In Boris Johnson’s introduction to his first and possibly last Queen’s Speech, he promised to “release the talent, creativity, innovation and chutzpah that exists in every corner of the United Kingdom”. His predecessor spoke in similar terms, minus the chutzpah. In her 2018 Mansion House speech, Theresa May called Britain “a nation of pioneers, innovators, explorers and creators”. Her government declared in 2017 Britain should become known as “the most innovative country in the world”.
It is significant that in making the case for Britain after Brexit, successive prime ministers have fused the core Leave rhetoric of sovereignty and control with the more liberal and cosmopolitan vocabulary of innovation. In doing so they invoke one of the only remaining national myths with a wide political span. When it comes to Britain and its place in the world, there are few things on which left and right, Leavers and Remainers agree, but one of them is this: Britain is a global powerhouse of creativity.
This represents different things to different sides. For those on the right, Britain’s creativity is the fuel of new businesses and industries, and for Brexiteers specifically, it is the special sauce that will allow us to overcome the so-called laws of economics, like the one that says a country that puts up barriers with its nearest trading bloc will find it hard to grow. For those on the left, Britain’s artistic prowess is a rare example of a national attribute about which it is acceptable to be patriotic. The apotheosis of the left-liberal dream of Britain was Danny Boyle’s brilliantly staged 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.
Our political and professional discourse hums with the language of radical breakthroughs, revelatory insights and visionary thinking. We’re so used to this kind of creative happy talk we forget that other nations, including ones more prosperous than our own, do without it. I once worked for a London-based ad agency tasked with creating a campaign for a German financial institution. I wrote a brief that emphasised the company’s history of innovative ideas. When our German client read it, he smiled faintly and shook his head. “In Germany, we don’t have ideas. We make plans.”
When you get down to it, there is surprisingly little evidence for Britain’s claim to be such a global paragon. You would expect a highly creative country to be highly productive, productivity being the art of making a lot out of a little – yet our record in this regard is famously poor. You would expect our endlessly fertile industries to be generating an unusually high amount of new ideas, yet when it comes to patents per head of population, we are not even in the top ten. You would expect us to be leaders in the arts, and while we do have a rich bank of talent, we can’t claim to be more vibrant than Sweden, or Mexico, or South Korea.
Britain’s creative exceptionalism isn’t just misguided; it is positively harmful. It means we neglect the skills that are needed to be successful in the modern world – that are needed, in fact, to be consistently, effectively creative. It’s one thing to have ideas; quite another to make them a reality. The latter requires planning, attention to detail, and, more than ever, specialised knowledge – the industries of the future, such as artificial intelligence and biotech, demand deep technical understanding. These are the strengths of the engineer, the manager and the nerd, as much as the artist or visionary. And here, we have fallen behind.
In 2014, a government-sponsored report found that Britain’s management capability is on average weaker than that of Germany, Japan, Sweden and the US. Our technical skills, in comparison to other developed nations, are appalling. Despite repeated attempts to rebalance our education system, not enough people are going to technical college or completing apprenticeships. After allowing our manufacturing industries to run down, we’ve forgotten the organisational and intellectual rigours they taught us. We are in danger of becoming a nation of David Brents, convinced that any problem can be solved with some motivational talk and a matcha latte-fuelled ideation session.
The creativity myth reassures us that we don’t need to sweat the boring stuff, because we can just be brilliant instead. Its pernicious effects are manifest in a governing class that values generalists over specialists – who tend to be disappointingly unsparkling. A PPE degree from Oxford, that passport to influence, collapses three vast categories of study – politics, economics and philosophy – into one, implying an airy disdain for all of them. Very few of our politicians understand anything in depth, a shortcoming brutally exposed by Brexit. It’s as if we believe so strongly in our ability to create new realities we hardly bother learning about the existing one.
Where does it come from, this faith in our creative powers? Partly, it’s down to some undoubted reality-shaping successes over the last half-century: the Beatles, Harry Potter, Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML. We have a close cultural affinity with America, which also emphasises the creative spirit but has vastly more resources to realise its ideas. Like so many of the stories we tell ourselves, though, this one goes back to the Second World War. We frame Britain’s triumph as one of improvisation, embodied by Churchill directing the war from bed, brandy in hand. By doing so we underplay what really enabled our survival in the face of Hitler’s onslaught: industrial might, careful planning and the application of deep, specialised knowledge. Alan Turing was not just a clever chap who happened to crack the Enigma code on his tea break.
Britain is not threatened by imminent invasion, thank goodness, but we do find ourselves in a hole. No matter what vast quantities of chutzpah we deploy, it is unlikely we will be able to ideate our way out of it.
This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong