I’ve often listened incredulously to otherwise sensible Conservatives opposing the idea that Government should pick winners. The topic seems to cause consternation in many right-leaning circles. “Invest public money in companies? Pick winners? What is this: Cuba?!” they cry. What would you prefer, I ask them. That we pick losers? Cue more consternation and a reiteration of the fact its taxpayers’ money being invested. How is that in any way different to what a pension fund or banks does, I enquire. Why are you happy with commercial entities investing your money for a return, but not elected representatives using it to produce growth and jobs?
Needless to say its not a particularly well received notion – akin to being pro-EU – but as a rather brave Conservative confided to me recently, the words “industrial strategy” should not be a taboo for someone on the right.
If our aim is to get Britain back on its feet, it is utterly nonsensical to write-off a potential avenue of endeavor. Forget being economic Meatloafs – protesting how we’d do anything for growth, but we won’t do that – lets be fiscal Roy Orbisons and give business the Big O it deserves: anything it wants, anything it needs, it gets it, and sometimes that means doing what up until now has been utter heresy for many in the Conservative rank and file. It’s time to become proactive about identifying the industries of the future and giving them a leg-up, or more succinctly, pick some winners.
And yet unbeknownst to the party at large, that is exactly what the leadership has been doing.
In 2009 at the annual CBI conference, George Osborne was heard to lament the fact that the then Labour government had not conducted a single trade mission to sell British goods overseas. Since taking office in 2010, this has been completely reversed. Take the Prime Minister’s trade mission to China last week. In addition to ministers, ambassadors, and civil servants on the trip, there were a host of men and women from across British business. Yes, there were the Jaguar Land Rovers and the Rolls Royce’s, but there were also SMEs from across the UK. From food manufacturers to retailers, they encompassed an incredibly diverse range of fields. They were there because they showcase the best of British – being innovative, creative and dynamic. And they were there because they recognized the opportunity they were being afforded.
Do you think these SMEs could ever have secured access to China, the world’s largest economy, without the help of Her Majesty’s Government? No local business conference or trade show could possibly give them the opportunity that trip afforded. If that isn’t “picking winners”, I don’t what is. Further afield, we’ve seen the State investing in graphene, “quantum technology” (don’t laugh), giving tax breaks to video games and creating an office of unconventional gas to help monetise shale. These are all examples of the State seeing the growth potential in a technology and wisely choosing to invest.
So we do pick winners, we should pick winners and it’s about time we had the guts to say so. As GK Chesterton observed, “I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” Amen to that.
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