What is the economic culture that drives the UK economy?
Very often we view the essence of culture as that which pervades within our organisation, that which we spend vast sums of time and money on creating in our own image, for whole swathes of people to follow in the express hope of achieving our ultimate ambitions and objections.
That in itself is a valuable and worthy endeavour and certainly one that any nation or organisation should and would wish to pursue.
Culture can also be described as a system that exists within global and local communities as a way of life for that entire society, perhaps its very identity. This concept of culture is very difficult to buy or sell, control or label by outsider influences. It is perhaps the strongest aspect of a society that binds it together.
Much of what we wish to achieve would normally be set out by our vision, a simple statement of our intent, but it is difficult to find what our current vision for the UK’s economy actually says or looks like.
It seems to have been replaced with experimentation and soundbites, rather than a cohesive strategy delivery plan. The last attempt, the UK Industrial Strategy, seems to have been resigned to history and a replacement has yet to be put forward by any business or political group that as a nation we can coalesce around.
Instead, we are left with a system that at its best is fragmented, and at its worst, ineffective.
Levelling up and devolution in the UK is only allowed at the gift of the centre, control still being in its hands. Compare this with the differing federal models in Germany or the USA, where the rules of engagement are much clearer and not at the behest of the centre. The politics in such places recognise the differences that exist in society, in functioning economic areas, travel to work, history, art, religion, language, and they become an expression of that area’s identity and are worked with and within. It is key to their success or failure.
Individual federations are free to express their individuality through their own legislation, as one size will never fit all. Interfere with this natural order and the job at hand will only become much more complex. Introduce democratic and organisational structures that forget where they are truly rooted and the opportunity could be lost.
Will we succeed in becoming the fastest growing G7 economy as some have promised? Will there be a vision for a future UK that sets out our strengths and areas for improvement, will we tackle some of the longer term issues such as skills and education that hold so many back, and will shiny new buildings really help them where it is needed most?
Culture is not just about libraries and theatres, it is about who we really are. It takes generations to develop, and is extremely difficult to ignore wherever you are, and that is never more so when it comes to our economic success. Very often, the art of giving hope and aspiration can have a fundamental impact on the collective views of a society and our health and well-being.
At a minimum, it must be worth this effort to create such a compelling vision, or the opportunities that lie before us will be lost for another generation.
Lawrence Conway is a Director of the Institute of Economic Development. He was Chief Executive of South Lakeland District Council from October 2010 until March 2023, and is now working as an independent consultant.