Britain finally left the EU on 31st January, after three and a half years of utter frustration, and now we are progressing through a ‘transition period’ set to end on 31st December 2020. However, we should be mindful of the path we choose.
Our Prime Minister has a vision for Britain, but still he keeps this fairly close to his chest. Whilst freeports and artificial intelligence (AI) can only be good for our business and economy, they will never employ the millions who need better jobs. There are other things to consider, that have yet to be openly discussed. It is my understanding that the Withdrawal Agreement, as enacted into law, still contains the acceptance that we will adopt the EU’s environmental policy. On the face of it, their policy reduces emissions, works towards a carbon free footprint and flies the flag in striving for a cleaner, environment friendly nation. What could possibly be wrong with that? Our steel industry has lead the world both in terms of development of steel grades and reproducible quality of product. However, various factors have contributed to the decline of our steel industry over the years, not necessarily the fault of the industry. The continual reduction in our manufacturing jobs (caused by the EU in subsidising relocation to mainland Europe) almost convinced me that it has been their plan to eradicate our ability to survive independently. The agreement with Europe (pre EU) in the 1980’s by Mrs Thatcher that Britain would no longer build commercial ships above 1600 gross tons immediately reduced massively the requirement for Grade A steel. Sub 1600 gross ton ships were still being built for a time, but the loss of labour skills, closure of satellite industries like foundries, chain makers, engine builders and all that contribute to ship building, took its toll until eventually, ship building virtually died out. However, the requirement for steel remains. Concrete bridges need steel for reinforcement. Every warehouse requires steel for its structural integrity. The need for steel is profound in pretty much everything from toasters to ships. The suggestion that we can maintain our position in the world without steel is doubtful. Though our steel industry is now dwarfed by overseas steel industries, there is no reason we cannot maintain our industry for self sufficiency. However, the EU’s environmental policy will destroy what is left of our steel industry. Any suggestion of agreeing to EU rules on government subsidy and level playing field will drive us down even further. For these reasons alone, we should be examining our newly enacted Withdrawal Agreement and asking whether, in its present form, we can maintain our essential steel industry. We could do much to help rebuild that industry, for example, whilst the government recognises the need to help our fishermen and retain our fishing waters, we will need more fishing boats. Perhaps boats could be built under government subsidy and sold to the fishing industry on a sort of lend-lease basis, which allows both the steel and fishing industries to flourish. Let us not forget the recent furore over our Royal Navy support ships, which, under EU rules, had to be put to tender among all EU States. They were very nearly to be built in Spain. Once fully out of the EU, we could build those ships in Britain, using our own steel, which would help employ more people. In turn, our steel industry will assist in the revival and growth of our manufacturing industries. Whilst the financial services sector now provides the lion’s share of GDP, the majority of working families do not and will never work within financial services. More well paid jobs in manufacturing and related industries for more working families will not only bring hope for their future and relieve the burden on the State, but will produce more revenue for Government spending. Selling off our steel industry, even in part, to China was, I feel, self defeating. China will most certainly take our expertise in metallurgy back home and then flood the world with with cheap, highly technical steel. On the face of it, does it matter? But will the quality be reliable? How will it be transported when, under our adaptation of the EU’s environmental policy, all internal combustion engines (diesel and petrol) will cease to be manufactured from 2035 or sooner - a mere 15 years from now? The world is rapidly changing. How we will do business will need to change too. There are many aspects to transportation, particularly by sea, that these new ‘environmental’ restrictions will place upon us. However, regardless of what path we choose to take, the present pandemic situation will have its affect on world psyche. It seems to me that the world will be unable simply to return to the way it was.
Should we maintain such a close relationship with China? Should we be so reliant on cheap Chinese imports?
Irrespective of the origin of this virus, we might be in a better position to help reduce the spread, in future, in the way we do business. Whilst this lends a greater bearing on self sufficiency and thus our ability to produce what we need, it is, perhaps, the subject of another article.
Michael Cheyne, Chartered Engineer and Conservative Brexiteer