This is the title of a recent article by Robert Peston, the BBC’s Business Editor. Clearly, successive UK governments over the years have failed to steer the country away from the latter and towards the former. We suggest a simple step that would help.
Robert Peston’s article on the BBC web site on 2 April referred to the results of a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce. He used this survey to point out why Britain needs to sell more abroad and to ask why this is not happening:
Here is a quote from the article:
“If the symptom of Britain’s disease is excessive debt … then the disease itself is that Britain hasn’t paid its way in the world for decades.
Or to put it another way, Britain has for 30 years been buying more from other countries than it sells to them.
So the imperative if we are to get out of our malaise, most would argue, would be to narrow and eliminate the intractable current account deficit.
… official figures on what happened to the UK’s current account deficit in 2012 were both shocking and disturbing.
Because far from this important imbalance being rectified, as the government hoped and expected would happen as a consequence of the persistent weakness of sterling, the UK was a net borrower from the rest of the world last year to the tune of £54bn, up from £17bn in 2011.”
Peston goes on to say that his conversations with companies point to three problems: global supply chains, company debt and ‘supply constraints’. He writes of the latter:
“For example, I recently had a striking conversation with Michael Morris, a director of a precision engineering firm in north-east England called Chirton. This is a smallish manufacturer with a great story to tell. Founded in 2003 with a staff back then of just five, today it employs 51, has turnover of £2.8m, and has sold components to China.
Here is the thing. Chirton simply can’t find sufficient numbers of skilled people to hire, to keep pace with the demand it is seeing. So it is turning valuable orders down. Which is pretty depressing for them, and not particularly cheerful for the rest of us.”
Those skilled workers that Mr Morris is seeking need to be numerate, confident in using numbers to solve problems, and totally familiar with measures and measurement. They should also have have a perfect grasp of metric measures – Chirton sells to China, so imperial won’t do. And at another level in the company, innovation and the improvement of productivity rely on numeracy and on familiarity with measurement.
These issues are discussed in the UK Metric Association’s publication “A very British mess” (2004).
Clearly, completing the adoption of a single system of measurement will not solve all of the UK’s problems with its trade deficit. There are other issues that have caused the decline in exports over the past 50 years, for example the priority given by bankers to short term returns. But politicians could have done more.
In 2006, following publication of UKMA’s report “Metric signs ahead”, Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, appeared on BBC’s Question Time, and said that few people had approached him about the issue of the measurement units used on UK road signs:
Sorry Alistair. That was not the issue. You should have been asking how your department could help those of your constituents who were saying, “Why can’t my kids get a job?” and, “Why do I seem to be getting worse off each year?” Bringing the measurement units that appear on UK traffic signs into line with those used in the rest of the economy would have helped.
And, in 2008, at a time when such questions and others relating to the UK’s dismal export performance were finding their way to the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, the response by the Minister, John Denham, was a press release announcing, “Government saves pint and mile”. Sorry, John, you too were looking in the wrong direction.
The economic debate at present is focussed on the coalition government’s austerity drive versus the opposition’s preference for increased spending. Perhaps instead both should be focussing on how Britain could sell more abroad and reduce that current account trade deficit. And a good way to demonstrate that the country is serious in this would be to end the current measurement muddle and to complete, at long last, the transition to a single, simple, logical, and coherent measurement system.
Both of the UK Metric Association’s reports are available as free downloads from the UKMA web site, www.ukma.org.uk