Every schoolchild knows that the Industrial revolution began in Britain. What is less widely known is that a leading theory for the origins of that modern economic growth is it started during the Black Death.
Like Covid-19, the bubonic plague was first detected in China before spreading to Europe where, in Italy, Venetian officials in the port city of Ragusa passed a resolution to keep newly arrived sailors in isolation for 40 days, known as a quarantino, until they could prove they were not sick. The economic argument goes that horrific and repeated global outbreaks of the disease caused the old system of feudalism to break down.
Workers responded by renegotiating contracts which increased their wages and the movement of labour between employers, helping to finance new inventions and spread new ideas. Cottage industries consequently developed and ultimately evolved into factories. Manufacturing has been at the heart of our economy ever since.
Almost every aspect of modern life was influenced in some way by the birth of British industry. And while we might have come to believe in recent years that ‘we don’t make anything in this country any more’, the current crisis has shown us that this definitely is not the case.
|Related: How will Covid-19 impact manufacturing - have your say on The Engineer's latest poll|
If anything, it has underlined the the importance of our industrial base to maintaining our national prosperity and wellbeing. Through ingenuity and innovation, UK manufacturers have been at the forefront of the national effort to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak. Automotive makers have switched to building ventilators for our NHS, clothing and textile companies have re-purposed to make medical gowns and facemasks, and food and drink factories are making hand sanitizers and ensuring our household supplies continue. And manufacturing is operating at the cutting edge of science and technology: whether by using the latest 3D printing techniques to produce critical components for medical equipment or working at speed to produce the medicines and vaccine we urgently need.
We live in a global economy and have been happy to embrace the many benefits that brings in terms of a wide variety of goods from around the world at affordable prices. Yet the coronavirus has also highlighted how important our home industries are and the need to maintain and develop our domestic manufacturing base. After all, the UK remains today the world’s 9th largest industrial nation by output.
The industry is crucial to our economy and our international trade, but it is also crucial to our sense of self as a nation. An ambition for a thriving, modern and green UK manufacturing sector is therefore not just a question of economics.
The task for politicians once this virus has passed will be to shape an economic future in which every part of the country can participate. Manufacturing must be a big part of that.
The Coronavirus has brought massive changes to how the world operates. Yet even before the outbreak we were living in a time of major change for the global economy. Developments in industry from robotics, to 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science and energy storage are all enabling innovative new products, but they are also creating new business practices.
As countries around the world have gone into lockdown, firms have begun to explore new ways to keep their workers safe from infection while ensuring their goods can still get to the customers who need them. Though we are very much now in the eye of the storm, when the dust settles from this tragedy, policymakers must look to the future, to the new world of work that is emerging built on new digital technologies.
Manufacturers are already working in partnership with government on the national Covid-19 response and they stand ready to continue working with government: to improve our education system to equip existing employees and a new generation with the skills and abilities they need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution; to increase UK exports and drive our global trade; to drive forward a comprehensive industrial strategy that delivers the levelling-up our cities and regions desperately need; to create the right tax and regulatory conditions for industry to grow; and to invest in innovation so that together we can help ensure that Britain remains the best place in the world to do business.
This is not the first global pandemic nor, unfortunately, will it be the last and just as with previous outbreaks, Covid-19 is proving a catalyst for transforming how our economy functions. The adaptability, innovation, and resilience demonstrated by businesses across the country this month shows that with the right policies and practices, UK manufacturing can be at the heart of the next industrial revolution to come.