The Final Nail in the Coffin? Crisis, Manufacturing Decline, and Why it Matters

Book chapter in The British Growth Crisis, edited by Jeremy Green, Colin Hay and Peter Taylor-Gooby, discussing the impact of the recession on British manufacturing in the context of long-term decline.

Recessions inevitably, and understandably, herald anxiety and much discussion about the ‘headline’ performance of the economy, chiefly employment, income and GDP growth. Various indicators, such as exports, investment or consumer spending are closely monitored for evidence of economic recovery. The performance of individual sectors is important to this discourse, but sectors are largely treated as component parts – a way of disaggregating overall economic performance – rather than examined in terms of the intrinsic role they may play in the overall economic system. It is rare for mainstream economic commentators to dig very deeply into ‘what’ questions: exports of what, investment in what, or spending on what. Critical scholarship is not faultless in this regard. Colin Hay’s (2013) depiction of failure of the Anglo-liberal growth model represents a persuasive account of the British growth crisis and the conditions that triggered the deep recession of 2009. Again, however, we are invited to worry about an economy that pays too little to most of its employees, fails to facilitate long-term investment, and relies too heavily on consumer spending fuelled by debt and the housing market – concerns that manifest at the macro level of analysis, not the meso. The prominent role played by the financial sector in this critical account is the exception that proves the rule, as the ‘cuckoo in the nest’ is (rightly) condemned as a key progenitor of the macro-economy’s pathologies. This chapter does not depart from Hay’s account of the British growth crisis, but instead seeks to augment it by directing attention to an essential segment of the UK economy – indeed every capitalist economy, and of course the global capitalist economy – that is, manufacturing. The crisis has severely affected manufacturing, but at the same time, a crisis in UK manufacturing is constitutive of, and inseparable from, the wider crisis of growth: the nature and performance of the manufacturing sector is central to why the crisis emerged, why it was so profound, and why the UK economy has yet to meaningfully recover. The chapter’s diagnosis of manufacturing in the UK is not entirely new, but instead draws upon and updates insights from scholarship on manufacturing generated through the long-running debate about the UK’s economic decline, arguing that while ‘declinism’ is an over-simplified narrative, the stories it tells about manufacturing help us to account for the UK’s present predicament.

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