What UK plc can learn from Team GB

If only we managed our economy as well as we do our Olympic athletes, says Matthew Lynn.

It isn’t really a claim you can make of the economy. Or of our diplomacy. Or, indeed, with the possible exception of music or education, of many fields of endeavour. Yet, at the Olympics, the UK punches well above its weight. For the third Games in a row, the UK is the most successful of the mid-sized nations, and far more successful than some significantly bigger ones such as Germany or Russia. Lessons can never be directly drawn from the tracks and fields, of course, but there is a lot we could learn from that when it comes to managing the economy as well.

1. Plan for the long term

Britain did very badly at the 1996 Games, winning just one gold medal and ranking 36th in the world. The big changes started to come when John Major’s government first launched the National Lottery and then decided to commit a significant proportion of the revenue it generated to funding Team GB. Before the Atlanta games in 1996, the UK only spent £6m a year on funding Olympic sports. It was amateur in every sense of the word. By 2000 that had gone up to £54m a year. In the build-up to Tokyo 2021, the UK spent £345m. It is a heck of a lot of money, but it does mean the British athletes have some of the best training and facilities in the world. 

It takes years to get to gold-medal standard, and that doesn’t come cheap. The important point is this, however. It has taken 30 years for all that investment in Olympic sport to pay off, but the money has kept on flowing and the plan has been stuck to. Even when we have an industrial or economic strategy, it usually changes every few years, and sometimes every few months. If we stuck at some simple goals for 30 years, we would do much better. 

2. Invest selectively

The Olympic team picks out the potential medal winners early on and then backs them to the hilt. Despite some lip service to the cause, it is not really interested in raising general fitness levels or getting everyone to take up some sport. It focuses its attention ruthlessly on a handful of world-beaters. 

We could try the same with the economy. Nearly all the growth, it turns out, is not generated by lots and lots of start-ups. A new dry-cleaning firm, or another gastro-pub, doesn’t make much difference one way or the other. It is the handful of companies that can combine technology, management skill and market position to create a multi-billion enterprise that make a real difference. The government should probably spend less time worrying about small businesses in general. Most of them won’t really go anywhere and can look after themselves. It is the tiny number of real stars that need to be nurtured – we can forget about the rest. 

3. Make the rules work for you

Perhaps, if you look closely, you’ll see that not everyone in the British Olympic team is really an “amateur”. And just possibly, we spend far, far more than similar countries. But, heck, so what? It is the results that count. In areas such as state aid, or competition policy, or regulation, the UK often sticks very rigidly to the global rules, regardless of whether it helps our companies or not. We should be more flexible – beating the competition is often more important than worrying too much about what the letter of the law might say. The UK doesn’t punch above its weight in the global economy, and hasn’t done for 150 years. But the potential is there. Future medals are ours for the taking.

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