How Britain lost its lead in manufacturing

‘There was a Time’ when Britain was a major influence in the world, but that time was running out.  Anyone out there not watching Peaky Blinders?

Observe Birmingham, Small Heath, in the 1920s.  Squalid homes and dark satanic mills were the fabric of Britain’s second city, the vital hub of the country’s heavy industry, yet it was already backward in terms of efficiency. 

Peaky Blinders
A scene from Peaky Blinders

Germany and the United States had learned from Britain’s industrial revolution but had upgraded its production methods by almost a century of technological advances.

Power sources in those countries for textile work stations, lathes and other machinery had turned to dedicated electrical motors. They were not reliant upon water wheels which, if not up to speed, would shut down a whole factory.  Their factories were being illuminated by more light than that which filtered through grimy ‘Northern Light’ windows as night began to fall early in the winter months.  While Brum’s Lanchesters, Austins and Wolseleys were being laboriously constructed by sweating men, Ford cars had been slipping off production lines in Detroit for almost 20 years.

In Stuttgart high quality Daimler Benz cars were leaving the factory faster than British family cars. Within a decade they would have an autobahn and mass-produced cars for the German ‘Volk’. 

The fact was then as it has remained since;  business owners and their shareholders were generally more inclined to accept steady profits than to forego them in order to finance new facilities and machine tools on the promise of ‘jam tomorrow’.

There also existed in Britain a politicised resentment of high productivity, based as it was on lower employment inherent in change, creating the early instances of industrial militancy.

Resentful class-consciousness and the perceived freedom of Communism led irrevocably to demonstrations and decreasing efficiency of British industry across the spectrum, as instant wildcat strikes, on the blast of a whistle, became more and more a part of the industrial scene. Trade unionism was on the march in earnest. 

The general strike of 1926
The general strike of 1926

Innovative thinking and development by British scientists and engineers were being frustrated by the relative backwardness of British manufacturing. 

This state of affairs contributed to Britain’s ill-preparedness for the Second World War, until some frantic last minute activity enabled the country to at least defend itself for a while. 

A typical but extraordinary example of this inefficiency was the continued supply of useless 2-pound tank shells made of iron, against Rommel’s armour-plated panzers for almost two years before 6-pound armour piercing rounds appeared late in 1942. 

During that time the continued supply of the 2-pounders was based solely on the fact that they could, at least be supplied in quantity! One might suppose that the contract also turned a profit.

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