Competing – 16 April 2012

Does the UK have a competitive stance?

Do we know who our competitors are?

Do we know how to disaggregate the interests of – for example – investors from ‘national interest’? Is it conceptually possible to do so?

I was reminded of the seminal European studies thesis by the late and great Alan Milward (the European rescue of the nation state) following a ferocious handbagging from a doyenne of the defence community who thinks I’m too soft Anglo-French defence cooperation. Francophilia is not normally one of the bumper stickers I wear… This Dover was told in no uncertain terms that defence cooperation is a complete anathema: all attempts at cooperation have had a rats in a bag dynamic, of naked competition.. even worse than in open competition. If this is right, it would have reasonably bad connotations for the thinking I did on European defence cooperation in the early 2000s and also for the Anglo-French defence initiatives 2010/2012.

But if we delve deeper into the handbagging, there is a deeper problem that sounds a little like a bad graduate essay:

Can we know what the national interest is?

Is it a fixed concept? (Almost certainly not). Is it determined by a particular set of actors (and here we can be reminded of the Yes Prime Minister scene when Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker contemplate whether it is set by the US or whether Humphrey’s ‘heretical’ position of it being the Cabinet prevails).. but we could also add ‘big business’ to this list, partly because of financial services accounting for 25% of UK GDP, but also because of the lurid accusations of what 250k buys you in the UK… Lib-Dem fundraisers take note..there is – allegedly – a different path to getting your collective voices heard (hoho). But the answer to the question of ‘can we know what the national interest is’ somewhat tailors any further response. Turned on its head, how do we know that collaboration with French defence industries is against our national interest?

We could impose some arbitrary markers:

Development and maintenance of research capacity

Redefinition of capability, linked to effect.

Do we need to measure against the relativity of our competitors strengths, and the fluidity of this? Probably yes. The Economist two weeks ago had an investment comparator for defence spending, in which the ‘threat’ from the Chinese looked very modest indeed.

Do our competitors have a competitive stance?

This would need to be systematised, but anecdotally the answer is yes. The more pertinent question is why the UK is so uncompetitive. Why do other nations have a clearer sense of their national interest or national purpose? The Americans have the American dream and a set of stable (above religion and other-identity) core messages that the vast majority buy into, whilst if we turn to the French again, there is a stable sense of a divide between the public and private space and what is expected in the public sphere – a set of secular values to be adhered to by all those claiming to be French: a French dream, if you like. Which is why the debates about headscarves has caused them such pain. It has been written ad-nauseum that the UK has no such comparative understanding, nor dream. Indeed, flying the national flag here is popularly seen as being one step short of fascist or ‘terribly working class’… no such problems across the Atlantic.

So, what we seem to have are a multitude of disparate lines that all seem indicative of a loss of sense of value or national interest, but with no overarching sense. Nothing to tie these lines up. And to be clear these lines might include:

Unregulated investment access to UK markets

Loss of counterespionage capacity (be it this year or many – see Independent)

Shrinkage of defence industrial capacity

Interference with and shrinkage of research capacity

Reframing of educational quality into matrices that have the effect of degrading standards, and thus our future competitiveness.

Use of management matrices – degrading all public service delivery

Inability to project a unified set of goals – ‘a dream’.

Fracture of elites and the ordinary citizen

Reframing of the social contract – re: austerity and localism.

And all of these are, I think, connected to the notion of having a competitive stance. Of understanding what makes the UK competitive in the international system. Because from this lay-person’s perspective what we appear to be seeing is a fracture of the elites (be they political, economic or the concentric circle in between), from the ordinary citizen, which is domestic concern but has been partly driven by how the UK has performed or interacted in this ‘increasingly globalised world’. And then similarly from this lay-person’s perspective, we have what would seem to me a process of managed decline. It is most starkly seen in the defence sector, which is on a steeper curve than decline implies, but across the board of manufacturing (now only 8% of economic output) and other areas of activity.

To skew Milward’s claim, if the EU and modern forms of globalisation are the rescue of the national state… they left the UK behind. The first step in addressing it, is to conceptually accept that this is the case, and then for there to be a proper effort in understanding what competition means and how the UK can compete.

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