The English Premier League is the highest-profile in the world. It is a magnet for footballers, spectators and advertisers alike. Some of the top clubs are global brands. Yet under the glitter, the competition is a sham. Only four or five clubs can realistically win it, and they are playthings of potentates who compete to buy victory with mountains of cash. Football clubs aren’t ‘clubs’ in any meaningful sense; they are crude businesses living far above their means, kept afloat only through life-saving injections of cash from the sale of TV rights. Even so half of the Football League have been in administration since 1992 and many wobble perennially on the edge. Top footballers are grossly overpaid, the eyewatering wealth of top stars contrasting cruelly with the pitiful salaries of club retainers. Oh yes, and English players and English managers never win anything. The chief beneficiaries of Premier League largesse are foreign players and managers who are consistently more skilful, thoughtful and adaptable than their British rivals. Under the surface, the beautiful game is in a parlous state.
Does this remind you of anything? It should. In their troubling Going South: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy by 2014, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson suggest that the parallels between the national game and the national economy are close. On display in both are the same unrealistic ambitions and rose-tinted spectacles, the same boom and bust, the same U-turns, the same workforce and management deficiencies thrown into sharp relief by superior imported talent. The surface bling covering bankruptcy beneath is reminiscent of another tawdry show in which the UK believed it led the world, banking. Ominously, note the authors, ‘the Walter Mitty tendency is even more apparent in those charged with running the national economy [than those running football].’
Elliott and Atkinson, economics editors at The Guardian and The Mail on Sunday respectively, have been dismissed in the FT as ‘professional pessimists’. It is true that Going South is not immune to occasional exaggeration for effect. It is also overlong. But their analysis is not easily put out of mind. Their argument is that Britain is not just in the middle of a painful recession from which it will one day recover and resume business as usual. Rather, they see it as the end of a century of relative decline in which it has not just (like many other western economies) de-industrialised, but de-developed. As in the book’s subtitle, Britain is going backwards, a submerging rather than emerging economy. It’s not a recession, but a reckoning.
In a compelling roster of evidence, the duo point out that despite an effective 25 per cent devaluation of sterling Britain continues to run a chronic balance-of-payments deficit on visible goods at a time when exports should be growing strongly. Their conclusion (strongly supported by the findings of researchers Karel Williams et al): critical mass in manufacturing has been definitively lost – meaning that ‘recovery’ (not to mention rebalancing) won’t and can’t happen automatically. Manufacturing capacity, including supply chains and clusters, will have to be recreated from scratch.
Second, educational performance. Despite Tony Blair’s policy priority of ‘education, education, education’, the UK has celebrated the first decade of the new millennium by skidding helter-skepter down the OECD league tables: eighth to 28th in maths, seventh to 25th in literacy and fourth to 16th in science. Sixty per cent of UK workers are classified as low skilled, compared with 20 per cent in Germany and 30 per cent in France. Then consider the state of UK infrastructure, energy in particular. Coal is a legacy industry, oil production has fallen by two-thirds and gas by half. To cope with likely demand and the need to cut greenhouse gases, the country will need ‘a vast expansion of wind and solar, coupled with dozens of nuclear or “clean coal” plants’; the authors give it five years before the lights start to go out.
They give plenty more reasons for gloom. By 2015, median incomes will have been falling for an unprecedented 13 years, the pensions timebomb is ticking, youth unemployment high and rising, the debt mountain growing, the banks frozen and Europe paralysed. Rather than a one-off criminal spree, the riots of August 2011 may in hindsight turn out to be the start of retribution ‘not just for the financial follies of the last 30 years, but for a century of relative economic decline.
The strength of Going South is its historical sweep. In the historical context, much of the UK’s current plight is not due to chance or bad luck, as often presented, but the predictable result of expediency and indecision. Britain’s education was already causing concern in the last years of the 19th century, the loss of world market share in manufactures likewise. The failure to invest in infrastructure (unlike, say, the equally impoverished France) dates back to the war, and the policy flip-flops and U-turns are legion. When the windfall of North Sea oil landed, the UK copied football rather than Norway: instead of investing the proceeds for the future it blew them on maintaining its profligate lifestyle. When the finance sector boomed it did the same, never taking into account that financial might and manufacturing weakness were two sides of the same coin. Is Britain a free-market or a European social-market economy? It has never decided, vacillating painfully between the two and often getting the worst of both.
Now the jig is up, the die is cast, the goose is cooked and the cat is out of the bag, in the immortal words of James Thurber. Hard choices, put off for so long, can no longer be avoided. I share much of the Elliott-Atkinson analysis – indeed it’s only by putting on very short term blinkers that you can avoid it. For far too long we have let ourselves to be persuaded we can get to where we want to be via short cuts: we don’t need to learn languages because everyone speaks English, we can (to borrow Jim Slater’s odious distinction) make money rather than things, and that we can be creative rather than industrious and productive. Hence the emphasis on show, presentation (we do royal weddings rather well), and the ‘creative’ and advisory industries (in telling other people to do as we say, not as we do, we certainly lead the world).
Yet I think the authors might just have missed something. At first sight, the success of the 2012 Olympics might seem the apotheosis of the UK’s bullshit economy – just another show, if a glorious one. But when you look at it more closely, that's not true. In fact, tthe Olympics were the pay-off for just the sort of difficult, meticulous execution that the British supposedly don’t do. In fact they so don’t do it, as Michael Skapinker recently pointed out in the FT, that several totemic companies – BAe, BT, BP – have over the last decade quietly purged themselves of the ‘British’ in their name to escape the brand-damaging associations. Yes, they cost a lot, but the games came in on time and under budget. Two million tons of concrete were poured without a single casualty; at one stage a truck was arriving at the front gates every sixty seconds. As for the athletes, the most striking thing about the performances was that they were the result not so much of natural talent but of unBritish amounts of hard work and minute attention to detail. They were hard wins, not easy ones. Not to mention the volunteers. And all that accounts for the, surely rightful, sense of national pride the games provoked. ‘The desire of millions to feel decently and proudly British is a story the elites – business, media and political – have been missing for years,’ notes Skapinker (none more grotesquely so than the right-wing Tories now caricaturing the workforce as workshy layabouts). If we’re to defy the weight of the past and start going north again that’s the joyous, challenging spirit we'll all need to tap into.