White Papers used to be dense, serious analyses. Apparently this is no longer the caseby Len Shackleton / December 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
The industrial strategy White Paper, published at the end of last month, shows that Conservatives can think about something other than Brexit. This is commendable. But it has not had a great reception. Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, says it’s “too little, too late.” Some business groups are vaguely approving: for the Institute of Directors, the document “identifies the key challenges,” while the British Chambers of Commerce are pleased that Business Secretary Greg Clark has “listened to” firms’ concerns. But the Confederation of British Industry says that the government must focus on delivery.
Indeed. For, while the White Paper paints a rosy picture of a future in which Britain will aim to be “the most innovative country in the world,” there is the little matter of getting there.
White Papers used to be dense, serious analyses of problems with clearly-spelt-out conclusions and proposals for action. Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the Future looks and reads like a supersized election manifesto. Over 250 pages long, it has little coherent narrative. Much space is taken by irrelevant photographs of people doing things you can’t quite make out, while bullet points, boxes, sidebars abound. Names of improbable groups and organisations pop up without much explanation—the “Midlands Engine,” the “Digital Catapult’s Machine Learning Garage Programme” the “North West Nuclear Arc Programme,” presumably to impress us that stuff is happening.
The government “will set Grand Challenges to put the United Kingdom at the forefront of the industries of the future.” These challenges focus on “Artificial Intelligence and the Data Economy,” “Clean Growth,” “Future of Mobility” and the “Ageing Society.”
In order to explore how these challenges are to be met, the document covers five “foundations of productivity”—ideas, people, infrastructure, the business environment and places.
So far, so schematic. The Grand Challenges have the merit of looking forwards (unlike, say, Labour’s planned renationalisations). Artificial Intelligence and the Data Economy are undoubtedly the future. Of course much of the government “investment” in this area will be wasted, just as much private sector spending turns out wrong, but at least it’s not going to shore up obviously clapped-out businesses, as was 95 per cent of the National Enterprise Board’s spending under Tony Benn and Eric Varley. Mind you, I’m with the Economist in arguing that if the government really wants to do something here, it would do better trying harder to persuade the private sector to spend more on full-fibre broadband than on attempting to outguess the market for future data services.