‘Made in Britain’ reminds us of Alan Clarke’s 1982 movie which depicted a sad version of what defines Britain. That film was already showing the effects of a collapsing economy, with manufactures closing down, entire cities where unemployment became the norm.
A few years ago, Chancellor George Osborne made it clear that he wanted to see businesses coming back to producing in Britain: “I want Britain to be the place international businesses go to, not the place they leave. Let it be heard clearly around the world - from Shanghai to Seattle, and from Stuttgart to Sao Paolo: Britain is open for Business.” he said in its 2011 Budget Statement (1).
Osborne’ words are still resonating today; because for centuries the hallmark “Made in Britain” has been an assurance of excellence. Today the label is woefully under utilized, not because it’s lost its purpose but because less and less things are “Made in Britain”.
In the 1980s, the emergence of low-cost manufacturing in China, India and other Asian countries has decimated the UK textile industry. At the time, there were over 800,000 textile jobs in the country, today it’s less than 100,000.
Yet, she companies are trying to push for a rebirth of this industry of excellence in Britain. British made clothing, a London-based brand, is using the label ‘Made in Britain’ to promote its excellence in fashion… and it’s working.
A fashion revival is happening for the “Made in Britain”. “We can’t compete at the low end on price and wouldn’t want to, so to grow our business we need to tell strong stories about our brand, including ‘Made in Great Britain’, in order to justify and enhance the value of our product.” (2) said Ian Maclean, managing director of John Smedley one of the world’s oldest working factory where manufacturing began in 1784. Today it employs over 400 people and is growing each year.
Making clothes in the UK does appear to be viable. “The companies that survived and continue to manufacture in the UK are the Rolls Royces rather than the British Leylands of this world. We can’t compete on price but we can compete on quality.” said Tony Lutwyche, a Savile Row suit-maker and former Army officer, credited as one of the most important men in British tailoring after having saved the Cheshire Bespoke factory.
“We have been through the worst,” he says, “and now companies and customers are seeing the benefits of the quality you can get from clothing here. There is also the renewed ethical viewpoint following issues such as the Bangladesh factory disaster.” Maclean suggests that if the European Union and US governments took action to “force Western clothing brands to source more ethically”, then costs at the lower end of the market would rise.
A website was launched to list all products that are “still made in Britain” (www.stillmadeinbritain.com) from clothing, to pet products, to music but also industrial products.
One of the items that don’t appear on the list is the British Pound banknote. No one has ever thought that the country’s banknotes could ever be printed elsewhere than in Britain. It may now be the case with the historic British producer, De La Rue, opening plants in Sri Lanka and Kenya. De La Rue is taking the same path as its German competitor Giesecke & Devrient which already opened facilities in Malaysia (3). Banknote printing requires high level of expertise and top-of-the-class components such as security papers and security inks, as well as holograms.
Britain was at the top of the security printing knowledge. But at a time where many companies seem to come back to old Britain, De La Rue decided to partially leave the country, as the company admitted it in its latest full year results statement (4). “During the year, we have successfully outsourced the printing of 500 million banknotes to three commercial and state banknote printers. We are now looking to build stronger relationships with selected third parties”, the statement confirms. Next year will mark the introduction of new Pounds polymer banknotes by the Bank of England. But thus far we are not completely sure whether or not they will be ‘Made in Britain’, not to speak of the banknotes of many other central banks around the world that trust De La Rue savoir faire.
By contrast, the manufacturing sector also includes many other examples demonstrating that the British industry is still highly competitive. Admittedly if Britain does not compete any more on low prices, the country exploits some competitive advantages such as a world-class reputation for design and innovation, and has some of the most productive manufacturing plants in Europe.
One of the UK economy main strengths notably lies in its automotive industry.
Professor Richard Parry-Jones, Chairman of New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team, explains (5): “Independent external reliability surveys put built cars at the top of the rankings, and productivity and labour relations are among the best in the world.” He also points out that “The industry has developed a highly integrated industrial system that offers unprecedented value and accessibility to consumers worldwide through efficient logistics, massive scales, global trade, and sophisticated systems integration skills.” What better example than Jaguar Land Rover? Since it was taken over by Indian Car-Maker Tata Motors over 7 years ago, JLR became UK’s largest carmaker by producing 489,923 cars in 2015 at its manufacturing plants in Solihull, Birmingham and Halewood. In just 5 years, more than 10,000 jobs have been created and the company invested 1 billion pounds in a state-of-the art engine manufacturing center in Wolverhampton.
The ‘made in Britain’ label will rise again for excellency products. The companies that have stuck with it throughout the crisis, like Rolls Royce, continue to benefit from it until today. The ‘Made in Britain’ still has bright days ahead if companies keep showing the world that Britain can fully make the best of products domestically.
(1) Budget 2011: Chancellor George Osborne's speech in full, The Telegraph, March 23rd 2011
(2) A ‘Made in Britain’ fashion revival - for those who can afford it, The Independent, Laura Chesters, January 3rd 2014
(3) Security printing and emerging markets: European players to succumb to the sirens’ song?, Ground Report, April 14th 2016
(4) De La Rue, Full Year Results 15-16, May 24th 2016
(5) The Competitive Status of the UK Automotive Industry, Matthias Holweg, Philip Davies & Dmitry Podpolny, PICSIE Books, 2009