The bigger pictures

May 02, 2024By WOTEUK William Poel
WOTEUK William Poel

Let's start to consider the range of challenges facing any UK government - and put them in perspective.

Defence of the country and its people is the prime responsibility of government. So when you survey the armada of small boats landing unchallenged on our beaches, you will appreciate there is work to do.

There is an argument that a matter such as defence is very much the speciality of the professional military. However, recent experience is that the "global military industrial complex" does not have the best interests of any one nation at heart, and generally seeks to maximize corporate revenue... The industry is somewhat awkwardly full of retired service generals, seeking out troughs into which to plunge eager snouts, with the homing instincts of pigs after truffles.

The decision made at the death of the last Labour government to build two massive aircraft carriers in the constituency of prime minister Gordon Brown doesn't look so smart in the light of developments which should have been anticipated, such as cheap killer drones. Maybe a fleet of cheap channel patrol craft to scoop up the rubber dinghies and return them to France would have been a better use of £20+bn

The UK's professional armed forces have punched above their weight for centuries, Henry VIII founded the Royal Navy and set out to rule the waves - which laid the foundations for Queen Elizabeth 1st to encouraged British adventurers to explore the New World and establish foundations for a British Empire. 

Yes, there will be arguments about the exploitation and tactics that brought civilization and rule of law throughout the development of the industrial revolution. 

Yes, there was little concern for health, safety and welfare at the time. But context is everything - and Britain was toe to toe with France (especially) and other European nations in a battle for global domination - and thanks to the Royal Navy, Britain prevailed and ruled the waves. And create wealth that was  channelled into worthy causes.

More recently, James Bond (a naval commander) has usefully projected an image of competence that still delivers valuable "soft" influence (and product placement opportunities!)

We emerged from WW2 as the leading innovator of military and civil jet aircraft technology - although our politicians and bean counters managed to lose out to the USA in several markets by failing to organise the funding of the industries that US entrepreneurs were ready and able to do, the UK aerospace industry still had a 17% market hare in 2020.

Traditionally, British politicians have a very modest awareness of science or engineering - for most of the last century UK politicians simply did not understand the crucial role of fast evolving technology and innovation in modern industrial societies, and did far more harm than good with their clumsy interventions.

The UK led nuclear research and development until our politicians once again failed our innovators, and the deployment ceased in the 1970s when North Sea gas was cheap and plentiful. Meanwhile, France has prospered from the deployment of nuclear power and is selling technology to the UK - UK political indecision has seen to it that the only UK developer is Rolls-Royce with small reactors designed for ships and subs.

Clive Sinclair led innovation in the home computer industry in the 8Os with the ZX and Spectrum, but once again we let the US take over. The BBC micro funded by the licence payer promised much but failed the commercial reality test, although the core technology of the ARM processor is now ubiquitous in billions of high-tech, devices following the sale of the company to overseas investors. Amstrad owed its success to its all-in-one bundle approach including monitor, and a much lower failure rate which gave it retailer appeal. But Amstrad exited the computer industry before it melted down, and shifted into satellite TV - eventually selling out to Sky. No direct political involvement at all - purely commercial. Lord Sugar is worth £1bn and fronts the most popular reality TV show and UK TV.

One area of technology in which we failed miserably to lead was telecoms. And here the UK managed to cling onto ownership until it became irrelevant!

The UK telephone system was adequate, but built on low-tech and electromechanical, but as a "strategic" asset it was very much under the control of politicians, and a minister known quaintly as the "Postmaster General", somehow got the job of running the show- and also broadcasting. (Yes, the UK also once innovated and led the world in postal service development since 1517.)

The cosy arrangements between the handful of companies providing the exchange and premises equipment amounted to a virtual monopoly. The result was typical of a nationalised industry - unimaginative and unambitious products, and lazy businesses that eschewed innovation. But from the 1960s,  transistors were enabling migration from traditional mechanical to electronic circuit switching. GEC Marconi's proprietary system was wiped out quite suddenly by Cisco which adopted the new open standards of the internet protocols.

The overall lesson to learn is that the go-getting story of the innovative Victorian Britain created the vast manufacturing industries that powered the British Empire had little to with political intervention and control.

 The ultimate takeaway remains that no one spends money more wisely than those that earned it in the first place. aims to provide efficient and common sense government without the millstone of dogmatic politics