As I explore the successes of British manufacturing, I am always aware of the elephants in the room: slavery, factory conditions and global warming.
The evil of Slavery provided cheap cotton to Manchester spinners and weavers and, in due course, to the mills powered by water and then by steam. The massive production of cotton cloth raised the percentage of Europeans (including the British) wearing cotton from 4% to 76% in the course of the 19th century. Slavery also boosted ship building as well as bringing the delights of sugar to the middle classes. All this provided the catalyst that sparked the industrial revolution.
The mills, factories and coal mines employed men, women and children in the most terrible conditions with very meagre pay. They provided the manpower which produced the goods which fired the economy.
The steam that powered the factories and railway trains was produced by coal releasing into the atmosphere millions of tons of carbon.
How do we respond? Not, I suggest, with a wringing of hands.
We can thank Wilberforce and those around him for the eventual abolition of slavery. In the mills, mines and factories there were some good employers. Politicians throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century introduced the Factory Acts to address working conditions. This also gave birth to the Labour movement. Yet modern slavery and terrible working conditions persist in the world.
As to the damage caused by coal, as early as the fourteenth century London banned the burning of coal in the city. The clean air acts of the fifties also sought to address pollution. In the nineteenth century, William Armstrong warned against the impact of burning coal. Yet coal is still mined and gas and oil extracted, but we are on the path to net zero.
We all benefit to a greater or lesser extent from these past evils. Now it is down to each and everyone of us to do our bit, and make our voices heard.
That, though, must not be the last word, for manufacturing can be a force for great good. It needs to attract the brightest talent to create a green and prosperous future for all.