The economics and culture of Murray’s Wimbledon triumph

Allister Heath

HE DID it, he did it – and a euphoric nation roared with delight, celebrating a moment many of us feared would never happen and a new, 26-year old national hero. A Brit is Wimbledon champion, and this is real life, not a Hollywood rom-com. Needless to say, Andy Murray’s triumph is about much more than just tennis: it is also an important moment culturally and psychologically for Britain.

Yet another lazy narrative of managed decline has been obliterated, and the modern British idea that we should valiantly support underdogs and expect them to lose has taken another, hopefully fatal, blow. It is great to win, in sport as in everything else, as the Olympics showed; and it’s great to back winners. We need to become more American in this respect, and Murray’s victory will help drag us down that road.

Until yesterday, it was often said that the City of London, the car industry and many other parts of the UK economy were based on the Wimbledon model: foreigners come here to conduct their business, and we provide supporting services – strawberries and cream with the tennis; accountancy, legal services and security guards for investment banks; land and workers for Indian, German, US and Japanese car giants; and Mayfair homes and high-end retail for the global establishment. Yet tennis was invented in Britain, London merchant banks such as SG Warburg, Schroders, Barings, Morgan Grenfell, Hill Samuel and Robert Fleming were once the Goldman Sachses of their day, and British car makers such as Morris, Rover, Austin and Triumph used to be household names worldwide.

The “Wimbledonisation” of the UK economy hasn’t ended with Murray’s triumph – though it is sometimes exaggerated, with Barclays in particular a real player in investment banking – but we are certainly going to have to find a new way of describing that phenomenon now that a homegrown men’s champion has taken the Wimbledon title for the first time in 77 years.

It must also be said that critics of the foreign ownership of UK companies are wrong: it makes a huge amount of sense for the UK to attract as much overseas capital as possible. If you live in this country, it is irrelevant to you whether you work for HSBC (which is British) or JP Morgan (which is American). A job is a job, and that is what counts (there are of course often cultural differences depending on ultimate ownership, but these also vary between industries and companies). We need free trade, the free movement of capital and zero protectionism. Ownership is not especially relevant, especially given that UK citizens can buy into foreign firms.

The critics are only right in one respect: if all the biggest firms in a country are foreign-owned, that usually suggests barriers to entrepreneurship, perhaps because of regulation, failing educational institutions, inadequate capital, incentive-distorting taxes or other problems. What the UK needs is for far more of its start-ups to become world-beaters: in other words, we need more business equivalents of Andy Murray. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be happy to host contests between foreigners.

Some argue that yesterday’s events at Wimbledon will be good for the United Kingdom because Murray is a Scot. The problem with this argument is that, if anything, while it might make the English slightly more pro-union (they have become far less so in recent years) it might also make the Scots slightly more supportive of independence, and it is they who are being asked to vote in next year’s referendum. The truth is that Murray’s astonishing three set spectacular is unlikely to make much of a difference in that debate, which is dominated by many far more significant factors. The Scots will probably vote to remain part of the UK, but that will have nothing to do with Wimbledon.
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