When it comes to Brexit, the government hasn’t paid much attention to manufacturers. Tony Burke, Unite’s assistant general secretary for manufacturing, talked to Politico’s Global Policy Lab about what the sector is thinking.
What effect has Brexit had so far on UK manufacturing?
Massive uncertainty and frustration in the extreme with the chaos the government has caused and their inability to run a chip shop, never mind a Brexit negotiation.
What’s your worst-case Brexit scenario?
No deal — leaving the UK on a cliff edge, no trade agreement, relying on WTO rules. [Manufacturing companies] won’t invest because of the uncertainty.
And the best outcome?
Continuing access to the single market and a customs union, protection of employment rights, a transitional period.
Obviously, Brexit brings with it the risk of losing European customers — but is there any upside?
None at all. Disaster.
Can the government support manufacturing in a way it couldn’t before?
That’s the theory, but I would doubt it. The industrial strategy was not particularly robust. If you’re going to go it alone you need a really robust industrial strategy that defends your manufacturing industry to make sure you’re getting investment, and unfortunately none of that is there. It was just a rehash of old stuff.
What about with a different government — are there things Brexit allows a government to do?
There is an argument in Labour that government would be free to put investment in to assist companies. But in Germany, in France, in Scandinavian countries, they still support their own industries. The argument is that [after Brexit we] would be free to do stuff like that. But you can already do it.
How do you react to the idea that Brexit’s an opportunity to reindustrialize, to rebuild the U.K.’s manufacturing base?
The hard Brexiteers’ end game is to leave the EU at all costs, no matter what damage it does to manufacturing. Their view of the U.K. outside the EU is a low-cost, low-tax, low-employment-rights island off the coast of Europe — not an industrial or manufacturing renaissance.
What manufacturing sectors does the U.K. have the potential to do well in?
Cars, aerospace, bioscience and pharmaceuticals, our engineering base. We’ve got some really, really good innovative companies in manufacturing. But we need a massive injection in skills.
Sum up Brexit in a few words.
Shambles. Chaos. It just beggars belief.