A new industrial strategy for Britain?

The Government revealed its new industrial strategy in a White Paper published earlier this week, generally receiving a positive response. But are there still elephants in the room?

Professor T J Simpson, in a letter to the Editor of i published on 25 January, wrote:

“… but when you have been around as many decades as I have there is just a tiny feeling of deja vu. I can remember Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ and all the other industrial strategies aimed at increasing productivity dreamed up by every administration since. What did they all have in common? They all failed miserably.”

Wilson’s speech of 1963 led to a statement by his government in 1965 that industry would go metric within a target period of 10 years. Some industries took up the challenge, including construction which began the changeover in 1968 and had substantially completed it within the target period, resulting in notable successes for British architects and engineers around the world in the ensuing years. Other industries dragged their feet, in particularly manufacturing, which had scarcely started the changeover by 1975.

Failure to proceed rapidly with the adoption of the global measurement system was not the only or even a principal reason for the decline of manufacturing. These have been set out in a recent book by Nicolas Comfort entitled: “The slow death of British industry. A sixty-year suicide. 1952 -2012”. But it played a part.

So could the ‘new’ strategy succeed where its predecessors failed?

The Government says it will focus its energies on five areas: life sciences, low-carbon-emission vehicles, industrial digitalisation, the creative sector and nuclear industry. All part of the knowledge economy and all but one hi-tech. So the UK’s measurement muddle should not be a problem. But the Government goes on to say the plan will focus on the 50% of school leavers who do not go to university. It proposes the construction of institutes of technology and 15 core technical “routes” for students that train them in the skills most needed by employers in their regions.

It fails to mention or perhaps even appreciate that one of those skills is familiarity with the global measurement system, a familiarity constantly undermined by the continued presence and use of other than global measurement units on road traffic signs, for example, and in news stories and when describing properties for sale or quoting one’s weight or height. And those likely to be most influenced by what they see around them rather than what they learned at school are the 50% whom the Government says its plan will focus on.

Asked about the relatively low amount of spending allocated to the policy, the business secretary, Greg Clark, said it was a consultation on priorities. A large element of this was the government’s belief that the UK was falling behind nations such as China when it came to workers’ technical skills. Based on PISA scores, he might have added Singapore, South Korea and even Vietnam, but certainly not that bastion of parochial measurement units, the USA.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said the strategy should help young people in the longer term but did little for those in insecure, low-paid jobs. Yes indeed, the latter includes some of those most handicapped by our measurement muddle.

An article by Roger Cohen in the New York Times on 20 January was headed, “Theresa May’s ‘Global Britain’ is baloney”. Metric Views is not suggesting her industrial strategy is baloney too, but we believe a commitment by her government to the use of the global measurement system for all purposes, including road traffic signs, and to encourage others in Britain to do so, would increase its chances of success (and might also give some credibility to her slogan ‘Global Britain’.)

2 thoughts on “A new industrial strategy for Britain?”

  1. A feeling of deja vu indeed. Keeping to the metric theme, one thing I seem to be at odds with others here is my knowledge of events at the time.
    Preceding the 1965 metrication programme was the post war global ideology of Imperial measures.
    I was working in (now known as hi-tec) industry in 1960. One of my primary jobs was to repair, rebuild and update war time equipment built in haste to fit the need at the time.
    This included changing all fasteners to the latest standards. After years of ‘consultations’ of all interested parties it was pretty much agreed that the country should convert to metric. However, American influence won the day and true to form we went to Imperial UNF/UNC/SAE standards. Obviously this was before 1960 by some margin (Feb 1959 seems about right). UK industry was not amused. All nuts and bolts were changed from BSF/Whitworth to UNF/UNC, all BA screws (metric!) were changed to those b-awful 6-32, 10-40 or whatever they are, still the scourge of computers to this day. This updating applied also to cars of the day.
    The common prophecy of the day “this is a waste of time, we will have to go metric in a few years anyway..” How true that was to become.
    The pain, the pain, the pain, BSF, Whitworth, BA, UNF, UNC, now metric, all floating around at the same time along with wire and drill sizes and all other factors involved.
    Within 10 short years British industry was called upon made two complete changes of standards and tooling. Some did not bother, many went out of business.

    It is hardly surprising then that metric, when it did come, indeed exactly as predicted a few years later in 1965, it was not altogether as welcome as it would have been 10 years earlier.

    Now we may again be at a crossroads, never say never again.


  2. Some of the universities certainly dragged their feet. In 1974/5 I completed an MSc at UMIST in “The theory and practice of automatic control”. The course consisted of six months of classes and a six month dissertation. When I announced to my supervisor that I would be using SI (I was an overseas student at the time from a metric country), he reluctantly agreed.

    Looking through my dissertation, I now realise that in one instance I should have used millimetres rather than decimals of a metre and in another part of the dissertation, I should have used pascals rather than bars. In the latter case, the pascal was still a very new unit, having only been approved by the CGPM four years previously.


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