Does the UK make anything anymore?

Jason Busch at Spend Matters had a post on Monday about whether consumers would be prepared to pay a premium for products which had a higher 'made in the USA' content.  He finishes with this.

"Without a rebirth of domestic manufacturing -- especially manufacturing in environments with significant automation and where customers may actually be willing to pay a domestic price premium -- I'd sooner keep the cash portion of my retirement portfolio in Rupees and RMB than dollars.

It's a very interesting question, and one that is even more relevant in the UK, where our manufacturing base has been weakened even more than that of the US.   What do we make in the UK these days?  Some pharmaceuticals; defence and aerospace equipment (but not as much as we used to) ;  food (although few of the big firms are British owned any more - Cadbury, Rowntree, etc.)   Tomkins, one of our few remaining large engineering groups, is the latest to be under threat of takeover from outside the UK, although unusually it is a Canadian private equity firm making the approach.

Perhaps foreign takeovers don't matter; but experience suggests that, once the head office moves out of a country, it's a lot more likely that a factory closure or two will follow, with more manufacturing capacity and expertise going. And of course we don't even own our top football teams....

I know many economists would say we shouldn't worry - our national competitive advantage lies in financial services, pharma innovation, education, the creative industries.  But perhaps I'm just of a generation that does feel a little vulnerable that our ability to actually make stuff seems to have pretty much gone.  I come from the North East and the pits were closing throughout my childhood, then the steelworks, then most of the other manufacturing (but thank you Nissan....).  It wasn't all good in the olden days of course; I worked one university summer holiday for Turner and Newall in a Victorian factory that made insulation for ships' boilers  (we wore wellingtons because the rain came through the roof; and I'm still somewhat worried about asbestos...).  I also worked at ICI on Teesside in the office one holiday and was amazed at the 4 hour working days and lunchtime drinking!  I guess the holiday jobs are in Tesco now.  

But can we really sustain an economy on retail and ephemeral services? What happens when the global centre of financial services gravity moves to Hong Kong or Mumbai? I don't know.  At least the US has Apple, and Google, and Genentech, and Pixar.... where are the UK firms who can take us into the global challenges of the next 20 years?  And is there anything we can do about the loss of manufacturing, even if we wanted to?

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