TIMES of crisis often bring a new clarity to things, and it is surely beyond doubt that the UK has become too dependent on globalisation. We have some of the best medical research facilities in the world, yet we don’t have a capable medical diagnostics industry. Modern ventilators have their roots in a patent taken out in 1794 by William White, of Garlick Hill, London, yet our hospitals depended on other countries producing them.
This time the crisis is medical in nature, but what of other globalisation risks? As just one example, we import 47 per cent of our food. If we suffered a blockade, crop failures, oil crisis, war – and we’ve had all of them in the past – the impact would be a lot greater than a run on toilet rolls.
As well as being risky, too much globalisation has two permanently operating outcomes: it exports jobs that would otherwise have been carried out here, and it pumps money out of the country, weakening our public finances and undermining the funding of education, schools and hospitals.
Rebalancing our economy to be less global does not mean being anti-globalisation; worldwide trade has worked a miracle in lifting billions out of poverty, and there are goods from remote corners of the world that we all cherish, but it’s an issue of balance. More localisation, buying what we make and produce, is better for the economic and environmental wellbeing of everyone living here.
One economic theory is that buying rather than making, when someone else can do it more efficiently, makes sense. This is fair enough, but taken too far, as it has been for the past 30 years, it leads to the almost complete loss of critical national capabilities. Modern economies depend more than anything on innovation, new ways of making and delivering products and services, so when a capability is lost the knock-on effects can be huge. Take machine tooling: some potential products or new businesses that could build on that skill set – such as robotics – don’t emerge, and innovation withers. A classic positive example of the benefits of retaining capability is Dyson, whose research strengths in designing sophisticated household goods could quickly be applied to ventilators.
For some inexplicable reason UK governments of any stripe have been loth to promote UK business, so what role can each of us play? We have lived in an era during which we have not been deeply concerned about where things come from, indeed almost relishing their distance travelled. We cannot afford that any more: not in terms of jobs, not in terms of security, not in terms of the environmental impact. Things have to change, and the time for change is now.
So, what to do? Our consumer imports are the direct result of millions of individual purchasing decisions, and we are all individually in control of these. Simply put, all we need to do is make smart purchasing decisions. Here are three ways to do that:
First, recognise that ‘made in the UK’ is rarely a simple proposition. There are many factors in ‘made’: research and design, the source of input materials, location of manufacture, make or part-assemble. Anything which meets all of these criteria, most of them, or even one, will be making a positive UK contribution relative to goods that are purely imported. For example, Makita is a Japanese company, but its Telford manufacturing plant is the only full-production power tools facility in the UK, so buying its products, even those not made here, supports UK jobs, UK corporation tax, national insurance payments and myriad Telford services such as their office cleaners and plumbing suppliers. Another important point is that the design element in non-food consumer goods is actually where the most economic benefit is, such as over-the-counter medicines, designer clothes or innovative appliances.
Second, buy local. This means from the farm or small business in the nearest town first, then anywhere in the UK. For food there are obvious advantages such as provenance and freshness, and farm shops offering ‘direct to consumer’ are either close by or with online delivery. There are also major ecological benefits – the 47 per cent of food we import comes at the cost of multiplying our food product miles by ten! The same for UK landed fish – it is a scandal that we export 70 per cent of the fish we catch and then import 75 per cent of the fish we eat. Is it possible to think of anything more ridiculous as an emblem of ‘too much global’ – a pointless two-way motorway of fish hitching a circular ride on giant container ships? Many, many other products are also local: skincare, furniture, shoes, tools or cars. It is a complete falsehood that the UK doesn’t make anything any more. It just doesn’t have a champion.
Finally, make this your mission: you can be the champion. Only you can change this. And how you can change it is simple: make sure you consider the UK options first for anything you want to buy – ginger biscuits, yarn, brie, hybrid bikes, world-class sparkling white wine, headache tablets, toasters and stilettos.
Your shopping choices can change the UK.