British industry: gone, done and rusted?

Peter Forbes
12 min readDec 29, 2018

It has always seemed strange to me that we lost our manufacturing industry with barely a whimper of protest. Of course there were sit-ins, buy-outs, amalgamations, government bail-outs, but when it was over there was no attempt to learn lessons. The reaction of many to losing the British Empire was understandably good riddance but manufacturing industry: the trains, and boats and planes and cars we all loved?

But two books — which couldn’t have taken more diametrically opposed positions — have recently appeared that do delve into the causes of the UK’s industrial collapse: David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History and James Hamilton Paterson’s’ What We Have Lost: The Dismantling of Great Britain. Edgerton’s aim is to rebut every received notion about Britain’s industrial collapse: Britain’s industries were not backward (until they collapsed); there is no cultural bias in favour of the arts in Britain; the class system had nothing to do with it, and so on. Edgerton is a contrarian, so much so that he manages to contradict himself several times, sometimes on the same page. Despite this, the book has had many, almost ecstatic reviews. When a revisionist tract is so apparently welcome we should be wary. If the present is so dire, being clear about how we reached this state matters. A false narrative can power a disastrous future.

Hamilton Paterson tells the more conventional story, in both sorrow and deep anger. Although Edgerton is a historian of science and technology it’s impossible to read both books without realising that Hamilton Paterson has a much deeper knowledge of, and feeling for, technology than Edgerton. Where Hamilton Paterson gives a stark and informed account of Britain’s disastrous nuclear programme, Edgerton absurdly tries to belittle Calder Hall, Britain’s first (and worldfirst) nuclear power station, by suggesting that it wasn’t a big deal because the first atomic pile was created in Chicago in 1942. But that was the first proof-of-principle experiment! This is like claiming the 1945 Hiroshima atom bomb was nothing special because Ernest Rutherford, in 1919, was already knocking protons out of nitrogen atoms, watching the tiny bursts of light produced (Hamilton Paterson takes down Calder Hall for the right reasons — its inefficiency and the fact that it was a smokescreen for Britain’s military nuclear programme). There are many such false notes and downright errors in Edgerton’s account.

The conventional view of Britain’s industrial collapse — the thesis Edgerton sets out to demolish by fair means or foul — is on parade in Hamilton Paterson’s What We Have Lost. Where Edgerton constantly debunks the notion that Britain had outdated hidebound practices in both management and unions, Hamilton Paterson demonstrates this fact in action totally convincingly. As someone disparaged as a “northern chemist” in my university years by the public school toffdom, and one who worked in arts journalism for decades, I can vouch for the constant privileging of would-be witty insouciant artiness over earnest deep diving into the mysteries of nature and actually making things that work in this world. Edgerton must know he’s on dodgy ground but he just loves winding people up.

But to the meat of the argument. Edgerton begins by highlighting what an astonishing and unique country Britain was in 1900 and that to see it in terms of the peak of Empire is wrong. Britain was the greatest power in the world, the only free trader and one on a staggering scale. Its chief trades were with countries not part of the Empire at all: Argentina, the USA, the Baltic states. Some historians have alleged that Britain was already well behind German and the USA in many respects but Edgerton disagrees. At times his desire to put the record straight lead to some bizarre excesses. Not only does he laud the free trading energy of 1900 but he launches into an embarrassing panegyric to what he calls the “productive capitalists” who made Britain great at the time:

TSR2, the supersonic bomber cancelled in 1965

The British ruling class of the first third of the twentieth century was rich, confident and distinct. It bestrode the world, not merely the Empire. It gave the world a model for elite behaviour, whether in education or in the playing of sports, both indoor and outdoor. The dress of the British gentlemen became the uniform of the elites of the world.

Despite the hundreds of pages devoted to a rebuttal of declinism, in Edgerton’s world, from now on it’s downhill all the way.

War is one of Edgerton’s prime focuses, sometimes disconcertingly so, referring to Britain as a “warfare” rather than a “welfare” state. Certainly, Britain has exhibited a zeal for invention in warfare. But clearly, as Edgerton stresses, other European countries, the USA, and eventually almost everyone, were going to catch up with Britain in terms of industrial development. No decline in Britain was necessary for this to happen: Britain would not for long be the world’s great coal exporter or the builder of railways for entire countries like Argentina and India.

No one can claim that the 1920s and 30s were easy times for Britain (or any other country come to that) but he charts well the huge surge of modernisation that occurred during the 30s. He is also astute in showing how the centre of gravity of Britain shifted: the northern exporting industries declined but London and the Southeast boomed with new industries feeding the suburban home market. The coming of the national grid, the growth of the motorcar, ribbon development, the new single-story factories such as the Hoover building — all these are recorded in the poetry of the time, let alone the economic statistics.

He also stresses how well Britain rearmed against the Nazi threat from 1935 on. Britain was certainly abreast of science and technological development in the ’30s. The neutron (which led to the atomic bomb) was discovered in Cambridge in 1933; ICI invented polythene in the same year. It’s true, as Edgerton points out, that several inventions often attributed exclusively to Britain, such as the jet engine and radar, were actually simultaneously being developed elsewhere, especially in Germany. That was just chauvinism but it’s clear that there was no backwardness.

Edgerton often contradicts himself on Britain’s’ financial position. At times he suggests that Britain was rich enough to fight two world wars without breaking seat but he can’t hide the fact that, after World War II the country seemed to be broke and that its infrastructure was very slow to be rebuilt. Britain didn’t begin to stir in this respect until the late 1950s.

Despite his biases. Edgerton’s broad characterization of the period from 1900 to now is valuable. He shows how words like “empire”, “nation”, even “Britain” and “England” are slippery concepts whose meaning has blurred and drifted over time. In 1900 Britain was less a nation, not even an Imperial entity, but a global colossus: accounting for 50% of world trade.

But World War I and the slump of the ’30s changed the free trading world for one of rampant nationalism and protectionism. If free trade had gone, the Empire and Dominions were still intact when World War II broke out. But Edgerton’s big thesis is the emergence from global and Imperial Britain of the nation state: Britain. He charts this transition to the myth that grew up after 1940: “the year we stood alone”. The idea that “we stood alone” was a creation of 1945 when it become obvious that despite Churchill’s efforts we were going to lose the Empire. A new entity was needed.

Just how untrue “we stood alone” is can be demonstrated by the only major battle that Britain won without American assistance: the Battle of El Alamein. The force that faced and defeated Rommel’s Afrika Korps included Indian and South African troops besides the one we’ve all heard about: the British 8th Army.

Edgerton’s theme does help us to understand our course from 1945 to now: the insistence on export or die, the ’60s obsession with the balance of payments; the over-reliance on British technological inventiveness (on which Edgerton is especially harsh). The fact is that most of these attempts to bolster British industry failed on their own terms even though from the late ’50s to the early ’70s Britain did experience unprecedented prosperity.

Britain began the post-war era with a technological base that had high hopes of being a world leader in aviation, nuclear energy, electronics and computing, and the chemical industry. Between 1970 and 2006 it lost all these potential new industries whilst also failing dramatically in the old traditional heavy industries: coal, textiles, steel, railways, and shipbuilding.

Edgerton points to a fatal flaw in the British mindset concerning invention. Until recently, Britons liked to think of themselves as uniquely inventive, and a national myth of the post WW2 years was the inventiveness we had shown in the war would propel us to technical leadership. The flaw Edgerton exposes is that this inventiveness was often of the cranky kind. Britain’s affection for parodic invention of the Heath Robinson or Roland Emmett kind is an Achilles heel.

Edgerton gives only a partial account of the industrial disasters of the post-war period. He doesn’t mention the 1955 British Rail Modernisation Plan which was actually a backwardisation plan, replacing steam engines with a ramshackle fleet of unreliable, underpowered diesels instead of the electrification the country really needed. Or Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper which assumed the demise of the fighter plane in favour of missiles, a substitution that has still not happened to this day.

The most serious weakness in Edgerton’s approach is that, although he claims the work is based on “transformative historical research of recent years” that will allow “a good rattling of the cage of clichés which imprison our political and historic imagination”, he cherry picks anecdotes and statistics and plucks random names from hats to prove his thesis whilst blatantly ignoring more powerful evidence. The manner in which two of Britain’s industrial giants, ICI (from its foundation “a national and imperial enterprise, closely connected to the British State” — Edgerton) and GEC (a “large national champion”– Edgerton), collapsed ought to be a prime study for the work but, although both are dealt with in their earlier successful manifestations, about their collapse there is complete silence. In fact, these stories are extremely revealing of the fault lines that Edgerton is at pains to deny. ICI’s demise — hara kiri more like — took place very publicly. ICI divested itself of all its heritage heavy chemicals business and in 2003 advertised that it was now a touchy feely sensuous kind of set-up. An excruciatingly effete mission statement called ‘Secrets if the Senses’ blathered about “An office space …that presses all the right multisensory buttons and offers a balanced diet of sensory stimulation [which can] transform a sluggish business team into a dynamic and highly motivated enterprise” (not for ICI it couldn’t). The CEO Brendan O’Neill revealed the cultural bias of the current ruling classes when he snorted with derision about ICI’s past: “the top floor of Milbank was lots of wooden doors and thick pile carpets”. He let it be known he was a Grateful Dead fan. Three years later ICI collapsed completely. GEC similarly sold a huge tranche of the company, Marconi Electronic Systems, to BAe for £7.7 billion and bought two supposedly sexier US companies that proved worthless. Former CEO and Chairman Arnold Weinstock’s holding, £480 million at its peak, was reduced to £2 million. By 2006, the same year ICI collapsed, GEC (more or less the entire British electrical engineering industry) was no more and Weinstock died of a broken heart.

Why would such a study as Edgerton’s purports to be omit these two so informative case histories? Because they contradict his thesis. On a smaller scale, but very revealing on the British industrial disease is the fate of Pilkington Glass around the same time. I visited the Pilkington plant and head office in January 2004:

Pilkington was a world-leading glassmaker, having invented in 1953 the float glass process now used throughout the world. At the time of my visit, a Japanese rival, Nippon Sheet Glass (NSG) had bought more than 20% of Pilkington shares. The glossy staff magazine Pilkington Focus of November 2003 reported that there was no concern about this move: “It is an unusual situation, yes, but not necessarily threatening…[NSG’s] interest is more supportive than threatening”. In February 2006 NSG bought out Pilkington. The Pilkington Chairman at the time was Sir Nigel Rudd, a serial seller of companies to foreign interests. He was knighted in 1996 for “services to the manufacturing industry”. Deals like this were touted as enhancing “shareholder value” but shareholders never built a world-class industry; they are, however, capable of selling them out.

Despite their divergence on most issues, both Edgerton’s and Hamilton Paterson’s books end with a cry of despair at the corruption that has engulfed the country in the wake of a dead industrial culture.

The final shock of Edgerton’s book is even greater than his omission of the collapse of GEC and ICI. Throughout the book, long passages of polemic alternate with almost Wikipedia-style superficial resume. He treats the Thatcher era with evident disdain, rubbishing its claims to have unleashed entrepreneurship. At each stage of this history, he is saying, reality has never matched the rhetoric of the time. But nothing prepares us for his final throw. Over the course of the book the reader has got the impression that the extreme views of triumph or failure were both wrong. Things were never as good or bad as was made out at the time. But his last sentence is a throwing in of the towel; an expression of deep disgust and despair at what Britain has became. Because it is so unexpected and his reasons for feeling this are not explained, it seems to make nonsense of the hundreds of pages that preceded it. The book concludes, after a description of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral in 2013, “Tony Blair meanwhile was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.” But why should Blair’s personal corruption over-ride and over-write the story of British industrial history? The Edgerton of most of the book would say: that’s his problem; the country continued, neither triumphal nor in total decline.

We can pick over the causes of the historical collapse but the overwhelming enemy of British industry today is easily spotted: the financialisation introduced by Mrs Thatcher’s 1986 Big Bang, and reinforced by every succeeding government, like the booster magnets at CERN forcing the particle velocity to higher and higher speeds, this was the last straw. Financialisation was the Upas tree that destroyed everything around it. As Nicholas Shaxson wrote in a recent Guardian longread :

Long ago, our oversized financial sector began turning away from supporting the creation of wealth, and towards extracting it from other parts of the economy. To achieve this, it shapes laws, rules, thinktanks and even our culture so that they support it. The outcomes include lower economic growth, steeper inequality, distorted markets, spreading crime, deeper corruption, the hollowing-out of alternative economic sectors and more.

In the end, does it matter that what Edgerton calls “technological nationalism” is dead? If the economy is successful and people’s needs are met does it matter that our railways and utilities are run by foreign companies, often state owned. It’s globalisation, get over it. Some would argue that Britain managed the transition from being an industrial nation pretty well; we don’t really miss it. We are supposed to be a full employment as I write; service industries have taken up the slack. But the damage caused stares in the face every day in the media headlines. We have welcomed the world’s dirty cash (one way of filling the gap ICI and GEC left). We are addicted to selling arms to the deeply unpleasant repressive regime of Saudi Arabia (and prepared to turn a blind eye to the massive bribery involved) because they are almost the only country that will buy our military wares. The loss of practical industries has created a fickle, ill-educated populace in thrall to the most infantile of pastimes. The city of London (money launderer supreme) towers several times bigger than GDP — a position which sank Iceland in the last financial crash and could still do the same to us in the next. And then there is the lasting damage to communities that lost their major industry: poverty, drugs, ill-health; total demoralization. The list goes on.

It does matter because the opportunities for interesting employment are restricted by such an economy. Working with materials, machines, ideas that can be realised in concrete form is a source of great creative pleasure. There is still architecture of course — one industry that is equally artistic and technological and one on which Britain has excelled as other industries have foundered. But shorn of industry Britain has become a twitchy, indolent, infantile country of couch potatoes, screen addicts, people with a limited and febrile grasp of the way the world still works to feed, clothe them and otherwise satisfy their every need.

The world we are heading towards is one in which the ancient imperatives of food, shelter, security, gainful employment will be increasingly threatened by climate change and resource depletion. It will be time to get real again and as things stand most people will be woefully unprepared.



Peter Forbes

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.