Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Remembering when things were made in England

As a boy I was taught to look for the words “Made in England” on anything I bought, as a reliable hallmark of quality.

My personal favourites were Hornby trains and Dinky cars, always die-stamped on their underside “Made in England by Meccano Limited”, usually with the addition of the mysterious words “Patent Pending”. Until I was about 25 I assumed that this was the name of a particularly prolific Irish toy designer.

In those distant days “Made in Japan” was synonymous not with the most advanced electronic goods but with cheapjack rubbish, maybe just a step or two up from “Empire Made”, the preferred euphemism for Hong Kong.

The only memorable exception to the rule came when my father, who sold drawing office stationery for a living, advised me that “Made in Germany” actually stood for the very best in pens and precision instruments. I thought this showed a commendable and entirely unexpected spirit of forgiveness, in the light of the unfortunate misunderstanding that had led to him being used for target practice across North West Europe a few years earlier.

Having picked up the habit at an early age, I still check the labels of everything I buy for its country of origin, but I cannot remember when I last encountered “Made in England” on anything non-perishable. Nowadays the chief interest in examining manufactured goods lies in spotting those rare exceptions where the almost universal “Made in China” is replaced by the name of some other low-cost economy in the Far East.

I was a keen supporter of Marks & Spencer in the days when it boasted that over 90% of its goods were British made, but the policy had to be abandoned as the public voted with their feet for newer and cheaper arrivals on the high street. Now my underpants are constructed in China or Sri Lanka, just like everyone else’s.

It also becomes ever harder to define what is actually British. In food, the familiar tractor logo may apparently be applied to imported produce that meets the required quality standard. Meanwhile globalisation has placed the ultimate beneficiaries of many “British” businesses far overseas. The supreme example of this is surely the Government’s recent sale of the plant producing our supposedly independent nuclear deterrent to a company in California; a truly astonishing development that seems to have attracted less opprobrium than the plan to sell a stake in Royal Mail to the Dutch.

The European Commission has predictably attempted to sweep away all national designations in favour of a universal “Made in EU” label. Admittedly the idea was quietly shelved in 2004, after a tsunami of protests from luxury goods producers, but on past EU form it is surely not dead, only sleeping.

So I am left wondering how, exactly, the recent precipitate fall in the pound is going to be “good news for exporters”, given the very limited evidence that we actually make anything in this country any more? Since SuperGord abolished boom and bust forever, our prosperity seems to have been based entirely on ever-rising house prices and manic consumer spending on imported goods. Oh, and our “world class” financial services sector, generating lots of lovely “invisible earnings” through what proves to have been the banking equivalent of the three card trick.

Are there really British manufacturers that have somehow survived in a state of suspended animation through the long years of cheap import mania? And are they now ready to spring back into life and take advantage of the sudden increase in Britain’s international competitiveness? Needing only some cheap and easy bank finance to fund their immediate requirements for working capital and a rapid expansion of their productive capacity. Oh dear. Back to the drawing board, then. Do remember to insist upon those top quality German instruments.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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