Cable is giving his fellow MPs a summer homework project: to seek out and nominate their choice example of British ingenuity in design and manufacturing. And the early votes are in already: alongside such engineering stalwarts as the Rolls Trent engine and the Land Rover, our leaders have selected custard creams, fish fingers and even loo rolls.
The Made by Britain project launches tomorrow, with details of all the nominations from the initial 40 MPs (the other 610 MPs will follow over the summer). Cable's idea is apparently to create a kind of ‘virtual Crystal Palace’, a reference to the Great Exhibition of 150 years ago. The idea is to end what he sees as a serious issue facing the UK manufacturing industry – viz., that everyone thinks we stopped making anything tangible ages ago, and now rely almost entirely on the more nebulous world of services.
Now you could of course see this as a tacit admission that something is deeply wrong somewhere. You wouldn’t find China or Germany resorting to gimmicks like this to promote their products, as it’s patently obvious that they still make tons of stuff. The UK, by contrast, has clearly lost the strong manufacturing identity it once had.
Nonetheless, in the light of this new reality, Cable's plan sounds like a good one. As he’s quick to point out, the sector employs 2.6m people and generates 11% of GDP - so it contributes more to the economy than financial services. ‘The idea is to build up a more positive picture of Britain being very inventive and actually very good at making things,’ he said. Amen to that.
And the project has already unearthed a variety of stuff, from old favourites to pioneering breakthroughs. Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham, has named the classic toilet roll manufactured by SCA, while Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby, chose Youngs fish fingers. Labour MP Barry Sheerman (who came up with the original idea) has chosen a £5k prototype suit made by the Huddersfield Textile Centre of Excellence, which incorporates botanical DNA into the fibres to prevent counterfeiting. And Cable himself chose The Eliminator, a gadget made in his Twickenham constituency by Hydrox Solutions, which reduces the fuel consumption and polluting emissions of diesel engines.
All very praiseworthy. Though the next challenge will be finding someone to buy all this stuff...