It is not often that anyone in Britain dares to criticise James Dyson, who has the status of a latter-day Isambard Kingdom Brunel as Britain’s foremost engineer and innovator. But it happened on Tuesday, in Liverpool, over the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
The person who countered him is another heavyweight: Jürgen Maier, UK chief executive for Siemens, one of Germany’s top engineering and electrical companies. Siemens maintains a long and significant manufacturing presence in the UK.
Dyson is the inventor of the wheelbarrow with a large wheel, then powerful vacuum cleaners, then hand dryers that actually worked. He is moving on to an electric car. His technological innovations have won plaudits around the world. He is British industry’s best-known supporter of Brexit. On Sunday on the BBC he was treated with utmost reverence as he explained why Britain should leave the EU’s single market and customs union.
He insisted that Britain had to keep importing workers from Europe. He appeared unaware that putting in place a new immigration bureaucracy to slow down and make more difficult European workers arriving in the UK was a key priority of both the government and the opposition Labour party’s Brexit policy.
But his views on the desirability of Britain leaving the single market and customs union went unchallenged. That has changed. Speaking at a conference in Liverpool organised by the German-British Forum with the Engineering Employers Federation, Maeir flatly disagreed with Dyson.
‘He was talking complete nonsense,’ the German business leader said. ‘Germany exports four times as much as the UK does to China and does so from within the EU’s customs union and single market.’
‘Dyson makes most of his products outside of the UK and if others followed his example that would spell the end of manufacturing in the UK,’ Maier added.
The Siemens boss questioned the view that Britain should reorientate its trade to the US from the 450m-strong middle class consumer market in Europe.
‘Go to America and much of the engineering and electrical infrastructure is outdated. The standards are quite different from those in manufacturing in Britain and Europe. Of course we can adapt, but it will take 10 years or more.’
Maeir explained how he came to Britain in 1974 and how utterly different it was from the rest of Europe. ‘You had to put coins in a meter to get heating or hot water.
Showers were unknown. The cars made in Britain were a joke. Being in the single market has forced common standards across Europe and especially in Britain so that anything we made here could be sold anywhere in Europe. Of course there is much in the Brussels bureaucracy that is frustrating but wait and see what British bureaucracy is like once they start deciding or norms and standards after Brexit,’ he told the Liverpool conference.
In the Brexit debate, the voice of the banks and financial sector has predominated. The voice of engineering and manufacturing is all but silent.
The BBC should find time for Maier – who sounds more English than most BBC presenters – to make the case that walking out of the single market and customs union may not be the answer to Britain’s economic problems.
Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister for Europe and a Member of the OMFIF Advisers Network.