Is British Industry really “Fat and Lazy”?

When Trade Secretary Liam Fox accused British industry of being “fat and lazy”, I immediately thought of this film, dating from 1959 when the world was a very different place.

Back then, Britain had trading deals with what until recently been the Empire, in which we imported food and raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. Railway networks from Australia to Africa relied on motive power built by English Electric, North British and Beyer Peacock.

Half a century later, though we still have a train-making industry, we’re a net importer of railway equipment, which comes from America, Germany, Spain and Japan. In the past two decades Britain’s railways have seen deliveries of large numbers of locomotives, but just one, the steam locomotive “Tornado” was actually built in Britain. Though even its boiler came from Germany. The idea of a railway in Africa or New Zealand buying British today is unthinkable. They buy from America, Japan and China now.

What happened?

It’s probably a complex combination of many factors, not least the technological shift from steam to diesel which left some British train builders unable to adapt. It’s ironic that the two steam locomotives in the film remained in traffic for much longer than most of the diesels built for British Railways shown in the early part of the film. The comparison between the service lives of the South African class 25s and the BR D600 diesel-hydraulics, both the products of North British, is exceptionally stark. That company is long gone now; they proved themselves incapable of building reliable diesels, and went bust.

But a major factor has to be the way British industry, used to favourable trading arrangements dating from the days of the British Empire, was simply unable to compete in a global marketplace.

So I think Liam Fox, like so many other Brexiteers, is hankering for the days of Empire.

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One Response to Is British Industry really “Fat and Lazy”?

  1. ard sloc says:

    What’s wrong with industry?

    Aditya Chakrabority writes in the Guardian today in support of Liam Fox calling Britain’s bosses fat and lazy;the bosses not the workers are to blame says Aditya.. But they both miss the point. The problem deeper, lying in the short-term view of investors. The Stock Market is like a casino with our old friend the hedge funds dipping in and out. This behaviour does not favour the long-term investment that industrial competitiveness requires. Instead directors are forced to look over their shoulders to see what predatory take-overs may be lurking, how they can boost quick returns and how they might benefit personally.

    And there’s more. The government has persuaded us that “the deficit” we should worry about is the public sector borrowing requirement, ignoring the much more important, and larger, current account balance of payments deficit. The government has so neglected industry that our imports of goods and services have heavily exceeded our exports for years. This has meant the sale of much of British industry to pay for the deficit. To some extent this could mean more efficient foreign management being brought in. But it used to be the case that government encouragement of industry promoted a current account surplus (leading to profitable capital investment overseas).