Book Review: Made in Britain by Evan Davis

We’ve made references to the TV mini-series that shares this book’s author and title before, mainly to make flattering comparisons to The Apprentice. Having now read the book – an accompaniment, rather than a transcript – we can offer some business advice of our own. If we take on board Mr Davis’ argument that resources flow to where they can achieve the most, our recommendation would be that you work that extra hour, earn that extra 43p and buy 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism at Amazon instead. You can then watch Evan’s programmes on iPlayer for nothing – if you’re a UK tax-payer, you’ve already paid for them anyway. And we base our recommendation on Mr Davis’ own advice about openness to new thinking and new practices, and to investing in our own intellectual capital. Made in Britain is entertaining, as you would expect from a man who currently makes his living as a broadcaster, and uses plenty of accessible examples – but doesn’t quite satisfy on a number of levels.

The book sets out to look at the current condition of the British economy, identify strengths (which the author correctly argues are often under-sung) and weaknesses, and to posit possible futures. Writing from the perspective of ASK, it was encouraging to see two of our client organisations – Atkins and Mace – receive recognition for this success in the complexities of a globalised and internationalised world economy. There are many other positive examples in the book too but, although the naiveté of 1960s “I’m Backing Britain” campaign is rightly skewered early in proceedings, the counter-argument seems to boil down effectively to “things aren’t great, but they’re ok and it’ll all be fine in the end because economic theory says it will”. As a minority stakeholder in Davis plc, I finished the book longing for John Humphreys or James Naughtie to pipe up with a pointed question that starts with the word “But”. (And this morning’s GDP figures serve to underline that impression.)

As a survey of reasons to be more upbeat than we might be inclined to feel about the long-term, and a (very) basic primer in economic theory, it’s not a bad book at all, although perhaps not one that would add much beyond buoyant enthusiasm to what you might glean from reading the business pages and the stodgier bits of the Sundays. Difficulties with it probably only start to arise when and if you aspire to gain something more from investing the time to read it and expect its author to land a firm conclusion or two.

As is true of aspects of the economy, the books’ strengths – engaging if eccentric examples to illustrate aspects of economics in action, a desire to take a soft-focus long-term view – can also be its weaknesses. There are several occasions where there is palpable desire to avoid difficult questions, and to shy away from potential awkward issues:

Textbook economics usually delivers good news and this case is no exception. Do nothing, and the economy will ensure that everybody finds a valuable and productive job.

Alas, we don’t live in a textbook and so have to ask why real-world markets might fail, allowing some sectors to grow too big relative to others? How can some parts of the economy succeed in soaking up valuable resources, producing little of value from them and yet still stay in business? […] There are, of course, many answers.”

And there an important point starts to peter out, evade really getting answered and strive to keep the tone upbeat. Evan’s response to his own question about what happens when the Chinese pick up the skills we currently think we own suffers the same problem:

This does not worry me a great deal because I tend to assume that we will adapt as we always have done.”

This strikes me not so much as laissez-faire as an economist basically prostrating himself in the face of an inevitable happy outcome. It also left me thinking that BBC Economics Editor is nice work if you can get it (as the song once went), but that the Beeb only has so many vacancies for the role and the rest of us not only have fewer networking opportunities to help us but fewer shekels in the bank to tide us over while we do the whole inevitably-happy-adapting thing.

But this reflects another aspect of the book that left me struggling a little to embrace it. Rather like the authors of Nudge (reviewed here, and commented on more recently in the light of the Lords Science and Technology sub-committee report on Behaviour Change), there is tendency to see the world through the lens of only the economic discipline.

Timescales become neo-geological – an important element of the writing, but far better expressed by the author in an interview with DHL – but, more worrying, the population that economic trends press upon cease to become individuals with careers, aspirations and so on, and become either consumers or producers depending which lens of the economic binoculars they are being viewed through. The bits of us and our lives that are conscious economic decisions or decisions shaped by economic forces slide quietly out of the picture, and I’m left with a frequent use of the word ‘we’ that feels like it’s describing a fictional conglomerate of people I have no idea if I’m part of or not. It’s not as condescending as Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge (Davis is far too polite and charming, and possibly has more faith in ‘us’), but the chattiness of the prose doesn’t overcome the sense of distance or artifice that it evokes.

There is a nagging sense at several points in the book that Davis wants – or feels he ought – to acknowledge that there are other outlooks on the world, but lacks the courage or will to move forward and address them. In discussing the growing inequalities in countries, Britain included, that have been most successful in moving towards high-end output, he makes the important observation that:

Not only are companies in the sphere of intellectual property insecure, ever having to guard their intangible assets, but societies are affected too.”

No sooner is the point raised, however, than it is dropped. (In other cases, a very small bomb drops and the prose moves on as if nothing happened: several pages outlining the global success of Pilkington in developing and licensing float glass technology finish with an uncommented “Today, Pilkington is owned by NSG of Japan”.) We are softly assured that things will move on, the world will change, and we’ll just do something else instead. Much like Nick Hewer’s comments about the fictional man watching The Apprentice from his sofa in Rotherham, the optimism feels quite a bit like Pollyanna-ism allowed too much skipping rope to play with. “Hello birds, hello sky, hello endogenous growth”, as it were. (The Guardian’s Gavin James Bower was more bracing on this aspect of the book/series.)

The chatty approach – a boon in tv presenting, but not necessarily in a book – can misfire too. His somewhat convoluted example of value adding in the context of towel manufacture and retail seemed to argue that we’d all do ourselves a favour if we spent £25 on a towel in a chic boutique than £18 in the supermarket and that £7 surcharge is justified by the customer service experience makes some kind of economic sense, but – coming from a well-paid metrosexual media professional – is just far too easy to ridicule. It’s an argument that I think even the hardest of unreconstructed chaps might think twice about offering that bloke on the Rotherham settee, and that surely undermines the argument being made. (This potential to be seen as ‘lightweight’ was raised in a recent Observer Q&A interview.)

A similar reaction to the book cropped in comment after the author’s appearance at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol speaking in support of the book and it’s themes:

I couldn’t help feeling that Davis was somewhat shackled by his day job. Although he made a joke of it, stating that working for the BBC meant that he didn’t have an opinion, he seemed to veer towards a cautious fence sitting when tackling certain subjects. His comments on the IMF, and in particular the government’s latest climate commitments left me feeling that he was reluctant to voice overly controversial opinions. Despite being as engaging and entertaining as ever, Davis left me wondering what he REALLY thought.”

The Manufacture and Industry blog felt similarly amused, but only faintly so:

Made in Britain is enjoyably upbeat and serves as a sound introduction to how Britain makes money. However, if you are looking for in-depth analysis of the products we make and the people who make them you might want to look elsewhere.”

As I’m not a manufacturer, that’s not the depth I was hoping to find – I wanted something more concrete about this fictional ‘we’ can act to strengthen our future chances than polite reassurance that it will all somehow simply come out in the wash. What I felt like I got – given the frequent references to economic development in China and our need to stay one step ahead – was an ironic example of how the British have acquired a product delivery and design model from the Chinese, rather than vice versa: a dish that looks enticing, and is enjoyable enough to eat, but that it’s far too easy to forget having devoured shortly afterwards.

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