Fake it till you make it has been the guiding maxim of British government policy for national renewal since Brexit. Don’t be a declinist remoaner, they say, instead enjoy the feeling of being a scientific superpower, a hub of innovation, a global player, a new source of regulation, and watch these entrepreneurs go, go, go. Watch them break into new markets as these great trade deals open up the world to British ingenuity.
In reality, the country went from hero to zero in a matter of months. Bankers claim to slow the economy by lowering wages and reducing public spending.
It is in this context that the sad story of Britishvolt must be understood. The startup was created in 2019 to build batteries for electric cars in the UK. It was to be established first (with the promise of government grants) in South Wales, then at Blyth in Northumberland, again with large grants promised. Three years later, he is considering entering the administration among other options.
Its 300 workers are on half pay and the business was kept going for five weeks with a £5m injection from one of its owners, Glencore. It’s not the kind of money needed to change the world, or even Blyth; that’s the price of a house in an expensive part of London. The government has yet to provide the company with the promised £100million, as the advance was for the factory’s tooling equipment, which has not been purchased.
Article after article painted a picture of a sparkling gigafactory when there was none, talked about £1.7 billion here, £3.8 billion there, so that the actual investment in the business was, it seems, in the tens of millions. Little has been said about the actual batteries, Britishvolt belatedly sent its first sample batteries in September (manufactured at a UK government funded development facility).
There may be a nugget of innovative battery technology that a big car or battery company could buy. These companies are already investing many billions. But that’s the point. We can say that the production of batteries is no longer an activity for startups; it’s an industry with huge players, including Chinese companies and global automakers. The only significant battery manufacturer in the UK is a Chinese company that supplies Nissan.
Over the past 40 years, British governments have pursued a policy based on the notion of a British innovative genius that must be harnessed through the creation of startups. A battery jumpstart was a perfect case, as the UK has long been claimed to be a world leader in battery technology. But, as was pointed out years ago, it’s hard to be a global battery leader if you don’t Craft their. There was then a certain desperation, not only to exploit the battery technology, but to do it with a British firm. Add to that the demands of an automotive industry moving towards electric vehicles, and it seems irresistible. Add Brexit, and you have the creation of Britishvolt.
The government has published grossly misleading statistics on the size of Britain’s tech sectors, expanding the scale of the digital economy by including cinemas, and the space economy by including satellite TV stations and satellite dish installers terrestrial. There has even been talk of the UK leading the world into the fourth industrial revolution as it led it into the first.
In a recent speech, Keir Starmer rightly and notably warned against boosterism and fantasies. But when it comes to British technology, he did it himself. “From my perspective,” he said, “a nation is going to lead the world in electric vehicles, in floating offshore wind, in new hydrogen and nuclear technologies. Why? not Britain? He claimed that “Britain has an extraordinary genius when it comes to manufacturing”. The country, he said, needs “more innovation, more new technologies, more research and development, more unleashing of the commercial power of our universities, more specialization in the knowledge-rich industries of the future, and more startups”.
But is it true? There are already world leaders in electric vehicles, floating offshore wind, hydrogen and nuclear, and none of them is the UK. Isn’t it true that a strategy of more innovation has been at the heart of industrial policy for 40 years, with derisory results? Productivity has stagnated for almost 15 years.
Labor should resist the strong temptation to try to outdo the government in tech chauvinism. Tech-bro Rishi Sunak would win this contest. The country needs an alternative policy that is more likely to work. The idea of the everyday economy, discussed by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and repeatedly mentioned by Starmer, provides a key. Let’s think about imitating and, where necessary, innovating to improve people’s lives by focusing on the services, public and private, labor and capital intensive, that we use, from nursing homes to the Internet . Instead of fanciful dreams of world domination, let’s remember that the UK accounts for between 2% and 3% of research, development and manufacturing worldwide, and that there are increasingly strong competitors .
Brexit Britain faked it but didn’t. Hopefully a sense of proportion comes to British discourse, and let us remember that many other nations have at least as good a claim to be homes of scientific and manufacturing genius. Only then will the nation truly succeed.
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