Funtil you make it has been maxims guiding the policy of the British government for national renewal since Brexit. Don’t be a remoaner declinist, they said, instead enjoy the feeling of being a superpower of science, a hub of innovation, a global player, a source of new regulation, and watch those entrepreneurs go, go, go. Seeing them push into new markets when it was good trade deals opened up the world to British ingenuity.
In reality, the country has gone from heroes to zero in a few months. The bankers clamoring to slow down the economy by pushing down wages cut in public expenditure.
This is the context in which we must understand the sorry story of Britishvolt. The startup was formed in 2019 to build batteries for electric cars in the UK. It was originally established (with the promise of government subsidies) in south Wales, then at Blyth in Northumberland, again with a large subsidy promised. Three years later, that is consider going into administration among other options.
300 workers in half pay with the company already continued for five weeks with an injection of £5m by one of its owners, Glencore. This is hardly the kind of money needed to change the world, or even Blyth; that is the cost of a house in an expensive part of London. The government has not given the company a promised £100m as before it was earmarked for tooling equipment inside the factory, which has not been purchased.
Article after article painted a picture of the gleaming gigafactory if nothing else, linked £1.7bn here, £3.8bn thereif the actual investment in the company, it seems, in tens of millions. A little said about the actual battery, Britishvolt sent it late first sample batteries in September (made at a British government-funded development facility).
There may be nuggets of innovative battery technology that a great car or battery company can buy. Such companies have invested many billions. But that’s the point. Arguably battery production is not currently a business for startups; it is an industry with big players, including Chinese firms and global carmakers. The only battery manufacturer of its size in the UK is a Chinese company which supplies Nissan.
For the past 40 years, the British government has implemented policies based on the idea of British innovative genius that should be exploited by creating startups. The battery start is a perfect case, as it has long been claimed that the UK is the world leader in battery technology. But, as the last few years have shown, it’s hard to be the world leader in batteries if you don’t get it right make they. There is a certain desperation then, not only to exploit the battery technology, but to do it with the mouth of Britain. Add in the requirements of the car industry to convert to electric vehicles, and it looks irresistible. Add Brexit, and you have to create Britishvolt.
The government has released grossly misleading statistics about the size of the UK tech sector, exaggerating the scale of the digital economy by including cinemas, and the space economy by including Earthbound. satellite TV station and plate installers. There is even talk about England leading the world the fourth industrial revolution as it leads to the first.
In a recent speech, Keir Starmer rightly warned against impulse and fantasy. But when it comes to British technology, he does it alone. “The way I see it,” he said, “Some nations will lead the world in electric vehicles, in offshore wind floating, in new hydrogen and nuclear technologies. Why not Britain?” He claimed that “Britain has an extraordinary genius in the matter of manufacturing”. The country, he said, needs “more innovation, more new technologies, more research and development, more unlocking the commercial power of our universities, more specialization in knowledge-rich industries of the future, and more startups”.
But is this true? There are already world leaders in electric vehicles, floating offshore wind, and hydrogen and nuclear, and none of them are British. Isn’t it the case that innovation strategy has been at the core of industrial policy for 40 years, with little result? productivity has been stagnant for almost 15 years.
Labor must resist the strong temptation to try to further the government in technological chauvinism. Tech-bro Rishi Sunak will win the contest. This country needs an alternative policy, which is more likely to work. The idea of everyday economics, discussed by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and mentioned several times by Starmer, provides the key. Let’s think about imitating and, if 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 quixotic dreams of world domination, let’s remember that the UK represents between 2% and 3% of global research and development and manufacturing, and there are big and strong competitors out there.
Brexit Britain has fake it but not made. Let’s hope that a sense of proportion comes to British discourse, and remember that many other nations have at least as good a claim to be the home of scientific and manufacturing genius. Only then will the nation be truly successful.