The Political Fallout of Brexit for UK Industry

Whatever your view, be you a leaver or a remainer, “hard right Brexiteer” or “snowflake liberal remoaner”,  and even if you don’t identify with any of those epithets, it’s impossible to argue that the UK’s departure from the EU hasn’t already impacted UK industry. It seems certain to continue to do so for some time to come too, and this is of course despite the fact that, more than three years since the famous referendum vote, and facing a second general election, the UK remains a full member of the EU at this point.

As the famous ‘Chinese Curse’ has it – “may you live in interesting times”.

These truly are interesting times for UK industry – and they’d be interesting with or without the Brexit issue, because we live in interesting times for global industry with the backdrop of climate change and digitalisation. Throw in the Brexit debates and all of the possible ramifications, preparations and prevarications, and it’s not surprising that UK industrial leaders are looking for every opportunity to hedge bets, reduce risks and play it safe. Justified prudence, in many cases.

And this is a great shame.

Because there is a huge opportunity for the sleeping giant of UK industry to take its place on the world stage as a principle beneficiary and workshop of industry 4.0. Through the creation of the Industrial Strategy, I felt that there was a real movement and willingness of government to recognise the contribution of UK Industry and support its development. But it’s hard to feel any momentum given all the uncertainty and the lack of political oxygen under the suffocating fog of Brexit.

Don’t get me wrong, progress in industry 4.0 adoption and digital transformation continues in the UK, and there are stand-out examples of world-class enterprises and applications. There is also a fantastic start-up community and numerous companies developing 4IR technologies that take advantage of the UK’s immense R&D capability and undeniable innovation potential.

Great work continues at, for example, the Catapults – but that truly coordinated strategic approach led by government feels like it has lost some momentum. Meanwhile Brexit uncertainty makes speculation and investment less attractive.

As interesting as the debates about Brexit are – and to a political nerd like me, as exciting as a general election is – it is imperative that the next government returns with energy and verve to the industrial strategy. Imperative that the great majority of industrial enterprises in the UK – the small and medium ones which have step-change productivity potential – are given the support, incentives and assurances they need to crack on with their own modernisation.

It’s not too late, but with every passing month the UK is losing a little more ground on fulfilling its huge potential. As has been said by a leader of one of our clients a full 18 months ago (and I’m paraphrasing), in industrial terms, this era won’t be remembered by how Brexit plays out, but rather, by the extent of our ability to modernise in the digital era.

For this reason we must continue to bang the drum for UK industry, and against the din of Brexit, we must simply bang harder.

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