The woes of startup Britishvolt should shock the UK out of its Brexit self-delusion | David Edgerton | The Guardian

Fake it till you make it has been the guiding maxim of British government policy for national renewal since Brexit. Don’t be a declinist remoaner, they say, instead enjoy the feeling of being a science superpower, an innovation hub, a global player, a new fount of regulation, and watch those entrepreneurs go, go, go. See them thrust into new markets as those great trade deals open up the world to British ingenuity.

In reality, the country has gone from hero to zero in a few months. The bankers are clamouring to slow the economy by pushing down wages and for cuts in public expenditure.

This is the context in which we should understand the sorry story of Britishvolt. The startup was formed in 2019 to build batteries for electric cars in the UK. It was first to be established (with promise of government subsidies) in south Wales, and then in Blyth in Northumberland, again with large subsidies promised. Three years later, it is considering going into administration amongst other options.

Its 300 workers are on half pay and the company has been kept going for five weeks with an injection of £5m by one of its owners, Glencore. This is hardly the sort of money needed to change the world, or even Blyth; it is the cost of a house in an expensive part of London. The government has not yet given the company a promised £100m as the advance was earmarked for tooling equipment within the factory, which has not been bought.

Article after article painted a picture of a gleaming gigafactory when there was none, talked about £1.7bn here, £3.8bn there, when the actual investment in the company was, it seems, in the tens of millions. Little was said about the actual batteries, Britishvolt belatedly sent its first sample batteries in September (made at a UK government-funded development facility).

A rendering of Britishvolt’s planned car-battery plant in Blyth, Northumberland.

There may be a nugget of innovative battery technology that a great car or battery company could buy. Such companies are already investing many many billions. But that is the point. Arguably battery production is not now a business for startups; it is an industry with huge players, including Chinese firms and global carmakers. The only sizeable battery maker in the UK is a Chinese firm that supplies Nissan.

For the past 40 years UK governments have pursued a policy based on the notion of a British innovative genius that needs to be exploited through the creation of startups. A battery startup was a perfect case, as it has long been claimed the UK is a world leader in battery technology. But, as was pointed out years ago, it is hard to be a world leader in batteries if you don’t actually make them. There was a certain desperation then, not only to exploit battery technology, but to do it with a British firm. Add in the requirements of a car industry turning to electric vehicles, and it looks irresistible. Add Brexit, and you have the making of Britishvolt.

The government has put out grossly misleading statistics about the size of British tech sectors, puffing up the scale of the digital economy by including cinemas, and the space economy by including Earthbound satellite TV stations and dish installers. There was even talk about the UK leading the world into the fourth industrial revolution as it led it into the first.

In a recent speech, Keir Starmer rightly and notably warned against boosterism and fantasies. But when it came to British tech, he did it himself. “The way I see it,” he said, “some nation is going to lead the world in electric vehicles, in floating offshore wind, in new hydrogen and nuclear technologies. Why not Britain?” He claimed that “Britain has an extraordinary genius when it comes to manufacturing”. The country, he said, needs “more innovation, more new technology, more research and development, more unlocking the commercial power of our universities, more specialising in the knowledge-rich industries of the future, and more startups”.

But is this right? There are already world leaders in electric vehicles, floating offshore wind, and hydrogen and nuclear, and none of them are the UK. Isn’t it the case that a strategy of more innovation has been the core of industrial policy for 40 years, with paltry results? Productivity has been stagnant for nearly 15 years.

Labour should resist the strong temptation to try to outdo the government in technological chauvinism. Tech-bro Rishi Sunak would win that contest. The country needs an alternative policy, one more likely to work. The idea of the everyday economy, discussed by the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and mentioned many times by Starmer, provides a key. Let us think about imitating and, if necessary, innovating to improve people’s lives by focusing on the services, public and private, labour- and capital-intensive, that we use, from care homes to the internet. Instead of quixotic dreams of world domination, let us remember that the UK represents between 2% and 3% of global research and development and manufacturing, and there are bigger and stronger competitors out there.

Brexit Britain has faked it but has not made it. Let us hope that a sense of proportion comes to British discourse, and remember that many other nations have at least as good claims to be the homes of scientific and manufacturing genius. Only then will the nation truly succeed.

David Edgerton is the author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation and professor of modern British history at King’s College London