Britain, the doomsayers would have you believe, is sinking in a dead-end economy in which manufacturing is reduced to an insignificant rump, replaced by burger-flipping and call centres. The common complaint, here as in the US and, no doubt, Japan, is "We used to make stuff..."
In this well-balanced assessment of the reality of post-modern British industry, Evan Davis tries to cheer up the Eeyores, first of all showing that, despite conceptions to the contrary, our European neighbours France and Germany also don't manufacture that much any more, and that although Americans are in aggregate better off at least we don't have to work their hours. More importantly, what we do manufacture is pretty damn good; world leading, in fact, when we look at UK companies like GlaxoSmithKline, ARM Holdings and Brompton, but also in foreign-owned factories such as that of Nissan near Sunderland.
That's less than half the story, though, (in fact, less than a quarter) because the majority of British industry is based on services, and there we really are good. We just need to ensure we understand how to stay ahead of the game in that respect, as emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil move up the value chain, and there the government has a crucial role to play in ensuring it not only encourages the right behaviours but also in ensuring it does not stifle the success stories. For example, in imposing increasingly restrictive conditions on student visas we not only deny ourselves the revenues from tuition fees from newly affluent citizens of the rising economies, we also deny ourselves access to overseas talent. Davis uses the example of post 9/11 US policy to demonstrate the potential effects.
Davis's writing is very accessible, and he has written for non-specialists, being very sparing with economic terminology, although he does explain the concepts of gross value added and comparative advantage well. His treatment of the 1960s "I'm backing Britain" campaign is hilarious, and he also deals with objections to working conditions in overseas joint venture firms: the living quarters of Chinese workers in a British-Chinese suit factory in Shandong Province are certainly sparse, but beat anything described in Orwell's Down And Out In Paris And London. Particularly user friendly is his use of an analogy from Wolfe's The Bonfire Of The Vanities to explain how the finance industry profits from the "crumbs" of its transactions.
There are without doubt some oversights. Strangely, in dealing with the benefits of overseas talent he overlooks one of the UK's biggest contributions to the new economy, fibreoptic technology, developed in the 1960s in Harlow by Sir Charles Kao, an overseas-born graduate of UCL, an internationally renowned institution. There's also no mention of the British fashion industry, worth twice as much to GDP as manufacturing, and he references JK Rowling and Harry Potter but not the potential for the British film industry.
The book is also shot through with an inordinate amount of bad editing, with many forms of the verb "to be" totally lost, numerous stray prepositions, a couple or three sentences which can only be understood through deep analysis, and typos such as "excised" for "exercised" and "economy" for "economic".
Overall, though, this is a good book, worthwhile reading and perhaps for buying for anyone wishing we could go back to the golden age of steam trains, coal mines and blast furnaces.