Listless Britain

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on our obsession with making lists.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Culture

We may no longer be the manufacturing workshop of the world, but the British are world champions at making lists. Productivity in the list-making sector is booming and the market is flooded with lists and league tables of everything from best Britons to favourite books, from schools with the highest pass rates to hospitals with the highest death rates, from top footballers to sauciest celebrity bottoms.

The trouble is that, as every housewife and office worker knows, making lists can be an excuse for doing nothing much. Our obsession with lists looks like a tick-box sign of a society more concerned with weighing the pig than with feeding it. Ours is a culture that seems more comfortable listing the great Britons of yesteryear than trying to forge some today. A culture that appears fonder of listing its favourite books – with a preference for escapist children’s stories – than creating grown-up literature or art.

The latest list to make news is The Sunday Times’s Pay List 2003, a table of Britain’s top 500 earners. It provides a thumbnail sketch of our state of national lethargy, suggesting that people are most likely to hit it rich in ‘softer’ economic sectors such as shopping, entertainment and financial services. There are few signs here of people making fresh fortunes in the dynamic industries. Typically, the highest-placed British ‘manufacturers’ include the men making millions by manufacturing singers through their TV show, Pop Idol.

Top of the Pay List is Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire estimated to have made Pounds 564 million in the past year, who has spent some of it on buying Chelsea Football Club and apparently moving to Britain. As a foreigner who bought up a prominent UK business, Abramovich is a fitting symbol of ‘British’ enterprise. Overseas investors own a bigger proportion of the UK than of any other major economy. We are more dependent on the influx of money made in productive economies elsewhere than on indigenous wealth creation. Several of the list’s top-earning British businessmen turn out to have made their ‘annual income’ by selling out their businesses.

Retailing – a new sub-category covering ‘everything from supermarkets to sofas, cars to birthday cards’ – accounts for four of the top ten earners, and 45 of the 500 listed. Britain may not quite be a nation of shopkeepers, but the national sport of shopping is keeping leading players in the economy afloat. Our status as a nation of consumers rather than producers helps to explain why there is such concern at the prospect of rising interest rates and personal debt problems.

Other big-earning Brits include JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books (fifth, Pounds 125 million), wrinkly rockers such as Sir Paul McCartney (12th, Pounds 40 million), and 56 who made their money from football (an even larger squad of millionaires than Chelsea’s). All very industrious, no doubt. But Rowling and David Beckham (34th, Pounds 20.5 million) are hardly Rhodes and Brunel. This anaemic-looking list of top earners might not seem to square with the notion that Britain is the strongest-growing of the developed economies. But the fact is that Britain draws much of its strength from activities that are parasitical on wealth created elsewhere. The City remains the big earner, raking in billions through servicing other people’s deals and investments. Thus the rapid economic growth in China provides opportunities, not for British industrialists to invest, but for City accountants and lawyers to act as consultants – effectively making lists of what others should do.

The big increases in this year’s Pay List confirm that there is no shortage of money around. But where it is going is equally revealing. Seemingly unwilling to risk long-term productive investments, the financiers instead seek out sectors where they might make most money fast. As the economist Phil Mullan puts it, they are ‘always on the lookout for the next financial bubble, flitting from East Asia or the internet to football or property’.

The Pay List reads like a poor advert for a society that appears somewhat short on creativity and aspiration, but rich in cash, celebrities – and lists.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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