A friend of mine at university, when exams came round, liked to draw up a revision schedule.
He’d spend days crafting a document of beauty, choosing different colours for each subjects, carefully noting down his meals and breaks for leisure. Eventually, he was done, and ready to revise. Cue panic, as he realised how little time he’d got left. His detailed, honed plan would be discarded as he frantically tried to prepare.
I was reminded of my pal last week when the Government presented its industrial strategy. If ministers were hoping for a blizzard of favourable publicity they were disappointed: Prince Harry’s engagement, announced the same day, swamped everything. Nevertheless, there were some approving nods.
It was long overdue; evidence of joined-up thinking, finally, in Whitehall; a blueprint for a new commercial dawn. All that is true. It looks smart, reads well, is full of certainty and promise. My student pal would certainly approve.
But like his timetable, will it really achieve anything? Ours is a country where to build just one runway at an airport has taken 24 years of argument, and the decision is still awaited. This, don’t forget, is way before any soil is turned. It’s a nation that has just one motorway running its length. The road is on one side, the west; on the other, in the east, there are major conurbations, and people and businesses have to make do with a two-lane highway and lots of roundabouts.
Getting resolution on anything, to the point where action results, is an interminable process. It’s much easier churning out papers, making speeches and attending photo-calls, than rolling up sleeves and attempting to achieve real change.
Indeed, the strategy has a deja-vu feel. It’s as if many of the platitudes we’ve heard down the years have all been harnessed in the single report. Nevertheless, what is new is that they’ve been put together at all, that someone understands that we must improve our infrastructure, equip children with the right skills, rebalance the economy, invest in technology, cut red tape, boost small to medium businesses and help them reach the next level, and more – and do them all together not piecemeal.
The fear is that this crafted, thought-through document will be consigned to a shelf, that it will languish, to be revisited the next occasion someone decides we ought to do something about our industrial make up. For it to begin to be enacted upon requires buy-in from politicians and civil servants, from the finance and investment communities, from planning authorities and regulators. It necessitates one person to be given total authority, to wrest the silo mentality that dominates so much of our thinking, and to impose their will over the vested interests of others.
There are some relatively short-term wins we could make. We have to start taking business seriously. That means a shift in attitude at Westminster, so the Business Secretary – who heads the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – is afforded greater status, with a department that is regarded as pivotal and vital. For too long, the business brief has been kicked around, seen its title changed by successive prime ministers, given a job description invented on the hoof, and mandarins permanently in a state of flux. The Business Secretary and their officials should be granted coveted status, with the same over-riding power over the fragmented public service machine as the Chancellor and Treasury.
We must think local. While it’s true that a project such as Heathrow expansion has barely crawled along, transformation has been accomplished elsewhere. Often, that progress is at a regional, localised level. Anyone doubting what can be achieved when people put their minds to it, and work together not against each other, only has to view the centres of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham.
And we must go small. Banks have to lend to our fledgling enterprises, to assist them to grow and develop. We’ve no shortage of startups, but we have too many that fail within three years. Frequently, too, it’s not just money, especially working capital, they desire, but advice on how to manage, and to market.
And digital. We should aim to be the world’s first fully digital major economy. Instead of focusing all our energies, and funding, on the transport of people, which we know will lead to decades of wrangling, we should be pursuing the speedy and free transport of data for everyone, everywhere – with everything that entails, from installing cabling and towers, to writing industry standards to educating school pupils in coding and writing software.
But business has to help itself as well. Our attitude to money-making has been coloured by the greed and behaviour of some of those at the top of commercial life. They’ve poisoned the atmosphere so that any attempt to promote an enterprise culture, to argue for anything that is deemed to be “pro-business” is opposed and criticised. This has coloured our media and politics, meaning that initiatives are scrutinised through an “anti-capitalist” prism. Business has few friends, no one is listening and responding, and as a result, little gets done.
Producing an industrial strategy is a useful exercise, putting it into practice requires discipline and determination. Just look at my friend and his revision diary.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and executive director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm