Benn, Mandelson and the case for industry
Just when you think you’ve heard it all, they surprise you! This morning’s FT article, ‘Former BP chief says industry can learn from Benn’, nearly had me choking on my cornflakes.
Lord Browne, the former Chief Exec of that company, believes Tony Benn’s work as industry secretary helped in the exploitation of the North Sea oil fields and assisted the UK industry building oil platforms. Such an approach could help to build UK engineering and technology companies today, he opines. Browne goes onto praise Peter Mandelson’s policy of industrial activism, which has some similarities to Benn’s approach of thirty years ago.
Of course, up until 1979, everyone believed in active industrialism, so whilst Benn, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath will have had differences of emphasis, they all embraced the principle of interventionism. Mandelson’s active industrialism breaks new ground from the post Thatcher consensus, but it simply brings us back to where we were for most of the 20th Century and, for that matter, to where Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and most other leaders of industrialised nations are today.
My thoughts on today’s interview with Lord Browne are twofold:
- It would have been great if Lord Browne had said this ten years ago. New Labour always seemed nervous of the charge that it did not really understand industry, so if a senior business leader had joined with the trade union movement in making the case for government intervention, we may not have seen our manufacturing jobs decline at a faster rate than our international competitors in recent years.
- However, the fact that this comment has been made today is still important. This means that the Government, the business lobby (see my post about the EEF and manufacturing last week), the TUC, and now a senior industrialist who ran a world class company believe in industrial policy.
I hope that this becomes an election issue in the run up to next year. A debate about the future of British industry between Peter Mandelson, Ken Clarke and John Thurso, who speak for the three main parties on business issues, would be particularly helpful to those voters in our industrial heartlands. If we are really lucky, Tony Benn even chip in to share some of his experience!