Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Value of Nothing

Three things today gave an ample reminder of how our culture and our universities over the last dozen years or so have made Britain a better place in many ways, but also, crucially, a more successful place.

According to the Observer, despite the Harry Potter film series coming to an end, the studio where they were filmed is being bought by Warners. They are not particularly worried about the demise of the UK Film Council, but rather, are voting with their wallets in the UK film industry because of the talent pool that exists. At the end of the article it is pointed out that since Rowling's wizard first came into the public eye, £1.9 billion has been generated economically from the franchise.

In other news, Sebastian Vettel is the new F1 champion after steering his Red Bull to victory in Abu Dhabi. A German, in an oil state, for a team financed by an Austrian. What's British about it? The Red Bull team are based at Milton Keynes. F1 retains much of its engineering base in the UK. Though I'm sure their engineers come from round the world, its British base is not a coincidence. Though the franchising of F1 increasingly goes east to chase the money, the high end innovation and skills that makes the sport possible still has a prominent British base. I'm sure that our new government will say that our Universities' excellence in Engineering will be protected, but I wonder - I'm sure that it's not as simple as that; and that maybe a few future engineers will be put off by the high fees that will be coming in shortly. Certainly, those engineers I knew at college would have had to think twice before taking on such debt.

And, thirdly, long overdue, the designer Bill Moggridge just won the 2010 lifetime achievement award at the Prince Philip Design Awards. He designed the first laptop - the Grid Compass - in 1982, even being used on the space shuttle. Design is another British speciality, as Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod and is Apple's chief designer proves.

So, three examples where Britain's have been innovative and highly successful - all members of what Richard Florida defined as the "creative class." In the same week we hear that EMI, bought by the financial genius of Terra Firma, Guy Hands investment vehicle, with mostly borrowed money, is likely to finally be sold into foreign hands, its success as a company utterly compromised by the disaster of its business model.

The vision of the coalition seems to be that those who go to university study only utilitarian subjects - that they do not have access to the liberal arts. Sport, media, arts and culture all provide more than economic growth of course; yet they are also drivers for economic growth. If only finance had such a record of achievement. In the 1970s and 1980s there was dismay and despair as our "assets" seemed to get sold to America. I've a Rough Trade compilation called "Wanna buy a bridge?" - yet our real assets, the creativity, and innovation of our people - and the strong liberal education that they received in the UK, are what gives us a competitive advantage going forward into the future - not the complex financial models of casino bankers. At this rate, Guy Hands will go down in history as the man who sold the Beatles. Despite the best education money (and the state) can buy, our current crop of politicians seem to know the price of every piece of debt, and the value of nothing.

The value of creativity and innovation is not always as easily measured as these examples, yet surely they give reason enough for us to want to protect the institutions and environment that can lead to such innovation? Whereas a merchant bank can relocate elsewhere, and the graduates of India, China and elsewhere are queueing up to work for them anywhere in the world, our creativity is less easily poached, less easily emulated.

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