IN 1970, as the white heat of Harold Wilson’s much-heralded ‘scientific revolution’ in British industry faded to an ashy grey, the new government of Edward Heath created the Department of Trade and Industry out of a merger of the venerable Board of Trade and the more upstart Ministry of Technology. The department was launched with high hopes but sadly proved to be short-lived (much like the Heath government), being abolished in March 1975. It was replaced by a returning Harold Wilson with two separate departments, Trade and Industry. These too proved to have an unexpectedly short shelf-life, being subject to a re-merger in 1983 resulting in the emergence of a resurrected DTI under Margaret Thatcher.
This second wind for the DTI carried it forward some 20 years, a not inconsiderable time in the late 20th century world of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ departments (to paraphrase Sir Robin Day). It was of course subject to a pointless, empty Blairite rebrand in 2005, becoming the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry, though here the Blair government truly hit an unsurpassed peak of vacuity in that the rebrand lasted only one week. Any reprieve was of course only temporary, with the department finally being dismantled in 2007, to be replaced again by two successors, this time named the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, joined in 2008 by the Department of Energy and Climate Change which took on some of the tasks of the Department for Business. (As an aside, it does strike me at this point that for a government so obsessed with appearance and spin, the Labour administrations of under Blair and Brown were strikingly bad at choosing pithy names.)
The Departments for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform were re-merged two years later into the snappily named Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which was of course then disbanded by Theresa May’s government in 2016 and replaced by two successors, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade.
Now, as of this week, the Department for International Trade and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are gone too, to be replaced this time by three new departments, the Department for Business and Trade, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. A further shuffling of the Whitehall deckchairs which I am sure will very shortly result in a spectacular boom in the performance of the British economy and in the value of British exports abroad . . .
Looking at this kaleidoscopic dance of Whitehall departments over the last 50 years, one is tempted to ask what exactly this constant reorganisation has achieved. According to the World Bank, trade in goods and services contributed 59 per cent to UK GDP in 1974. In 2021, the last year for which figures are available, that figure was 57 per cent. It is hard to see where or why UK economic performance and productivity, and the value of goods exported abroad, would be any worse if successive governments had simply stuck with the old Department of Trade and Industry, rather than obsessively splitting, merging, re-merging and rebranding it every five minutes. Instead of fretting about the name and logo printed on the departmental stationery, successive prime ministers should have ensured that competent and trustworthy ministers were in charge of the department responsible for boosting Britain’s economy and overseas trade.
A better approach could arguably be found in Germany, Europe’s top exporter. Here, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs has exercised responsibility for the economy and for trade continuously, with one three-year gap under Gerhard Schroeder’s government, since 1949. While this ministry has seen the occasional alteration in its name, such as the wearyingly inevitable change in 2021 to add ‘Climate’ to its title, the ministry itself has remained a single entity for 70 years, giving its officials and the succession of ministers who direct them the time and organisational stability needed to take a long view of the needs of the German economy and of its exporters.
I can only hope that this latest time and money consuming exercise in departmental re-branding by Rishi Sunak is the last for some time, and that ministers and officials in this tired, dog-eared low-grade government spend their remaining time in power focusing on practical steps to improve the life chances and opportunities of the people they govern, rather than on more empty, pointless shuffling of the Whitehall machinery in pursuit of the right ‘optics’.