Great Britain, whose empire spanned such a distance the sun would never set on it (because God wouldn't trust the English in the dark) was once known as the 'Workshop of the World'. British innovation combined with steely determination and hard labour led to a manufacturing revolution in the 19th century. Britain was exporting high quality British made goods around the world, and enriching the native population in so doing. No one could compete with British ingenuity, or its machinery.
Yet when the Coronavirus pandemic reached our shores, our country could 'scarcely produce a single glove', as Boris Johnson put it in his UN address. How could it be that within little more than a century, the workshop of the world could become entirely dependent on foreign goods? Well simply put, because those who have been organising our manufacturing and trading policies for the past 120 years understand the price of everything but the value of nothing.
In considering price, it's entirely logical to resist the urge to subsidise non profitable industry, and allow it relocate abroad, where workers have been treated so badly suicide nets are erected around the factories to stop them from leaping to their deaths. It makes sense to rely on foreign countries for coal, particularly in light of carbon considerations and the need to meet national emission targets. It's entirely congruent to argue that the import of cheap consumer goods will enable every individual to buy more than they otherwise might when considering the cost of British labour, or British standards.
In considering value, these things are not a price that should be paid, morally, economically, or the interests of national defence. Being reliant on foreign nations for medicines and PPE makes us vulnerable to precisely the kind of crisis we suffered at the onset of the pandemic. With the majority of PPE production consolidated in foreign countries, it only makes sense that those countries who produce, would look to serve their own needs first, and when we began to import them en masse we found billions of pounds worth of PPE did not meet British standards, and therefore endangered British lives and wasted British taxpayers money.
In offshoring the mining of coal, all we do is increase carbon emissions , because that coal then has to be transported thousands of miles via freight ships to our shores. And contrary to popular belief, metallurgical coal remains essential in our modern society, there is no other way to produce steel*, which is of course essential for our construction and defence industries. Bearing in mind labour is only one consideration as it relates to price, wouldn't we want to levy that cost onto defence contractors and construction companies in order to provide high quality and well paying jobs here in the UK, and reduce carbon emissions at the same time?
For those who are ideologically wedded to the idea of globalisation and free trade, I would ask, would you want us to be dependent on China for the production of our aircraft carriers, or our tanks? If the answer is 'no' then why would we want to be dependent on them for the raw materials which are required to build those things?
Though the UK has enjoyed a small renaissance in manufacturing, particularly with cars and planes, and still retains some small vestige of our previously 'world beating' steel sector, the decline in manufacturing over the past 100 years has been crushing. Some of this of course is inevitable and due to advances in technology, which reduces the labour power required to produce commodities, and therefore we ought to expect less people to be employed in these industries with the passage of time. But we still need these industries, the capacities they provide, and the essential benefits they bring.
Of course there is room for free trade with countries abroad, no doubt. We want tea from China, wine from Italy, rugs from Iran, olive oil from Spain, fruit from Africa and so on. But we need to have something to offer in return, aside from financial services, call centres and Costa Coffees. We need to incentivise British agriculture and revitalise rural areas. We need to give reason for expansion to existing British producers of consumer goods, from shoemakers in Northampton to car makers in Sunderland. The best way to do that is to buy British goods when possible, something which used to be considered common sense but is now rarely encouraged. Vote with your wallet for good paying jobs, and arrest the ongoing decline in wages and productivity, lest Britain sink further and further in the international league tables. We should also call on our government, and opposition parties, to be more proactive in promoting British goods, and to come up with policies to that effect. Now is the time for a national campaign promoting British goods, and a national investment bank to support British producers.
*The forging of steel by using hydrogen is an ongoing development, and you can read more about that here