Predicting the future is uncertain, but Britain remains a maritime dependent nation with excellence in many marine disciplines.
The transition from global economic power to a globally dependent nation means that the relationship between industry and government will need to change and those working within the maritime sector will have to work harder to get their voice heard both in the media and to demonstrate how maritime enterprise contributes to the national economy and deserves more national recognition.
The age of continental empire was sustained by sea trade and protected by warships; but with the finite resources of coal and later oil, technologies advanced until war and competition redefined the nation state and ushered in the transformation to a global economy.
For the modern investor, identifying comparative advantage provides the key to profitability, and so globalisation is still gaining in momentum, trade is growing and as a result is becoming more interactive than ever before. Shipping, ports and services have to reflect this trend.
While trade has an almost fluid quality, finding its levels according to demand, countries and their populations are relatively fixed geographically – and it is this complex relationship between flexible demand and productive activity which has to be managed by politicians.
If free trade is seen as an absolute priority in policy terms, then governments have to encourage industries and services to be innovative to gain competitive advantage, otherwise foreign competitors will become dominant. This realisation demands continuous investment in research and the development of new technologies supported by people who are skilled and imaginative in a neutral fiscal environment, where goods and services can be delivered without incurring penalties that competitors do not have to meet.
The role of shipping and shipping services needs to be strengthened to secure the foundation from which to develop more innovative and competitive solutions in the manufacture of equipment, shipbuilding, logistic and transport services. The growth of international trade demands that all trading nations, not just the few, should contribute to the security of trade routes.
The shape of the maritime sector has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, suggesting that career development programmes within the maritime sector should be more integrated. A study needs to be undertaken to ascertain the likely demand for skilled maritime personnel for the whole sector, and this study should examine whether, for example, the remit of the Merchant Navy Training Board could be expanded to include apprenticeships in related disciplines, graduate programmes and even the coordination of maritime training for disadvantaged groups.
Maritime awareness, reaching into families and schools, needs to be positively promoted, and the role of Seavision in providing maritime educational and career information needs to be supported by industry and government as a long-term developmental programme – just as the steps taken to form the new Marine Industries Leadership Council need to be supported, and government involvement encouraged, to develop an innovative and competitive maritime sector.
Nostalgia can colour judgement in many ways, and it is not always easy to be objective about Britain and the Sea. However, there are certainties which contain the kernel of maritime opportunity as we look to the future.
First there are the fixed assets. Britain needs efficient ports and an effective transport infrastructure. In terms of moving goods, the country needs to be serviced by knowledgeable shippers and provided with well-coordinated logistics.
The demand for shipping worldwide is increasing, so new and innovative ways of transporting cargoes and passengers present designers and engineers with opportunities. Similarly, maritime law, finance, broking and insurance can all benefit from the growing volume of trade.
With fisheries there is a complex balance to be struck. It is desirable to achieve an optimal yield from migratory species and to provide fishermen with a properly rewarded living, but also to ration the catch of a finite living resource, and this will present real challenges for the Marine Management Organisation.
As a modern trading nation, Britain is more dependent on the sea than ever before. The seaborne supply of consumer goods from China maybe evident from its label. Less obvious are the foreign-made components in such things as cars and complex machinery. And exporters need to ship what they have assembled in Britain to foreign markets. Manufacturing, at an international level, is becoming more interdependent.
There are choices. It is possible to encourage foreign companies to undertake all Britain’s sea transport and logistics, and this might appear to be an effective way of minimising costs and supporting the hard-pressed consumer. Such a policy, however, would eventually erode the capability to capitalise on innovative opportunity as support for maritime business falls below critical levels. The problem is similar to that faced by the fishing industry, but in a commercial environment.
Companies have to make decisions that are profitable in global markets. Governments have to provide and ensure reliable services and support for their constituents at home. The maritime sector has not been actively promoted by government for decades, and the tide is ebbing. Maintaining appropriate critical levels across the maritime sector will bring positive returns in equipping Britain to exploit maritime opportunities in future. The challenge now is to turn the tide, and to turn the vision into reality.