Pandemic doom and gloom has set in but Britain can be high-flyer again

Britain can be a high-flyer again: Pandemic doom and gloom has set in, but in an uplifting new book City guru ALEX BRUMMER argues that, from our aerospace ingenuity to our creative brilliance, the future’s much brighter than you think

Armed with a brutal combination of cannons and bombs, the Tempest fighter aircraft was deep inside enemy territory in Northern France, strafing airfields and attacking radar installations.

Its speed and power — at low altitude this was the fastest single-engine propeller plane of the war — ensured another successful mission as it left slaughter and destruction behind to return to its base on England’s South coast.

Back in 1944, the Hawker Tempest was a vital part of our war effort, a deadly strike weapon particularly effective at combating the threat posed by Germany’s V1 flying bombs.

Now, it’s back — or rather another fighter jet that has taken its name is on the drawing board.

Proud heritage: Concept of the Tempest fighter jet developed by BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and others. It shares its name with the famous World War II aircraft

The original fighter-pilot heroes, of course, would never recognise this new supersonic jet, a stealth fighter that will fly undetected by radar, carry hypersonic missiles, control swarms of armed drones and fire laser weapons with pinpoint accuracy over vast distances.

As with many breathtaking British achievements today, you too may be oblivious to the new Tempest fighter’s development by BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and others.

But in a world beset by the gloom and economic doom of the pandemic, it is, to my mind, just one shining beacon among many that offers this country hope for a very bright future.

I write this even though any lingering optimism that Britain’s blighted economy might bounce back from Boris Johnson’s second lockdown seems to have been shattered by the Bank of England’s latest forecasts.

Throughout the Covid-19 catastrophe, the Bank’s top economist, Andy Haldane, has maintained the view that the massive financial support provided by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, along with huge injections of cash into the financial system, would limit damage to the economy, growth and prosperity.

But now that retail and hospitality businesses have had to shut in the run-up to Christmas — the very time of year they earn most of their profits — the destruction of swathes of British commerce is inevitable.

We have just learned, for instance, that Argos, a mainstay of the nation’s High Streets for five decades, is to close 420 of its stores, adding to the desolation caused by John Lewis’s decision to cut 1,500 jobs and Marks & Spencer reporting its first loss in 94 years as a listed company.

The Bank of England’s injection last week of £150 billion into the banking system, in addition to the £300 billion already lavished since March, may calm financial markets for now — but it won’t save the UK economy from shrinking by a calamitous 11 per cent this year. Everywhere you look, the portents are full of gloom.

And yet, as I explain in my new book, The Great British Reboot, we should not throw ourselves into despair.

Of all the countries in the world, I am convinced that Britain is in a better position than any to meet the long-term challenges posed by the pandemic. The truth is we have a brilliance in life sciences, design, advanced software and artificial intelligence, as well as the creative industries and finance that gives us what can only be described as a stellar advantage.

True, we may lack the discipline of countries such as Germany. But our economy is simply so much more creative, resilient and adaptable.

Of course, there are political and social problems to overcome in a post-Brexit and post-Covid age. And it is true there is poor governance at Westminster and in the nation’s boardrooms.

The North-South divide has clearly deepened with coronavirus. Then there is the social divide between prosperous baby boomers and the younger generation — and that will only worsen if, as forecast, the youth unemployment rate soars to 20 per cent, the highest level for four decades.

But it is my trenchant belief that the UK’s extraordinary potential as we leave the EU and, hopefully, emerge from Covid has been grossly underplayed. It is easy to mock Boris Johnson’s slogan ‘Global Britain’. In fact, it contains an inherent truth.

To understand this, look at how the pattern of world trade is moving inexorably from a sclerotic Europe to the vibrant East, the Americas and emerging markets. More than half of global trade is now represented by rampant, newly rich nations, many of them in the Pacific.

New hope: British firms have led the way in corona vaccine search. The groundbreaking vaccine being developed by British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) – along with France’s Sanofi – could also emerge as a reliable inoculation against Covid over the long haul

And the UK’s best-performing companies know it, whether they are leviathans like AstraZeneca in the pharmaceutical industry, Unilever in consumer goods, Reckitt Benckiser in hygiene products, or artificial intelligence pioneers such as DeepMind — yes, all of them British.

Ironically, given how the economy has been hammered by the pandemic, the virus has highlighted how adaptable and fleet of foot British industry is. In the early stages of the first wave, Britain was less prepared than Germany, lacking ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE).

But once the private sector and universities were let loose on the problem, Formula 1 engineers started building ventilators, and University College London came up with a lighter, less intrusive and more sensitive design for them.

Two of the most effective treatments for Covid-19, now proving successful in trials in bringing down death rates and helping patients around the world, were identified by UK scientists.

It was British researchers who discovered that the most effective medicine was dexamethasone, a widely used steroid, which is cheap and available in hospitals and High Street pharmacies around the world. 

Britain, too, has been leading the pack in the hunt for a vaccine. For much of this year it has been the vaccine discovered by Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, adopted by AstraZeneca, out in front.

Meanwhile, the groundbreaking vaccine being developed by British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) — along with France’s Sanofi — could also emerge as a reliable inoculation against Covid over the long haul.

In recent years it has also developed world-beating jabs against cervical cancer, shingles and certain forms of meningitis. It has come up with a groundbreaking treatment for HIV, which consists of a monthly injection rather than a daily cocktail of hard-to-swallow pills.

Nor is it a coincidence that so much world-leading science has become established in Britain. We have four out of the world’s Top 20 research universities.

In fact, every one of these — Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial (as well as Southampton) — has devoted vast resources to combating Covid-19.

The triumph of Britain’s research universities is not confined to the life sciences either. They are also centres of brilliant technological breakthroughs and pioneering work in artificial intelligence. It is not by chance that the biggest UK ‘tech’ group, Arm Holdings, is situated in Cambridge.

Its super-smart chips, which incorporate unique software, are used by almost all the Silicon Valley giants and are integral to the ‘internet of things’ — the next great leap forward in the internet — which can power anything from home appliances to robotic warehouses and production lines.

So why is there such a terrible tendency to underestimate British technology? After all, it is the driving force behind so much of what we do well.

Our vibrant music industry, with sales of old stars – such as The Beatles – as well new (Adele (pictured), Ed Sheeran and Stormzy) all storming the economic charts.

Take its role in the financial sector. It is no secret that financial services are hugely valuable to the UK, contributing 7 per cent of national output and an invisible trade surplus of £68 billion a year.

But it is not just financial services where Britain excels. Aerospace is taking off, too.

Rolls-Royce may have been brought to its knees by the collapse of civilian aviation with Covid-19, but under more normal circumstances it had grown to become the biggest seller of engines for wide-bodied jet aircraft in the world.

In the interim, it is working with BAE Systems on the supersonic Tempest fighter jet; it is developing Britain’s first fleet of small, electrically propelled, island-hopping aircraft; and it is pioneering the small modular reactors (nuclear) that could keep our lights on in future when the wind fails to blow. All of these technologies are eminently exportable and likely to be in demand on an international scale.

As we prepare for the post-Brexit era, it is also easy to forget the value of the UK’s creative sector, which on some measures is as big as — or even bigger — than financial services.

Right now, live entertainment, theatreland and the West End are all being crushed by Covid. But we must never forget that Britain is a world-beater when it comes to the creative arts.

What is more, most creative services — concerts, plays, performances, music, theatre and so on — can be sold to other countries irrespective of Brexit because they are not subject to trade agreements.

The admirable J.K. Rowling is a global phenomenon with book sales around the world, films that dominate youth entertainment and even a show on Broadway before coronavirus.

She is joined by our vibrant music industry, with sales of old stars — such as The Beatles — as well new (Adele, Ed Sheeran and Stormzy) all storming the economic charts.

These are the more obvious symbols of the nation’s creativity, but the talents go far deeper. 

Outstanding talents: British designer Jony Ive (left) has been a crucial part of Apple’s success

British design and architecture are an integral part of the UK’s success as an industrial and creative economy. The achievements of Jaguar Land Rover, under the Indian ownership of Tata, have been built around design.

The beauty of Apple products is down to the design genius of Jony Ive, an Essex-born boy who is Chancellor of the Royal College of Art. 

In fact, given the sheer breadth and quality of what Britain has to offer, we should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Yet Boris Johnson’s Government, stumbling from mishap to crisis and U-turn and making itself look ridiculous with its hyperbolic boasts of ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace and ‘moonshot’ testing, is singularly failing to do so. In spite of Johnson’s formidable rhetorical skills, he has never managed to project a vision of how a post-Brexit Britain can offer the world its superlative abilities in life sciences, research, aerospace and technology.

Where is the promise once offered by former PM Harold Wilson, who in the 1960s thrilled the nation when he said the UK could conquer its problems using ‘the white heat of technology’?

Why have we allowed our technological crown jewels to be sold off like the family silver: aerospace and satellite pioneer Cobham to American private equity; the UK’s satellite champion Inmarsat to private equity firms Apax and Warburg Pincus; digital screen innovator Imagination Technologies to Chinese-backed fund Canyon Bridge, a company blacklisted by the U.S.; and chip designer Arm Holdings, which is now subject to a bid for £31 billion from its American rival Nvidia.

Why is our Government not extolling the role of our world-beating pharmaceutical industry in the development and production of vaccines? The point is that Britain has the skills base, the industrial and technical know-how and the artistic flair to thrive in a post-Covid, post-Brexit world.

And the Government should capitalise on this with infrastructure investment, with more generous research and development tax breaks and support, and with foresight and vision.

At the same time it needs to cement divisions between young and old by addressing social care; between North and South by ‘levelling up’ with infrastructure investment such as HS2, and by establishing ‘free ports’ up north — low-tax areas to encourage trade in a post-Brexit world.

And as unemployment goes up, there needs to be a grand plan for equipping left-behind young people with the engineering and technical skills required to maintain Britain’s formidable technological prowess. Britain has all the raw ingredients for a new technology-driven revolution.

Yes, for it to take place, the nation’s social settlement, governance and investment priorities all require a gigantic reboot.

But there is no doubt in my mind that, despite our battle against the virus, Britain has the potential to soar to the skies — as the story of the Tempest fighter forged in the heat of war tells us.

The Great British Reboot by Alex Brummer: How The UK Can Thrive In A Turbulent World is published tomorrow at £20 by Yale University Press.  

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