Lord Digby Jones: 'We must rebuild UK PLC'
In this exclusive extract from his new book, Fixing Britain, Lord Digby Jones writes how Whitehall bureaucrats frustrated his attempts to reform and reignite British trade.
Consider, for a moment, a small country which ventured out from a place rather distant from the rest of the world but which proceeded to create the most powerful economic and military empire the world had ever seen.
It gave the world a common language, a common currency, the rule of law, the freedom of citizenship, tariff-free trade and peace. But after that amazing achievement, in the space of just three or four generations, it was all over.
I speak, of course, of Rome. Rome didn't fall apart because the Huns came out of the Ardennes Forest or the Scots came over Hadrian's Wall. Rome fell apart in Rome. It became complacent, lazy, and indolent. Its citizens stopped caring for each other. It became a society for the selfish. Its people concentrated on their rights, not their responsibilities. As it unknowingly approached its own demise, it lacked leadership and blamed everyone but itself.
I don't want that to happen to my country. I have always believed in socially inclusive wealth creation; skilling a dynamic and confident workforce and letting them enjoy the rewards of ability and sheer hard work. Over the past decade or so, I've seen at first hand how political dogmatism, the making of policy in ignorance of real life, and an inability to harness the good of business can lead to the disintegration of a cohesive society.
We are the sixth biggest manufacturing country on earth. As you read this, there's probably an Airbus flying from Santiago in Chile to Sao Paulo in Brazil or from Chicago to San Francisco. Approximately half of each of those planes is built in Britain. The wings are built in Broughton in North Wales. The undercarriages made in Gloucester. Many of the avionics are made by small businesses in the North and Midlands. Under the wings are the best engines you will find anywhere in the world, made by Rolls-Royce in Derby.
Our country has declined to such a state that is in serious need of fixing, but we do have the framework on which to base our fightback.
The most productive car plant in the whole of Europe, the second most productive in the world, is Nissan's plant in Sunderland. Where is the only other place in Europe where Toyota is building its hybrid car? Burnaston in Derbyshire. Not France nor Germany – but in Britain.
The UK is home to some 70pc of the Formula One motor racing teams, the second most watched sport on earth. They are not here for the fun of it but for the high-class engineering skills they find in Britain – even Michael Schumacher's Mercedes is built in Northampton.
We are a globally preferred place for food manufacture and export. The second biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, GlaxoSmithKline, is based in West London. Our creative industries generate thousands of millions of pounds in web design, textile design, books, film, art, theatre, architecture, advertising, consultant engineering.
A British consulting engineer delivered the Bird's Nest stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the Watercube. A British architect designed the spectacular suspension bridge across the Tarn River Gorge in France.
Of the top 10 universities in the world, four are English – Cambridge, Oxford, University College and Imperial College, London.
If you look at the top 100 universities in the world, the only country with more than us is America. Our higher education system is first class – a status achieved almost in spite of, rather than because of, ourselves.
We don't celebrate what we're good at. We merely look inward and criticise all the time. We have ceased to believe that we do all this.
In the UK, business gets on the agenda merely through gloom or facile entertainment. Fifty redundancies at a manufacturer makes the headlines, not the fact that Jaguar has had one of its most successful quarters.
At the height of the recession it was so difficult, almost impossible, to get the nation's own broadcaster, the BBC, to cover the many good news business stories. The self-belief of the nation was debilitated again and again by the accurate but unbalanced constant drip, drip of bad news. Indeed, many small businesses told me that their only two good weeks in 2008 were those when Obama's election and swine flu took the recession off the top slot on the Ten O'Clock News.
Government intrusion has complicated running a business, teaching a class, employing more people, taking a risk and simply doing a job. Incompetence in government delivery has left us all poorer. And there's been a poverty of straightforward and honest planning for the good of UK Plc. It has been easier for government to fashion its own layers of bureaucracy, to intervene and appear to be doing something than to take the more difficult route to plain, simple and effective solutions. Much of this is because few of our politicians have had any experience of real life, or a real job.
But I believe we can fix this country – economically, yes – but, far more importantly, make it a greater place for families who are trying to bring up their children into society, helping them get good jobs, and lead fulfilling lives, and in so doing, help our country achieve 21st century success.
At the root of it all is the desperate state of our education system. We have a generation who are not equipped for the world of work. Employers complain that, even after A-level studies, many school leavers have basic problems with literacy and numeracy and seem to think that the world owes them a living.
Whatever you think of her, Margaret Thatcher set about changing the face of UK Plc – and she did just that. As a young lawyer in Birmingham in the 1980s I saw the improvement in efficiency and productivity in the West Midlands. The change was painful, certainly, but it forged companies which were fit to compete with the growing industrial strength of Asia.
Westminster's ball and chain Gordon Brown and I were meeting at his request inside Number 10 on one of the last days of June 2007, 24 hours after Brown had become Prime Minister. I was pursuing what I hoped would be a profitable, plural career, a year after leaving the CBI.
He was very businesslike as usual, but his renewed sense of purpose, of reforming zeal, of freshness, was palpable. He explained how he wanted to get some experienced non-politicians into government where their specific skills could be brought to bear for a limited period to the benefit of the country.
He then started to talk to me about the promotion of overseas trade and inward investment. He said that I'd been complaining for years that politicians had never given it the true clout that it deserved and that governments had never addressed it properly.
He was right – it had regularly enraged me that, when I was at the CBI, we'd been setting out on a trade mission and then the minister had to cancel because there was a vote in the House of Commons or some other matter deemed of greater importance in the bubble that is Westminster. So a crucial trade deal, which could have created jobs in Britain, was often hampered because a minister had to vote for something like the fox-hunting bill; or our goodwill in an important overseas market was diminished by the fear a junior minister had of falling out of favour with 'the centre'.
Now, I'd had my problems with Brown in the past, but I'll give him credit for the next bit. He said he wanted 'to change forever the way the government did trade and investment'.
The Prime Minister looked at me and said: 'So here's your chance. Let's reform the way we do it. Let's change what we do.'
He said he was going to try a big experiment to bring established experts into four areas at ministerial level. I would be Minister of State for Trade and Investment. My job was to go abroad as a Minister of the Crown and sell Brand Britain, stimulating trade and attracting inward investment.
This was precisely the change that was needed, but I could sense the trouble brewing. I'd become what Whitehall would begin to call, with its habitual wish for acronyms, a GOAT – a member of a Government Of All the Talents.
They were all mystified when after a few weeks [of taking the job] they saw a piece of paper on the front of my desk which had the following written on it . . . 'oooosssshhhhwwwrrrcccchhh'.
They asked what it was. I said it was the most common sound (through clenched teeth and pursed lips) that I heard when I wanted to do something differently. That sound would, invariably, be followed by 'I wouldn't do that, Minister', or 'very brave, Minister' – the entire place was risk averse, so that the most common advice all too readily accepted by career politicians not wanting to blot their ministerial-progress copybook was to do nothing. And I never managed to change that.
But what I hadn't expected was the omnipotent suffocation by process and the obligatory emasculation of original thought and initiative. The governmental machine demanded complete obedience in a way which anyone outside the Westminster bubble wouldn't have believed, and it distanced the parties and politicians from the real world and the real voters.
I also wondered whether the voters would expect the United Kingdom Trade Minister's official car to be made in Japan. I had been assigned a Honda hybrid not made at the Honda plant in Swindon in the UK. I told my bureaucrats that since we were all paid by the taxpayer, many of whom worked in Britain's automotive sector, then we should at least be driving a product they made.
I asked for a 2-litre diesel Jaguar X-type, similar price, the lowest of the range, made by the good men and women of Liverpool. The answer was 'no'. The Jaguar was 'not on the list'. Evidently it wasn't as 'green' as the hybrids.
I reasoned to my auto minder that I thought it was important to support the companies that invest in our country by driving in a product made by the people of this country. Pressure should be put on the makers of those cars to make them more green, rather than simply shunning them – and I added that since I was about to do a lot of miles around the country, a 2-litre diesel on the motorway would be more efficient and a lot less polluting than a hybrid. Round London a hybrid is powered by electricity, but on the motorway, its fuel consumption and emissions are not competitive.
I made it clear that, instead of the Jaguar, I would happily have a Honda (or Toyota or Nissan for that matter) made in the UK, thus rewarding the faith these world-class Japanese companies have shown in our country over the past three decades. Still the answer was no and I was told that if I wished to press the case any more, it would have to be an issue for the Prime Minister.
So there we were, about to bother the leader of the fifth biggest economy on earth with the issue of what sort of twenty five grand car a junior minister could have. I knew, sadly, the bureaucrat was serious.
We have plenty of friends in the world but I came to understand that there is one country that really doesn't like us . . . it's us! Our most effective enemy is ourselves; we tie our hands behind our backs and then enter the fight!
I found a deep respect for Britain in the countries with which we need to partner, and from whom we need inward investment, but Whitehall still regards business with disdain.
Our own Government, whether elected politicians or their enforcers, the civil service, must not suffocate our lifeline into the 21st century – the businesses of Britain and their natural ability to create wealth, taxation and jobs.
Fixing Britain: The Business of Reshaping Our Nation by Digby Jones is published by Capstone Publishing. To order a copy for £16.99 plus £1.25pp call Telegraph Books Direct on 0844-871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
© Digby Jones 2011
Sunday, 21 August 2011
Lord Digby Jones: 'We must rebuild UK PLC' - Telegraph