Another painful loss, gnawing at the roots of UK’s engineering future

The news that Canadian firm Bombardier is to axe thousands of jobs and close it’s Derby plant has outraged all people concerned about the future of engineering in UK, not just those who are worried about these jobs alone.

Of late, why do we come to hear these tales too often in the news ? Were the seeds of such wanton job loss and erosion of UK’s manufacturing credibility sown decades back, in any irrevocable way that we are meant to be just mute witnesses ? Could governments of the day and near future not stem the rot even midway and salvage the situation before it’s impossibly late ?

Even a casual look on either side of car, driving up the Midlands or Yorkshire would make anyone realise how perilous and fragile the economy is – with more derelict and abandoned industrial swathes than functioning ones. It would also make one realise as to how, despite the overall mood being despondent, a few manufacturing plants, power stations and distribution depots etc. still try to eke out a living and keep people occupied, the recent duress from a shrinking economy notwithstanding.

While Tories have long been blamed for obsession with myopic ‘market economics’ and short-termism, Labour have done nothing great either; their way of keeping whole regions and council jobs on artificial respirators isn’t a long term solution either.

The following article, in Guardian, seems to echo painful introspection than chest-thumping jingoism.

Critics insist UK government to blame over Bombardier job losses, not the EU

One of the comments included in the above article reflects a view, rather a fear I have had for some years now – that UK is increasingly becoming a nation of individual accomplishers than a country that wins as a unified force.

The very symbol of the new Germany is the stunning glass dome on the Reichstag in Berlin, the seat of German democracy. Was that built by a German architect? No, by Britain’s Sir Norman Foster, following a European public tender, a German government official noted.

Not just Sir Norman Foster, the number of Brits who have done exceedingly well as individuals (or as small teams) would be a long, healthy one indeed – J K Rowling (who single-handedly put an English language fiction on top of top sellers in France, dislodging even French language books; no mean feat!), Gordon Ramsay, David Beckham….. In terms of such one man (/woman) success stories, I believe UK’s accomplishments must be second only to USA. I am not talking of the number of billionaires as a metric since there may be even more individual billionaires in corrupt, inept countries too. It’s about individuals who would have succeeded, regardless of any number of other contestants and still won by a great margin ! UK still abounds in such talent, which, of course, is a great hope to hold on to. But, will it ensure that UK remains a prosperous country for all its citizens ?

One does not come across as many individual success stories from Germany or France. At least not on the scale that we are used to seeing here. But, they have painstakingly retained their abilities to run giant corporations (national champions, as Sarkozy would like to exult in). Take for instance, Eiffel Constructions métalliques – of Eiffage group – a descendant of the engineering company Société des Établissements Eiffel founded by Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower. Well, the company is still ‘active’ and continues to build stellar engineering successes, as it once built the Eiffel Tower (1889!). How could the French keep it going for so long so well while we in UK have to look for Victorian ingenuities only in Museums and (still functioning) viaducts, bridges and old railways ?

Surely, there’s something totally wrong with our priorities. Can Britain not, yet again, become the ‘institution builder’ that it once was, par excellence. Of all countries that won independence from colonial masters in mid-20th century, countries that were ruled by British Empire are likely to have still retained the institutions (and perhaps Log Books too !) left than those under other occupiers.

We are now getting into a vicious cycle where, with more companies shutting down, less avenues would exist for university-industry collaboration. That will further disenfranchise whatever minimal number of students who like to make Engg./Technology their focus for higher studies.

Brunel would be turning in his grave.

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