Low wages also key; U.K. inventiveness aids rise of high-tech firms . . .
Colin M. Amies, who looks after Midland Bank's portfolio of electronics company stocks, shares a common view of the United Kingdom's problem in the high technology industries. In the area of science and innovation, he says, the British produce ''a tremendous lot of ideas.'' But many of these ideas are exported to other countries for commercial development - ''which is sad.''
Looking at the problem somewhat differently, a top government economist observed: ''Britain as a nation has never been very good at assembly-line work, at standing in rows and producing goods. When the plant size is over 500 people, labor relations deteriorate rapidly. Somehow, United Kingdom people don't like being bossed around. They don't have the team spirit of the Japanese.''
But, this student of the British economy went on, ''If the world is much more one where individual initiative rather than concerted effort counts, the British will come out on top again.''
Probably there's a touch of British national pride here. Yet, in fact, the United Kingdom has a healthy and growing electronics industry, probably the strongest in Europe. ''I don't think it is too bad,'' said Mr. Amies with typical British understatement.
The electronics industry has been growing about 14 percent a year in real terms and now makes up some 4.25 percent of total gross national product, Britain's total output of goods and services.
A considerable number of small companies, specializing in various areas of the business, are springing up in Scotland's so-called ''Silicon Glen'' and in an area sometimes called the ''Western corridor'' 40 or 50 miles west of London along the M4 motorway. Two such innovative companies are highlighted in accompanying articles.
There are more than 40,000 people employed in the electronics industry in Scotland in over 200 companies. The British government has welcomed foreign investment in this industry, maintaining a special consular officer in Boston, for instance, to keep in touch with the Route 128 high-tech industry there. And many US firms have taken the bait by deciding to do business in an English-language country within the European Common Market that has relatively low wages for scientific, mathematical, or engineering talent, plus attractive tax and other incentives.
Some recent American investments would include Commodore, which is planning to make its personal computers in a new factory in Corby, a town hurt by a steel-plant closure; IBM, which already has 15,000 employees in the U.K. and is starting up production of its personal computer in Greenock, Scotland; Unimation , expanding its robotics factory in Telford; and Digital Equipment, establishing a software center.
Quite a few American firms assign considerable software work to their affiliates here or to British software firms. Experts say the U.K. has some highly competent software firms.
Japanese electronics companies, too, have been making a number of investments in Britain to make TV sets, video recorders, and so on.
But domestic companies have also been expanding. Mr. Amies of the Midland Bank says defense-oriented electronics companies are ''very strong.'' These include Plessey (which, as a headline noted, wiped out ''its dowdy image'' with a 31 percent pretax profit rise last year), Roycal, General Electric (the British company), and Ferranti.
In the nondefense area, Mr. Amies pointed to Sinclair, the innovative maker of inexpensive personal computers. The United Kingdom, it is claimed, has more small computers per person than any other country, including the United States. ''People in the U.K. appreciate the need for computers,'' Mr. Amies said.
But this industry observer doubts that any British maker of business computers can survive without overseas ties. International Computers Ltd., the major British computer firm, has a technological link with Japan's Fujitsu.
One problem encountered in getting electronics companies going is finding venture capital. ''More investors are prepared to put money into a firm which has a track record,'' Mr. Amies says. There are some 40 institutions investing venture and development capital.
As for the future, many British observers have high hopes for their electronics industry. Anthony Perry, top executive at Instrumental Colour Systems (see accompanying story), figures that so many new technologies are pushing into electronics that Britain has opportunities even in such American or Japanese strongholds as chip fabrication. ''But it is difficult to say how the U.K. electronics industry is going to do,'' he notes.