Instead the UK was a net importer of Covid vaccines, buying early from several sources, mostly from the US and EU. For both batteries and Covid vaccine the UK relies on the rest of the world.

The UK is relying on foreign investment, with subsidies to an Indian car maker (Tata) to make batteries using Chinese technology; to a French company (EDF) to build a nuclear power station to a French design; and to an Indian steel company (Tata again) to switch to electric arc furnaces.

Concluding, Professor Edgerton surmised that overall, the best industrial policy for the UK should not necessarily be the same as for the EU, USA or China. Becoming a science superpower may be a dream but borrowing, copying and imitating may be a better plan.

Read Professor Edgerton’s full speech.