David Cameron’s Conservative party conference speech last week was in many ways a great success. Passionate and compelling, he gave easily the best performance of the party leaders so far. But for all the strong messages on the economy and popular tax giveaways, the government’s continued and deepening anti-immigration rhetoric, now directed squarely at Europe, concerns me deeply. I believe it is a serious threat to all of London’s talent-based industries.
Cameron’s is an emotional argument, not a rational one, and is all the more dangerous for it. In attempting to see off the threat from Ukip, the Conservatives risk blurring the distinction between bad immigration and good – that which threatens national security and can sap resources, and that which is essential to our ability to compete globally and prosper.
Anyone working at a multinational business appreciates the advantages that free movement of labour affords. The UK creative industries (including film, television, music, advertising and more), now account for more than £71bn of our annual economic output, and are no exception to this. These businesses are huge net exporters, and attract substantial inward investment.
In 2012, the creative industries grew more than any other major UK industry in financial and employment terms. They are recognised as a powerhouse of the UK economy. Any policy that hurts them hurts us all.
London is the creative gateway to Europe. We compete globally for business, producing global solutions for global brands, and we need to be able to attract and retain a workforce that can deliver these solutions.
Creativity is about the collision of cultures. Influences from outside the UK make us stronger. As the chief executive of one of WPP’s largest agencies, I rely hugely on international talent to succeed. In fact, I believe my principle task is talent acquisition. To be able to compete with the best global businesses, I must employ the best global talent – much of which will come from the UK, but much of which will not.
We become the best by getting more than our fair share of the best people from a finite global talent pool. And what applies to Grey London applies to the entire industry, and the nation as a whole. To remain the global centre of excellence for creativity, we should be asking how the UK can facilitate access to the world’s best talent and become the destination of choice, instead of putting up legislative and cultural barriers to immigration.
If we block the acquisition of the best international talent, our loss will be another company or nation’s gain. We will lose our edge, and an industry that was once a powerhouse for the UK economy will falter.
The government stated in January that it is “committed to ensuring that the energy, innovation, skills and talent existing in this dynamic sector continues to translate into economic success, and provide a remarkable platform from which we can showcase Britain to the world.” Judging by Cameron’s speech, he may end up doing the opposite.
Being pro-British is one thing. Being anti-foreigners is quite another. Immigration is not a simple issue, but we need to ensure the debate stays the correct side of nationalist chest-beating, and considers the hard facts and benefits to us all.
Chris Hirst is chief executive of Grey London, a WPP creative agency.
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