Tool Britannia

Aerospace technology

The UK is the second biggest player in the world in aerospace engineering, excelling particularly in wing technology, one of the most specialised and lucrative areas. Last year, the UK aerospace sector grew by 6.5% to £31bn, 87% of which was exported. The industry employs 230,000 people in all, and unlike, say, banking, the whole country benefits, with large operations in Belfast, Broughton in Wales, Birmingham, Derby, and a huge cluster of activity in the south-west.

Financial services

Say what you like about bankers — I’ve had plenty to say about them in the past — but they do contribute a fair chunk to the economy. In 2016, financial and insurance services was worth £124.2bn in gross value added (GVA) to the UK, 7.2% of the total. The industry employs over a million people nationwide — 3.1% of all jobs in the UK — and the banking sector paid £24.4bn in tax to the exchequer in 2016. What’s more, the banking, insurance and pensions sectors are one of the few areas in which Britain is a huge net exporter. Exports of these services netted us over £60bn in 2016, vastly outweighing the £12bn imported.

Higher education

No fewer than 12 of the UK’s universities feature in the top 100 universities worldwide, from Oxford, widely admired for its excellence in the arts but also making huge strides in science, to Durham, with its world-renowned physics department and the pioneering Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World. There were 2.3 million students at the UK’s higher education institutions in 2015–16, providing 400,000 jobs and directly generating around £2bn for the economy each year — on top of the incalculable value of giving an outstanding education to a third of the populace.

Artificial intelligence

The UK owes its growing stature in AI largely to the existence of Google DeepMind, a company founded in London in 2010 and bought by Google in 2014. But a veritable explosion of innovative AI startups over the last few years, including language processing specialists VocalIQ, machine-learning keyboard SwiftKey, digital marketer Phrasee and neural network developers Magic Pony, has put the UK at the very vanguard of the field. Many recent developments — voice recognition software, predictive text and autonomous vehicles — have been driven by UK-based tech firms, leaving the UK uniquely poised to be a serious player in this young but booming sector. According to Accenture, artificial intelligence could add £654bn to the UK economy by 2035.

Electronics

Expertise at small-scale production and innovation are the two key drivers of the UK’s electronics success. While it can’t compete on an industrial scale with the likes of Japan and Korea, it can produce little marvels like the Raspberry Pi, which has now sold more than 12.5 million units. The UK electronics sector, the fifth largest in the world, has an annual turnover of £80bn a year and employs 800,000 people.

Life sciences

The life sciences — pharmaceuticals, biotech and medical research — are another area where the UK has taken giant strides in recent years, thanks again in large part to its thriving higher education system. We have a particular talent, it seems, for small molecules, therapeutic proteins and vaccines, and are among the chief players in the Human Genome Project. By most metrics, the United States is the only country with a more cutting edge in matters medical; we’re ahead of the pack in neuroscience, parasitology and material science, and are the second most prolific producers of medical research papers — a jolly good show for the country with the 21st biggest population.

Music

We may suck royally at Eurovision, but in the broader scheme of things, Britannia rules the airwaves. Domestic success often translates into success abroad, and we export £1.4bn worth of songs every year. Since the Beatles, we’ve seen acts from Pink Floyd to Adele, and Elton John to One Direction go global.

TV and film

Despite the best efforts of Channel 5 and the BBC’s comedy department, the UK still enjoys a reputation for top-notch television, and as a result, sales of UK-made programmes hit £1.3bn in 2015/16. TV, film, radio and photography (which the ONS unaccountably lumps together) provided 260,000 jobs in 2013 and produced a GVA of £10.8bn.

Sport

While UK Sport’s trophy cabinet may not exactly be heaving at the moment, for a nation of 64 million souls, we punch well above our weight. As well as the impressive medal hauls at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, we’re always there or thereabouts in world tournaments of football, rugby and cricket, and are disproportionately represented in tennis, snooker, boxing, cycling, hockey, canoeing, rowing, fencing, darts, squash, polo, sailing and golf. Even in off years, sport generates around £20bn for the economy.

Zig-a-zig, oops.

The future (aka, the punchline)

So there you have it! Britain really is great! We may no longer be a fearsome military power or an industrial powerhouse, but we’ve carved out a new niche for ourselves, at the heart of a global economy! So much for Talky McDownerson!

  • “I’m scared witless” Stephen Cheetham, chief executive, PK Engineering
  • “We are very worried about the impact of Brexit on the whole Airbus discussion” aerospace supplier interviewed by Financial Times
  • “In terms of attractiveness … in terms of political stability, the UK goes down” — Andrew Mair, chief executive, Midlands Aerospace Alliance
  • “A lot of organizations are now looking elsewhere to base their Innovation Labs for artificial intelligence” — Chris Rosebert, head of data science & AI, Networkers technology recruitment
  • “The funding that the research community has taken advantage of to hold its position internationally [in artificial intelligence and education research] has all come from the European Union” — Prof Rose Luckin, UCL Institute of Education
  • “The effects on the life sciences sector are likely to be substantial. This is because the UK would no longer keep access to many of the benefits of the EU system, such as the centralised procedure for marketing authorisations, the EU portal for clinical trials and the Pharmacovigilance database” — Toby Sears and Sally Shorthose, Bird & Bird Commercial Law
  • “Those copyright rules have a huge impact on our business, and there is a very strong feeling among our members that the UK needs to be at the table to make sure that those rules are working in the interests of UK companies” — Geoff Taylor, chief executive, BPI
  • “Adopting an isolationist position is a huge mistake” — Colin Lester, CEO, JEM Artists management company
  • “The biggest impact would be not being able to influence EU regulation, particularly around intellectual property and the Digital Single Market” — Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general, CBI
  • “A victory for Brexit would be economically, politically, socially and culturally disastrous — for all of us” — Martin Mills, founder, Beggars Group, and David Joseph, CEO, Universal Music UK
  • “This decision has blown up our foundation. As of today, we no longer know how our relationships with co-producers, financiers and distributors will work, whether new taxes will be dropped on our activities in the rest of Europe, or how production financing is going to be raised” — Michael Ryan, chairman, Independent Film and Television Alliance
  • “Leaving the EU would be an utter disaster for the creative industries” — Ed Vaizey, culture minister
  • “It is important that if we want the best league in the world, then we remain in the EU” — Jonathan Barnett, football agent

So where does this leave us?

Oo, looky there. That’s right. Literally every single one of the things that make modern Britain great depend partly — in some cases entirely — on our membership of the European Union; on close cooperation with partners, on minimal barriers to movement and trade, on the free and frictionless exchange of ideas, on attracting the cream of talent from 27 like-minded nations, on a reputation for tolerance, openness and fairness.

You can’t turn back time

What the most ardent Brexiters fail to realise is that times have changed. Yeah, sure, Britain was once great, ruling the waves, duffing up Frogs and Krauts and all that. But then the empire collapsed, and other world economies, following our example and borrowing our technologies, started catching up. By the early 1970s, we were starting to struggle.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store