No wonder there is no British Apple

Allister Heath
WHY isn’t there a British Apple? The sight of Steve Jobs standing up again on stage last night to unveil yet another blockbuster – this time, the iPad – is a stark reminder of how bad we have become at creating world-beating corporate giants. We’re still able to create a steady stream of small, successful players in a wide range of fields, including finance, business services and pharma. Some – such as Autonomy in technology, Serco in support services or Brevan Howard in fund management – go on to become world-beaters. Most, however, do not and end up being gobbled up by others or falling by the wayside.

So how do the Americans do it? There are many reasons: the can-do culture, lower tax rates, more limited bureaucracy. Entrepreneurs in the UK tend to sell businesses when they are still quite small; Americans would rather build them into giants. This is helped by a more efficient system of venture capital. But there is another reason why the US remains so good at creating knowledge based-giants: better universities, an ability to attract experts and a welcoming attitude to foreign PhDs. The UK still has many centres of academic excellence – Oxbridge, Imperial College, the London School of Economics and the London Business School, among others – but all find it hard to rival the likes of Harvard.

Figures from the US Energy Department’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education reveal that 60 per cent of foreign students who came to the US to study and earned PhDs in science and engineering still live in the US today. In 2007, foreign citizens accounted for 46 per cent of total PhDs in those areas, up from 30 per cent in 1997. Of 2002 graduates, 92 per cent of Chinese, 81 per cent of Indian and 52 per cent of Germans remain in the US today, given America a huge boost. Britain, meanwhile, cannot even retain its home grown scientific or medical PhDs, let alone attract so many foreign ones. Still wonder why there is no British Apple?

There are far too many international meetings where the great and the good get together to wine and dine at shareholders’ or taxpayers’ expense, and pontificate endlessly about the problems of the world without actually resolving anything.

It is not just the endless verbiage from the World Economic Forum in Davos that grates so badly – most other international meetings, not least those held under the aegis of the G20, are just as useless. Contrary to what one reads in other newspapers, the G20 never actually decides anything – it merely signs up to a communiquО, a piece of paper listing a series of vague and often self-contradictory intentions. Nothing ever really happens after that – after all, one would need all 20 national parliaments to pass a law for anything to change. A G20 meeting is powerless; its determinations are not legally binding treaties; yet they are reported as if they were. Remember all those trillions for the IMF and developing countries that keep getting agreed at international meeting? Or all the supposed consensus about economic and banking reform? It was all a mirage.

There is only thing about Davos that I do like: unlike other gatherings, it doesn’t pretend to have a real purpose other than networking. In an age when insincerity is rife and emotions and words matter more than actions, such honesty is surprisingly refreshing.