I must admit that I never really got the Dyson vacuum cleaner. To me, it looked like some horrible stomach-pump from Star Trek’s infirmary. Nevertheless, the news that James Dyson is moving all his manufacturing to the Far East can’t be good for Britain, for several reasons.
The reasons Dyson gave were twofold: the City’s greed for short-term profit and government over-regulation. The latter is the constant whinge of entrepreneurs since the 1970s, but the former is slightly surprising and places Dyson squarely as a man of the thinking centre rather than the rabid right. And I’m sure both are justified to a degree. Both reasons would give us enough cause toworry about the future of the UK economy, but I have a couple of other worries that Dyson didn’t touch upon.
The first is cultural. I’ve spoken here before about the anti-technology bias of Britain’s establishment, but since then things have got far worse. Maybe it’s because I was brought up in an East Midlands manufacturing town, but making things has always held a moral significance for me. I admire engineers, however unfashionable that might be, and I believe that making things, even whenit’s dirty, dangerous and poorly paid, has a beneficial effect on the social psyche ofa nation, especially given that the alternative is to ponce things off others likean idle Roman Emperor.
When announcing his move, Dyson explained that the lower labour costs in Malaysia would permit him to employ more scientists and researchers here at his Malmesbury headquarters (where he already spends an admirable 12 per cent of turnover on R&D). And I’m sure that’s true, for now.
Will Hutton of The Observer, whose opinions I normally respect, accepts this argument and points out that such moves are an inevitable part of globalisation, whichwe should welcome. For example, Chinese wages are currently 5 per cent of those paid here, so we couldn’t compete even if we wanted to, and as a result almosthalf of UK manufacturers have beenlooking at moving some production there. We have to find other things to do, forexample educating the scientists and engineers for the rest of the world, designing their products and still further expanding our service economy (which boils down to taking in each others’ washing, cutting each others’ hair and counselling each others’ nervous breakdowns).
Such globalisation transfers capital fromthe west to developing countries and eventually speeds up their development and raises their living standards, which is a cause I’ve always supported. So why do I still feel that it might all go horribly wrong?
For one thing, history suggests that industry and science march hand-in-hand, each promoting the other in a virtuous circle. Unless we believe this mechanism has ceased to operate in the modern world, we must accept that, as more and more of Western manufacturing moves East, eventually scientific progress will follow it. Asian science will blossom further, fertilised by its environment of manufacturing, whilewestern science will wither into scholasticism, separated from its practical roots. The only question is whether this will take decades or centuries. That would kick away one of the props of Hutton’s future western economy, and to be honest that prop is already showing signs of wet rot. Despite the best efforts of this government to spin things otherwise, our technical education system is under continuous threat, not from any shortcoming on the teaching side but because media-mesmerised pupils are becoming fixated on celebrity careers.