James Max - James Max is a broadcaster, columnist and business expert

Fixing Britain PLC

For too long we have borrowed our way out of a crisis. Spending our way out of recession is an economic dogma from the Keynesian era.
It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.
If anything, the 1980’s taught us that to afford the things we want individually or as a society we need to pay for them with economic performance, not with debt.

To those who say we don’t make anything any more, think again. The UK is a powerful manufacturing nation. Yet our desire to improve our living standards has meant that we simply cannot manufacture the products the world wants at a price they are willing to pay for them. So we have evolved. Our economy thrived on creativity, added value, invention, entrepreneurship, the media, financial and professional services. Revered around the world, Britain in the 1980’s, 90’s and 00’s became a country that developed new business and economic value. Turn our back to the keys of our successes and our economic future will be uncertain.

I do understand why it’s been popular to bash banks. Indeed some of our retail banks bought market share. In an attempt to emulate their investment banking cousins, they got into massive difficulty. Instead of lending money they began to invest. Investing with money they didn’t have, inflating their balance sheets to toxic levels. Meanwhile the government was doing the same thing, Borrowing ever-greater sums to undertake their massive social engineering project. Clever tricks such as putting massive infrastructure projects off-balance sheet, long term finance to fund now what we could not afford whilst paying later. Gordon Brown was a magician in that respect.

All the while the very elements that allowed us to develop our economy were being squandered. Education is the key. The fee-paying sector has been busy. Maintaining standards and advancing their teaching programmes to retain their status at the top of the educational league tables, worldwide. Meanwhile our government spent billions on state of the art schools. However the quality of the building isn’t really that important. It’s only one element. What you teach children, how you teach them and indeed the level of work that they put in to learn are the key elements. Speak to any employer and they are dealing with an extraordinary phenomenon. Mid twenty somethings to early thirty somethings who believe they walk on water and a group of early twenty somethings who just don’t have the requisite skills. Why is that? Is that because we have a social problem or a structural one?

Of course this is a broad generalisation. We have some brilliantly talented people at all ages and from all backgrounds in our society. The drive to focus on buildings rather than content has been one failing, as has the drive to push ever-increasing numbers of people through our higher educational system. A university degree isn’t always what it appears to be. I’m not saying that every degree should be job specific. In fact I am rather a fan of academic study for the simple sake of academic pursuit. If a vocational degree isn’t vocational and an academic one rather nebulous, so we fail. We fail those who take these courses and we fail our society who rely on new talent coming through.

So the work ahead for our country is as complex as it is hard. Educational standards must rise. For everyone. The state sector is incredibly important but the dumbing down has to stop. The undermining of hard work as the basis for achievement has to end and the quality of teaching, teachers, exams and higher education all need urgent review.

All of this has to be achieved within the context of where we are trying to go. The environmentalist lobby almost ended the UK’s position as the manufacturer of high-end motor vehicles. Range Rover, Jaguar, Mini and others may be owned by foreign companies but that’s no reason to target them or the people who buy their products. Similarly those who target the banks and bankers should really go and study why and how the credit crunch happened. They should also consider the economic future for the UK and end their undermining of an industry that will help us recover. Then there are the pharmaceutical and defence industries to protect as well. We are at the vanguard for technological research, design and innovation. Why? Because we produce some of the finest academic brains in the world. I understand ethics but sometimes we have to consider the importance of our industry and the strength we have on the world stage too.

If Britain wants to be Great again, I’d suggest hunkering down. Fixing the problems we can fix, instilling a generation with the hard work ethos and ending the social jealousy that is so corrosive. Britain is an amazing country. We have some fabulous companies who reside here and some incredible talent at all ages. Celebrating what we have and building on that success will get us out of this mess. Striking, complaining, sneering and over taxing won’t.

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