It is a commonplace that the British elite, at least in its public utterances, suffers from serious delusions of grandeur. The problem has recently got worse with talk of return of the Navy not just to East of Suez but to a new China Station. Britain, we are told, will become not merely a local, but a global champion of free trade.   These fantasies are easily recognised, but some are a little trickier to spot because they are indulged in not just by Brexiteers.  What I have in mind is the claim that the UK has a unique strength in science and technology, or innovation, or creativity, which can be exploited to transform the nation’s economic prospects. This is hardly a new story, but it has now reached rather grotesque proportions as the last refuge of Brexiteer’s dreams. This will perhaps help expose the belief for the myth it is.

In her Mansion House speech the Prime Minister called Britain ‘A nation of pioneers, innovators, explorers and creators …’ and saw ‘ A United Kingdom which is a cradle for innovation; a leader in the industries of the future’ (2nd March 2018). In a more recent speech (21st May 2018), speaking under a gigantic British radio telescope built in the 1950s, she claimed that Britain would ‘lead the world in the Fourth industrial revolution’. She repeated the ambition of the government to raise the R&D/GDP ratio to 2.4% by 2027, claiming this would be ‘more than ever before’.  In fact, it was higher than this in the late 1950s when the telescope was built, and would peak at 3.0% in the early 1960s.   The ratio is now under 2%, well, below the real leaders, who are needless to say already well ahead of the government’s target of 2.4%. 

Nevertheless the Minister in charge, Sam Gyimah,  says Britain must return to its roots as a ‘science and technology superpower’ calling for it to rediscover its ‘spark of genius’.  With a little more modesty he claims that the UK needs to follow the US in becoming a global hub of high-tech, research-led businesses.   Boris Johnson claims, ‘we have an amazing economy’ –and cited AI, stem cells and more. ‘The UK is once again taking the lead and shaping the modern world’ he boasted (14th February 2018).    How does this fit into Brexit? Well David Davies tells us that ‘at a time when the commission themselves say that the vast majority of future global growth will come from outside Europe, it makes sense for Britain to place itself at the cutting edge of new technologies and the regulatory regimes they will require.’ (Daily Telegraph 2nd January 2018).  Fantasizing is not just the province of Brexiteers.   UKRI, the new body in charge of most public-sector research said in its recent launch mission that ‘The Government has set an ambition for the UK to become the most innovative country in the world’. It is possible that this technical agency is drawing attention to ridiculous nature of the claim.   Let us hope so.

The evidence for UK strength is remarkable weak, even in the favoured measure of (academic, largely) citations. The usual one is that the UK has a larger share of world citations than of population – well, so does every rich country.  At the level of R&D spend the UK position is as we have noted very poor. And the record of outputs, especially in the creation of new businesses, is not something discussed beyond tedious and misleading references to ARM or to unicorns which have not yet produced. 

There is also a tendency to create inflated statistics.  The ‘UK space industry’,  it is claimed,  employs around 40,000 people.  But nearly 90% of this ‘space industry’ is in fact satellite broadcasting (a mostly earthbound activity), communication, and positioning services.  The space industry as defined is a user, not a creator, mostly in fact of the technology derived elsewhere. This is the kind of argument which attributes all the output of agriculture to tractors, or the output of education to computers.

The brutal simple reality is that the UK economy has stagnant and low productivity, not surely what one would expect from the most innovative nation in the world.

As has been the case before in British history innovation policy, and talk of innovation, has been a substitute for policies which might actually change anything.  Did the recent coalition government really believe that £50m invested in Graphene would transform the North West, the UK, the world, as was claimed?   If so it should have invested the £50bn planned to go into HS2.  

The British state has form in this area. Since the 1980s innovation policy, or science policy has been a substitute for industrial policy.   Before the 1940s too it was common to give a cheap bung to innovation as an alternative to policies which would actually change things.  Before 1914 David Lloyd George stimulated agricultural research to head off demands for protection. In the 1920s the Empire Marketing Board spent small sums on research to avoid serious protection and imperial preference.  

There was however an exceptional period when relative innovation was high and was connected to industrial strategy – the 1940s, 50s, 60s and even the early 1970s were a period when national innovation and national industry mattered.   Back then politics walked the walk.