These are the days of kaizen: gradual, unending improvement. Nothing is good enough. So, even if we are surprised to read it, we may not take comfort from the fact that British exports account for nearly a quarter of our GDP and that we rank fifth in the world export table.
Apart from the competitive treadmill to which, it seems, we are consigned forever, there are other things to consider. We import too much, our industrial base is not broad enough, and being the world's number-five exporter does not even imply that we are a world-class manufacturing nation.
To be that, the Confederate of British Industry has calculated, industry would have to improve its performance by something between 20% and 40%, increase its productivity by 5% throughout the 90s and double the current rate of investment. Take into account last summer's report by IBM Consulting and the London Business School that only 2% of Britain's factories are truly world class (a depressing percentage only offset by the qualification that 40% had the necessary practices in place to get there), and no kind of complacency is possible.
In this issue (see Where Britain is Best, p34), however, we indicate some of the sectors in which Britain is performing well. It is not a totally exhaustive list. The United Nations statistics exclude the achievements of British companies' overseas locations and the categorisation excludes specific areas of technology from which a more comprehensive picture of national achievement would emerge.
And there are also some surprises: British exports of small aircraft for one; explosives for non-military purposes another; and, in a small export sector admittedly, developed cinema film, a third.
It will be noted that in the sectors where we have performed well, there are challenges to be faced. Kaizen never ceases. Thus, though it is unsurprising that Scotch is a world leader, its position, threatened by increasing price sensitivity, cannot be taken for granted.
Rolls Royce is a world leader in aerospace engineering but it faces a downturn in the market because of the inevitable cuts in military expenditures that are concomitant with a cold economic climate. Britain's confectioners are challenged by the changes imposed by the European Common Agricultural Policy, which has kept sugar prices at a higher level than elsewhere in the world. It goes almost without saying that all the industries listed face keen competition.
What they also have is strategies to ensure their futures; the confidence to face up to the fact that high performance in the future means investment now. Rolls, despite a perceived drop in industry deliveries and facing harder deals on spares, pursues expensive development programmes. Its investment in new products is aimed at increasing its access to almost all new civil airframes. It has also, flexibility being a watchword, gone into joint ventures with Mitsubishi and Westinghouse to ensure its future in an increasingly competitive world.
Far from aerospace, the confectionery industry. A much older business, of course. Many of its companies benefit from historical associations that date back to imperial days. Good for them and good for business, they did not rest on the laurels gained from their past, possibly easier achievements.
There are important lessons to be learned from all these success stories. There is always a tomorrow to prepare for. We can derive encouragement from the knowledge that not only has Britain been best but that it continues to be so in so many sectors. Not enough, that's true, but where there is a will...