Manufacturing has a unique place in British history. Since the days of the industrial revolution it has been the bedrock of the British economy and transformed the Britain of the 19th century into a 20th century economic superpower. While the 1960’s and 1970’s saw Harold Wilson’s governments wanting to capture the “white heat of technology” to boost British industry, the years of Thatcher and Major oversaw the decimation of once great companies.
One exception until recently was the UK defence industries. The North West of England has been traditionally the home of many of our defence industries, particularly Aerospace. I represent Preston in central Lancashire which is close to defence manufacturer BAE Systems’ sites at Warton and Samlesbury. The last few months have been a time of great uncertainty for the thousands of workers in central Lancashire.
In January it was announced that French defence firm Dassault would be the preferred bidding partner for the £12 Billion contract to supply the Indian Government with Rafale fighter jets, instead of the Typhoons manufactured by BAE Systems. It was later revealed in an answer to a question by my colleague Alison Seabeck; the Prime Minister revealed he had last spoken to the Indian Prime Minister in November at the G20 summit in Cannes. This was in stark contrast to President Sarkozy who was in contact with the Indian Government just 2 weeks before the preferred bidding partner was announced.
Further worry has been caused by the MOD white paper entitled “National Security through technology” which fails to give any assurances that British defence manufacturers will receive the necessary support from the Government in future bids for defence contracts. The great fear is that British companies will be undercut by our own Government. Based on the proposals in the white paper, they could go for the cheapest option rather than buying British.
Put bluntly, if the UK Government cannot give preferred bidder status to UK companies now, it begs the question – why should the Indian Government give preferred bidder status to BAE?
Last month Ed Miliband gave a speech, “The case for Patriotism not Protectionism”. He said: “Patriotism is about an active Government using all of the means at its disposal to give competitive British firms every chance to succeed.” BAE never received this from David Cameron. Instead the company and its workers were subjected to empty rhetoric about an economy that would be rebalanced through manufacturing. Yet when it came to the moment of truth, they were left watching as Dassault was named the preferred bidding partner. Defence manufacturers don’t want platitudes, they want serious commitments backed up by firm action.
BAE Systems is a world class defence manufacturer. The company and its workforce are a source of pride for the people of Lancashire. Ed’s speech drew a clear dividing line between Labour and the Tory-led Government. We will be on the side of industry, actively promoting British companies worldwide through bold action rather than headline grabbing rhetoric.
Mark Hendrick is the MP for Preston