In February 2012, Vince Cable flew to the US to meet with the Chief Executive of General Motors to make the case for why they should continue to invest in the UK for the long term. The BBC reported that the meeting may have played an important role in the company’s decision 3 months later to commit to invest in Ellesmere Port rather than at another of their EU plants.
It is lucky, perhaps, that this investment decision did not come up one year later. Vince would have had a few less cards in his hand. Michael Heseltine put it pithily over the weekend:
Why put your factory [in Britain] when you don’t know – and [the British government] can’t tell you – the terms upon which you will trade with [other EU countries] in future?
Another core UK industry, aerospace, is predicted to grow by 5% year on year for the next 20 years. It’s good government to try to get some or all of that 5% per year growth into the UK, hence the Industrial Strategy, the Regional Growth Fund and the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain initiative. However, this growth target is not easy to achieve. Britain needs the skills and it needs the ongoing investment to maintain its reputation. The last thing UK aerospace firms need is uncertainty over trade and markets, and for new investment to go abroad.
As Vince Cable said:
I have to spend my time talking to business people, British and international, trying to have the confidence to invest here and create employment, and the recent uncertainty is just deeply uncomfortable for the country. I think the warning shot across the bows from the United States was actually quite helpful as well as very timely.
At a business event recently, one very successful manufacturer and exporter talked of the flat-earthers – by which he meant some of his colleagues who always needed to be reminded that their foreign customers were just as important as UK customers; that successful exporting was about understanding other countries, their business customs and their people. He caricatured the companies where the export sales manager has a small desk in a corner of the office, and is mostly ignored.
Manufacturing accounts for 50% of UK exports. Euroscepticism of the Conservative or UKIP variety doesn’t sit easily with manufacturing. With a positive, constructive political role within the EU, the Lib Dems can demonstrate a politically distinctive commitment to UK manufacturing, growth and jobs.
* William Hobhouse is on the board of Liberal Reform and is co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing.