Made in Britain

A few years ago, I was helping my grandmother clear out her attic when I came across a dusty and battered old cardboard box. Wiping the lid clean with my jumper sleeves, I looked down and realised I was holding a box of Hornby model railway bits and pieces. Sitting up there in the light of an old candescent bulb, I happily rummaged through the contents of the box finding various lengths of track as well as a pair of splendid locomotives. Turning one over, I could just about make out the words ‘Made in Britain’ written on the underside.

The surprise of that moment, and the feeling it left me with, has kept the memory closer to the forefront of my mind than it probably deserves to be. After all, the widely-held belief that the UK no longer manufactures anything is really nonsense. British factories produce some of the finest industrial technology in the world and our advanced manufacturing sector is right up there with the very best. It is true however that fewer mass-produced consumer goods, like toys, are manufactured here than in years gone by.

A dramatic increase in consumption of domestically produced goods would require British products to develop a commensurately dramatic competitive advantage over foreign rivals. This advantage could be in price, requiring British made products to be able to compete with, for example, Chinese imports. Even in the increasingly automated UK manufacturing sector it is difficult to see how this could happen without drastic changes to the supply chain, unless goods from overseas suddenly became more expensive. A UK manufacturing bubble inflated by a fall in imports might give us more Made in Britain-branded products but it would also mean they took a greater share of our incomes.

The advantage could also come from a surge in national sentiment driving demand for British products, or from the other competitive advantage that British products have historically offered – quality. But Brexit is not the only engine of change currently revving away. There are revolutions going on in virtually every sector, and many of the changes we’re currently seeing could affect manufacturing in ways that are completely unpredictable. It isn’t impossible, for example, that small-scale manufacturing of things like toys and other products could become enormously successful cottage industries due to the advent of 3D printing.

We live in uncertain times, so it’s good to know that we have a proud manufacturing history as well as a strong manufacturing present to support us. Change is coming and nobody knows what the future of British industry looks like – or whether the grandchildren of tomorrow will play with trains made in the UK, China or anywhere else. But we do know that British firms have been dealing with upheaval for hundreds of years and aren’t in the business of rolling over as soon as they’re presented with a challenge.

Thomas Warner

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