The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Economy

As in other developed countries, manufacturing plays a vital role in the economy, as well as energy production.

The first public supply of electricity was in 1881. In 1948 all municipal and private undertakings in Great Britain were acquired under the Electricity Act 1947 and vested in the British Electricity Authority. Electricity is mainly generated by conventional steam power stations, gas turbines and oil engines (about 80 per cent). Nuclear plants make up about 18 per cent of the electricity generated, while the share of hydro-electric plants is only a little more than 1 per cent. The conventional steam power stations are numerously located in Midland England and in the South-East. The major hydro-electric power stations are operating in Scotland because of the available water resources. In electricity production (300,000 million kilowatt hours) Britain is far behind the United States of America and Japan whereas the gap between the Federal Republic of Germany and Britain is comparatively smaller. Much attention is being paid to the development of nuclear power. In 1956 the country’s first large-scale nuclear power station, at Calder Hall (Cumbria), began to supply electricity to the national grid. The latter began to operate in the 1930s. There are 20 nuclear power stations in operation which feed electricity to the national grid. Manufacturing plays a vital role in the British economy. It accounts for some 24 per cent of the GDP; about 24 per cent of the employed labour force is engaged in manufacturing; 75 per cent of the visible exports of the state consists of manufactured or semi-manufactured goods. Recently there has been an accelerated growth of progressive sectors of the engineering and chemical industries, whereas the traditional industries of the economy such as ferrous metallurgy, mechanical engineering, ship-building, textiles and related industries have suffered a decline. This has been reflected in the exports of the country: growth in output and exports was strongest in chemicals and electrical, electronic and instrument engineering.

Most manufacturing is in the hands of private enterprise. The greater parts of the iron and steel and shipbuilding industries are nationalized. These industries are in serious decline not only due to the fall of demand both at home and abroad, but also due to the hostile attitude of the Conservative government, which exerted every effort to reduce the extent of state ownership of industry. Margaret Thatcher’s policy of privatization stimulated the development of private enterprise in industry: 57 per cent of engineering, metals and vehicle manufacturing was controlled by the largest companies.

In general the British industry, manufacturing included, is facing serious difficulties. Tough foreign competition on the world markets adds up to these difficulties.

Metals (iron, steel and non-ferrous industry). Although Britain’s largest manufacturing industry is the iron and steel industry, aluminium and other non-ferrous metals are also important products. Once the world’s greatest producer of steel, today the annual output is 15 million tonnes well behind the USA, Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany, France and Italy, and that of pigiron — about 10 million tonnes. The main steel producing areas are Yorkshire and Humberside (35 per cent of crude steel output), Wales (26 per cent), the Northern region (16 per cent), Scotland (11 per cent) and the West Midlands (5 per cent). High quality ores are imported from Canada, Sweden, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Venezuela and other countries. With the growing dependence on imported ores, coastal locations of the steel industry were developed. Moreover, these developments took place at the expense of some inland centres. Nevertheless, some like Sheffield have retained their existence by concentrating on high grade alloy steels made by the electric arc process.

Britain’s non-ferrous metal processing and fabricating industry is one of the largest in Western Europe. Its major products are aluminium, secondary refined copper, lead and primary zinc. Nearly half the industry is situated in the Midlands. Other centres include South Wales, London. Tyneside and Avonmouth, where a zinc smelter of some 100,000 tonnes capacity operates.

The mechanical engineering industry manufactures all types of non-electrical machinery, machine tools, industrial engines, etc. Over half the industry’s production is for the home market.

The electrical and electronic engineering industry is engaged in manufacture and installation of a wide variety of equipment, including all types of power generation, transmission and distribution equipment, motors, telecommunications and broadcasting equipment, electronic equipment and systems, etc. Electronics is one of the most important sectors of British industry, which is developing fast and wide.

In spite of government incentives the majority of high technology industries have not been attracted to declining industrial areas, such as Wales, North England, Scotland, etc. Instead they were located in the more prosperous southern region of Britain where the industrial base has been less severely affected by the recent recession and where unemployment is lower than the national average.

The Thames Valley between London and Bristol is a leading area with a major concentration of high technology industries called the ‘Sunrise Strip’. Another area is situated near Cambridge. Of the engineering industry instrument engineering is a particularly important sector.

The motor vehicle is the largest single manufacturing industry in Britain and, in spite of its recent decline, is still a major exporting industry. The Midland centres are the most significant and the factories in the Birmingham/Coventry area have continued to grow. The industry is also concentrated in the London area where large assembly plants were built in Oxford, Luton and Dagenham. Since the late 1950s major development took place on Merseyside (near Liverpool) and in Scotland.

Output of cars and commercial vehicles is dominated by four large monopoly groups: Rover, Ford, Vauxhall and Peugeot — Talbot (formerly Chrysler), which account for over 96 per cent of car production in the country. American capital is deeply involved in the industry, especially in the Ford and Talbot companies. About 50 per cent of capital investments in the motor industry belong to American companies. Since the late 1960s the motor industry has been beset by a number of serious problems. Competition from other countries such as the USA, West Germany and Japan has increased to such an extent that imported cars take up more than half of the home market. Production has fallen by fifty per cent since 1972. In the mid-1980s Britain annually produced about a million cars and commercial vehicles.

Britain is a major producer and exporter of agricultural tractors, especially of wheeled tractors. Birmingham and Coventry are major centres of the tractor industry.

Britain’s aerospace industry is one of the largest and most comprehensive in Western Europe. The products of the industry include civil and military aircraft, helicopters, aero-engines, guided weapons, hovercraft and space vehicles, supported by a comprehensive range of aircraft and airfield equipment and systems.

The main British airframe manufacturer is British Aerospace (BAe). It is partially owned by the Government. The other major companies are Rolls-Royce and Short Brothers. Rolls-Royce is responsible for almost the entire output of aero-engines in Britain: it is one of the three leading aero-engine manufacturers in the Western world. Short Brothers, which is based in Belfast, produces airliners, airframe components and missiles.

Britain has a long established tradition for shipbuilding. Naval shipbuilding and the construction of vessels and structures connected with offshore oil production are important sectors of the industry. Though modernization has taken place in the major ship yards situated in Clydeside, North-East England (the Tyne, Tees and Wear area), Merseyside, Barrow (North-West England) and Belfast, the industry faces serious problems. Output has declined alarmingly and many jobs have been lost.

The chemical industry. The manufacturing of all kinds of chemicals, soap, detergents, dyestuffs, lubricating oils and greases, fertilizers and mineral oil refining are included within this group of industries. The chemical industry is developing intensively and accounts for about 16 per cent of British manufacturing exports, placing the country among the major chemical exporting nations of the world. The largest British chemicals group, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), is the fifth largest chemicals company in the capitalist world, accounting for some 25 per cent of production in Britain. Western Europe is the major export market.

The largest concentration of the heavy chemical industry is in the south Lancashire — north Cheshire area, where the saltworking districts together with supplies of limestone from the southern Pennines and coal from the Lancashire coalfield provide an ideal location. The most important centre of the industry in this area is Warrington. Other heavy chemical areas are centred on Teesmouth and the West Midlands.

Increasingly the industry is becoming associated with the petrochemical industry, which is the manufacture of by-products from crude petroleum. With the development of offshore oil production new major centres of the industry emerged at Newcastle and Grangemouth in Central Scotland.

The textile industry. The major breakthrough in the textile industry in Britain came with the Industrial Revolution, when Lancashire and Yorkshire became the pre-eminent centres for cotton and woollen manufacturing respectively. The location of the woollen industry in West Yorkshire was influenced by the presence of extensive supplies of soft water, originally used as power but also important in the processing of the wool; the presence of the coalfield, later used as a source of power; and the use of the Pennines to raise large numbers of sheep to provide raw materials.

Unlike the woollen industry, cotton manufacturing had little importance before the Industrial Revolution. Since the raw materials had to be imported and since water was required in the processing of cotton and coal was required as a fuel, Lancashire was best suited for the industry to develop. The development of Liverpool as a port importing the cotton from North America, and the improvement of transportation enhanced the importance of the Manchester region as the main centre of cotton manufacturing. The development of this industry is closely associated with the infamous slave trade, from which the merchants of Liverpool derived tremendous profits. The historical branches of the textile industry, based on the natural fibres of cotton and wool, linen and jute, have retained their separate identities but the boundaries between them are becoming blurred with the increasing use of man-made fibres. The textile and clothing industries in Britain are experiencing difficulties because of increased competition of other countries.

Leather and footwear industry. The British leather and leather footwear industries are among the most important industries and Great Britain is the world’s largest exporter of both leather and leather footwear. Despite the growing use of rubber and of plastics and other synthetic materials in clothing, footwear and personal articles, leather possesses such qualities which enable it to hold its own. About 200,000 persons are employed by the leather and footwear industries which produce over 200 million pairs of boots and shoes. Leather and leather footwear factories are scattered throughout the country, the main regions and centres being Midland England, London, Bristol.

The food, drink and tobacco industries. Britain has a large and sophisticated food processing industry and processed foods have accounted for a growing proportion of total domestic demand for food in recent decades, though the rate of growth has slowed since the early 1970s. The food industry is developed all throughout the country.

Other manufacturing industries. Based on si fficient indigenous resources of its kind the country has a well developed industry producing bricks, fireclay and refractory goods. Peterborough situated south of the Wash is a leading centre of the brickmaking industry. The Thames estuary is the country’s leading area for cement manufacture. Cement is one of the chief exports from the port of London.

The pottery industry is centred largely in the Potteries in Staffordshire and it supplies almost all home needs for domestic and industrial pottery. The Potteries are situated at the south-west tip of the Pennines. This district of the Midlands is named after its chief industry.

Paper and board manufacture. In the 1980s there were about 130 paper and board mills in the country. The industry is well in the hands of the most influential monopoly groups. Paper manufacturing is one of the main industries beside the Thames estuary. This region is favourable for the development of the paper industry, because of the despatch of paper to London. Paper manufacture, printing and publishing are also developed in Edinburgh, a university city, closely associated with education, as well as administration, banking and insurance.

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