Keep it foolish: London’s “cool” has built an economy around tech-savvy young people. Photo: Wayne Tippetts/Rex
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Love or hate them, East London’s hipsters have fuelled a vast economy

Most of us rolled our eyes at the invasion of hipsters, but the “Flat White Economy” is flourishing.

The Flat White Economy
Douglas McWilliams
Duckworth Overlook, 256pp, £16.99

“Year after year the annual report of the Uganda Protectorate has referred, under the heading of industry, to a few large undertakings directly sponsored by the government,” wrote the economist W Elkan in 1959. “At the same time the multifarious development of furniture workshops, soap mills, tyre retreading plants, bakeries and brickfields has gone on largely unnoticed. An official who was once asked about Kampala’s industrial area said: ‘There are no industries there – only a lot of furniture works, bakeries, maize mills and soda
water factories.’”

Modern economies are complex and constantly in flux. As a result, understanding what is going on in them and where they are heading next is difficult. You might have thought that civil servants and the economists who work for them would have an advantage over the rest of us. In reality – as the story above shows – their preconceived ideas of what counts as “genuine” economic activity can generate blind spots even more egregious than our own.

There are exceptions. Douglas McWilliams, the founder of one of the UK’s leading economic consultancies, has spent his career trying to get at what is really going on in the UK through that most unfashionable of economic activities: detailed empirical research. In his new book, he shows how surprising the results can be.

His story starts with the resilience of London during the financial crisis of 2008. Many analysts thought that the crash would rebalance the British economy away from the capital. They were wrong.

In 2009, London’s output collapsed and house prices plummeted. But its recovery was exceptionally rapid. By 2013, employment was growing at 4.4 per cent a year. House prices were more than 10 per cent above their 2007 peak, while elsewhere they were still 10 per cent below. London has been leading the UK recovery, not slowing it down. Where did this renewed vitality come from? Rather like those Kampala soap mills, the answer, McWilliams argues, is staring us in the face – and we’ll see it as soon as we shed our preconceptions.

No one visiting east London over the past half-decade can have failed to notice that there are a lot of young people about. They have come from all over Europe and hang out in Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and the rest of the old “City fringes”. They ride bicycles, wear second-hand clothes and have elaborate facial hair (the male ones, anyway). And they drink a lot of coffee – often of the “flat white” variety.

Most of us rolled our eyes at this invasion of the hipsters and assumed, like the Ugandan official, that the real action must be going on elsewhere. McWilliams and his colleagues have crunched the numbers and found that the opposite is true. They argue that this influx of tech-savvy young people is a symptom of the flourishing of what they have termed the “Flat White Economy”: the dense network of digital marketing, computer programming, software publishing and video post-production businesses that have sprung up in and around Shoreditch since 2008. This is no lost generation of frugal fashionistas, in other words, but the economic engine of the future: less Nathan Barley, more Steve Jobs.

The statistics are striking. The Flat White Economy is big. Across the UK, the media, information and communication sectors account for nearly 8 per cent of GDP – the size of the car manufacturing and oil and gas industries combined. It is also growing rapidly. McWilliams reckons that its share of GDP will double over the next decade. Most impressively, though, it is extraordinarily entrepreneurial. Between 2012 and 2014, more businesses were created in the single London postcode of EC1V than in the whole of Manchester and Newcastle put together.

Why has the Flat White Economy taken off in east London quicker than anywhere else? It is all down, McWilliams argues in most orthodox fashion, to supply and demand. On the demand side, the UK is a unique environment for digital business because it has proportionately by far the ­highest level of online retailing in the world. One study projects that nearly a quarter of all UK retail will take place online next year – twice as much as in Germany and three times the level in the US or Japan. Britons love to shop online, generating a critical level of demand for digital marketing and advertising services.

On the supply side, meanwhile, McWilliams points above all to the availability of young, educated and entrepreneurial people from all over Europe (thanks to freedom of movement within the EU) who want to come to London not because it’s cheap or easy to live in, nor even because they can get rich there, but because it’s cool. It’s an analysis that, unlike a lot of dry economics, chimes with reality. Indeed, the eponymous flat whites prove the point: why else would anyone want to pay £2.70 for a cup of milky coffee?

There has long been a tendency on the left to disdain service industries such as those at the heart of the Flat White Economy as not quite the real thing – from Harold Wilson’s scorn for the “candy-floss economy” in the 1960s to Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson’s 2007 excoriation of Tony Blair’s Britain as “Fantasy Island”. McWilliams makes a persuasive case that it was these industries that saved us from disaster after 2008 and hold the keys to our economic future. For questioning that prejudice alone, his book deserves to be read. 


Macroeconomist, bond trader and author of Money

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.