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“Made in Britain”: Economic Planning or Political Exhortation?

6 March 2012

 Ed Miliband’s well-leaked speech to the EEF has set today’s pre-Budget political agenda. In fact, so well-leaked was the speech that Business Secretary Vince Cable seems to have leaked a Lib Dem response of his own – sparking a further response from Chuka Umunna. On a day of mixed business news, Miliband’s call for a Made in Britain marque has won a number of headlines. But it also raises a couple of important questions…

Speaking to Radio 4’s World at One, Miliband was keen to stress that his proposals represented a ‘patriotic economic policy’. The suggestion was, according to his speech, about celebrating Britain’s strength in manufacturing and promoting a rebalancing of the economy. A similar tone is evident is Cable’s call for the government to adopt a ‘compelling vision of where the economy is heading’. On the day that Brazil’s GDP overtook Britain’s this wish is perhaps to be commended. However, can patriotism be described as a policy?

A number of commentators – including the Guardian have noted the apparent similarity with Harold Wilson’s 1968 ‘I’m Backing Britain Campaign’. Interestingly, Cable’s call for more support of ‘key technologies’ and desire to get behind strategic firms – embodied by the £9m of support given to help Nissan create 2000 new jobs – also has a distinctly ‘Wilsonian’ tinge. Which, in the week the BBC launch their 1960s drama ‘White Heat’, is very fitting indeed.

A keen promoter of ‘new politics’, Miliband has denied his suggestions are an ‘old fashioned idea’. Nonetheless, there is an obvious historic link. But with the 1940s rather than 1960s.

During the late 1940s, when Wilson was serving as President of the Board of Trade (a precursor to today’s Department of Business Skills and Innovation) and Stafford Cripps as Chancellor, the government also promoted a manufacturing-led policy for growth. Like Cable, they promoted a clear industrial policy – though this was confidently defined in terms of economic planning. And like Miliband, patriotism was crucial.

The legacy of the 1940s has, however, remained contested. There were notable successes regarding the expansion of exports, but this was achieved at the expense of domestic consumption and industrial modernisation. Most importantly, the extent to which any success was ‘planned’ remains open to question. In fact, for all of the rhetoric, the post-war Labour government were often forced to fall back on political exhortation – such as the 1947 ‘Work or Want Campaign’ or the 1948  TUC-endorsed wage freeze.

The extent to which either Miliband, Cable or Umunna will be able to move beyond rhetoric will, no doubt, be just as much a point of debate for future historians.

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