Made in Britain: a marque who’s time has come.

My friends at P4 Fastel announced a few days ago that they have been accepted into the Made in Britain organisation and can now display the MiB logo on their company material. Well done to them, I say. But reading their email I was obliged to pause and stare at the screen for a while. What did that actually mean . . . and is it really a good thing to feature the Union Flag in our publicity?

Tell the truth – and shame the politician . . .

I’ve never been a flag waver. Flag waving worries me; it smacks of having something to hide or something to be embarrassed about. When I hear ‘My country right or wrong’ I swear I can smell the cordite.

Don’t get me wrong; love for England runs to my very core. It’s just that I’m a bit more inclusionist than those who would seek to build walls (or nets) around the shoreline. I try not to recognise ‘otherness’ in people; we’re all in this together – except for those who aren’t, of course. Maybe it’s because, in the minds of those who actually own this country, I’ve always been an ‘other’ – a literal outsider.

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Dorset: picture-postcard perfect

Here in Dorset, one-sixth of the land is owned by ten people/organisations. Those who each own more than 10% of the Dorset landscape include historic parliamentarians and law-makers,  including a current Tory MP (Richard Drax). People like you (probably) and me (certainly) are denied access to 92% of the land where we live. It adds to the discomfort I feel when these guys decide to wrap themselves in the Union flag and tell us that Our Country Needs Us.

Whoops, slipped into a bit of subversive talk, there. That won’t get the dinner cooked, will it?

Anyway: playing the ‘Buy British’ trope has been going on for over the past fifty years – my entire working life, if you like.

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I’m Backing BritainDrinka pinta milka dayGo to work on an egg

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The 1968 ‘Buy British’ campaign was supported by the Government and the Union flag appeared everywhere. Despite a devaluation of the pound (currently being pushed as a benefit to exporters in post-Brexit land) and higher priced imports, the campaign ultimately came to nothing. Maybe it takes more than flag-waving. Economic planning and state intervention, maybe? But it needed to be better than this . . .

Another bit of history, if you’ll forgive me:

At the end of the 1960s, Lord Stokes, chairman of British Leyland Motor Corporation, confidently stated that the Japanese would never dominate the UK car business. Stokes represented the rump of the post-war UK mass-market motor industry, with BMC (originally Morris and Austin), MG, Triumph, Rover and Jaguar, all coming under the British Leyland umbrella. Stokes classed himself as a patriot and believed that he had a patriotic customer base – though, bless him, he wanted people to buy his cars because they were the best. He believed that the UK designed and built the best motor cars. This was the time of the Allegro, the Marina, the Princess – so that went well.

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The problem was bigger than anything Stokes could do. And it’s a problem that has echoed down the decades to today. UK industry hasn’t been supported by UK government, neither in terms of concrete investment, nor in simple – what shall we call it – enthusiasm?

And that means that the ‘Buy British’ exhortation has been sending out mixed messages for the past 50 years . . . buy British and buy an Austin Allegro. Inevitably, this has to bring us to Brexit . . .

. . . and the UK lighting industry.

I’m not suggesting that the current membership of Made in Britain compares to the despairingly poor output of BLMC in the 1970s. Quite the opposite is the case. The Made in Britain marque infers good build quality and sound reliability. And although UK industry in general is still being too slow to come to terms with the climate crisis, Made in Britain also speaks to energy efficiency; local production; fewer delivery miles; support of local communities – all good stuff.

Take a look at the membership listings for Made in Britain and you will find the resilient spine of UK lighting manufacturing (you’ll find one or two surprises as well, but we’ll leave those lie for today). But look at the listing again through the eyes of a lighting designer, those of us who reside in the rarified atmosphere of our self-inflating Olympus. Notice anything? How many of the member companies regularly appear on (y)our specification sheets? Just asking . . .

Its inevitable that some of the appeal of Made in Britain lies in the ‘otherness’ negative – buying MiB products means that you’re not buying rubbish from anywhere else; it’s not a bad measure for those of us who care about Building Back Better. But its also a trope that doesn’t suffer too much inspection. In truth, there is a lot of very good stuff coming from ‘elsewhere’.

Time for a change.

From 1st January 2021 we’ll see a major shift in the way that lighting equipment gets specified. At the time of writing it’s still not clear what our trading relationship will be with the EU. All we know is that we’ll no longer be part of the trading bloc that most of us have spent our entire working lives with. But let’s look at three likely impacts:

Tariffs on UK-built products for export will hit European project budgets at a time when, in a not-yet-post-Covid environment, project costs will be squeezed more than ever – and equivalent import tariffs from the EU will hit UK projects. Specifying British-made products for the British marketplace will make a lot more sense.

Manufacturing standards are under threat. One of the constant drumbeats coming out of the hard-line Brexit campaigners is the call for a bonfire of the EU standards. Our schizoid government wants two incompatible outcomes; free ports around the cost of Britain that will allow in whatever junk importers fancy bringing in for fun and profit, while also promising to Build Back Better in a post-pandemic dream world. Like matter and anti-matter coming together – that cannot bode well.
The only way that UK manufacturing can survive will be maintain and further develop our commitment to manufacturing standards, ensuring, at least, equivalence with the EU and our other future trading partners. Touting junk will not cut it.

Innovative design has to become the order of the day. That robust spine of MiB UK manufacturing generally represents the commodity lighting sector – industrial and commercial fixtures chosen for efficacy and pricing. We have a dearth of companies competing with the best of German and Italian design (to name just two EU countries). There are names missing from the Made in Britain listing that fit that bill, that’s for sure, but the time has never been better for looking to a positive future for UK architectural lighting product design. And if that’s a positive outcome to come from an appalling Brexit, I’ll take that.

Now then, I’ve spoken to the Made in Britain organisation. At the moment, they don’t have a policy on the post-Brexit business environment. When they eventually get round to helping to shape the future of UK manufacturing provision, I hope that they jump the right way.

We need the Union Flag more than we’ve ever done in the past forty years.

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