Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/03/11/uk_tech_actually_equals_cars/

Gov: High-tech engineering (car making) will save Blighty

Squeaky wheel gets the grease

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 11th March 2009 14:28 GMT

Analysis More news from the British government's push to revitalise the economy through high tech today, as the Trade and Investment Minister - a former banker - briefed reporters on a new national marketing effort for UK "advanced engineering".

In essence, the government want to let the British people - in particular the schoolchildren - know that actually Blighty's engineering and manufacturing sector is in much better shape than one might think. It is the sixth biggest in the world, in fact, and according to UK Trade and Investment (UKTI, the Trade and Investment minister's bureau) it delivers fully a third of British exports - £109bn.

If British kids can be persuaded to pay some attention at school, and so go on to qualify in technical disciplines at university, this state of affairs might continue or indeed improve - that's the thinking. And if overseas purchasers and investors can be helped to see through Blighty's image as a place which doesn't take technology seriously, that would be good too.

According to the newly-ennobled Lord Davies of Abersoch (formerly Mervyn Davies, chairman of Standard Chartered), the issue is largely one of perception. The UK has always been strong in high-tech engineering, but nobody ever mentions it.

"If you in the press won't report [the greatness of British high-tech] we will have to get the message out via other channels," he told assembled biz reporters at a briefing in London today. For instance this new website (warning: Flash).

One big success area the government sees for UK "advanced engineering" is the automotive sector, which according to UKTI makes up £9.8bn of the nation's annual economic activity. But even UKTI admit that car making in Blighty has its problems.

"Our automotive sector, while currently enduring a particularly difficult time, has over recent years developed an ability to drive down costs and deliver to tight deadlines," says biz minister Lord Mandelson. And indeed today there's news that Toyota will cut pay and output at its two UK factories.

Interestingly, UKTI claims that various other kinds of tech manufacturing are in the same sort of league for the British economy as automotive. For example the space sector is now said to amount to £7bn of annual economic activity - better than three quarters the size of the car industry, apparently. Motorsport, as distinct from mainstream automotive, is said to come in at £5bn - more than half the size of the regular car industry. The manufacture of construction equipment such as JCB diggers is almost as big as that of making normal vehicles, at £8.5bn according to UKTI.

Space nearly as big as cars? In a country without a space agency?

Perhaps those numbers show nothing more than the fact that it can be unwise to trust government statistics. Even so, it seems worth noting that the UK space industry - which has apparently grown to be almost as big as carmaking - has done so largely without government assistance. Britain is one of the few advanced nations without a space agency and with a firm policy against manned spaceflight. While government money has flowed into the UK space industry it hasn't seen anything like the kind of subsidies and assistance that the automotive sector has. One of Blighty's flagship space projects, the new Skynet 5 military commsats for the MoD, was actually funded by City investors planning to recoup their money from supplementary defence funding paid to support the war in Afghanistan, for instance.

In other words, it could be said that the British government doesn't actually know the difference between profitable advanced engineering - in which Blighty may very well maintain advantages, as rich countries tend to - and just plain old engineering that can be done much more cheaply elsewhere.

According to UKTI:

The key point of differentiation ... revolves around the concept of innovation and inventiveness. Whilst some competitors will emphasises cost or specific dimensions of quality, it is the UK's ability to provide creative, knowledge-intensive solutions which offers UK businesses the greatest prospects ...

Asked whether the government had picked the right technology areas to back, Lord Davies told the Reg:

"I don't know enough about space to really say ...

"It's not the government's job to pick and choose particular areas within engineering, it's the framework that's important."

And yet UKTI says it aims to "enhance the understanding and reputation of UK Advanced Engineering across the world, in markets and sectors where the benefit to UK businesses will be greatest." (Our emphasis).

So yes, the government does intend to target greater effort in some tech sectors than others. But will they get the emphasis right?

The ministers in charge aren't tech people. Lord Davies is a former banker (to be fair, Standard Chartered is one of the few banks still in good shape). Lord Mandelson is a lifelong media and political operator. It would appear, as supersonic-car promoter Richard Noble has lately bitterly claimed, that if you want to be a big shot in Blighty you should avoid engineering or technical studies of any kind like the plague.

It certainly seems as though it won't be space, aviation, construction equipment or motorsport - any of the tech sectors which are actually doing well - which get the real concrete government help, though they will get a free marketing website. Rather it will, most probably, be the carmaking industry which gets all the handouts yet again. Quite literally, the squeaky wheel will get the grease. Quizzed on the Toyota crisis, Lord Davies said today:

"There is a firm commitment by government to help the automotive sector."

Bearing in mind the decades-long and troubled history of British government bailouts for economically distressed UK car factories, it's hard to say - as UKTI would argue - that we're really seeing any significant "repositioning" of the UK's national attitude to high tech here. ®