Boris Johnson may have failed to impress the denizens of the Confederation of British Industry with a disjointed keynote speech that digressed into the joys of Peppa Pig, but his critics are missing the point.
The Prime Minister might not have been his usual articulate self yesterday but he was on to something of great importance for the UK’s future wealth.
Britain’s creative industries are some of the unsung glories of the economy. Unlike sales of manufactured goods – and such businesses are heavily represented by the CBI – they largely fall outside of most trade deals.
But freed from the narrow focus of physical trade with the European Union, the UK now has a real opportunity to take the creative and imaginative sector – covering every aspect of entertainment and design, advertising, marketing, IT, publishing etc – to the next level.
And by citing Peppa Pig, the PM was tapping into one of the UK’s greatest export success stories.
Boris Johnson failed to impress the Confederation of British Industry with his keynote speech
The Prime Minister visiting Peppa Pig World with son Wilfred the day before his speech to the CBI
The anthropomorphic pig made her debut in a British cartoon series back in 2004. Peppa and her family and friends were a rapid hit with pre-school audiences and continue to delight youngsters (my grandchildren included) in more than 180 countries today.
There are theme parks – a weekend visit inspired the PM apparently – cinema ‘experiences’, video games and every conceivable type of merchandise.
In invoking Peppa as a great British export, Boris Johnson was seeking to reinvigorate his reputation as a supporter of private enterprise.
He was clearly unimpressed with the assertion by CBI boss Tony Danker, in an interview in the Daily Mail yesterday, that Britain had been through five decades ‘where the free market had failed’.
In contrast, Mr Johnson sees Peppa Pig as a symbol of the energy and originality of the private sector.
What Mr Danker fails to recognise is that as older industries such as steel-making and shipbuilding have declined, the UK has become a world-beating provider of services, technology and science In Peppa Pig, we see superior animation and video editing – and a dazzling display of technological skills symbolic of our future in an increasingly digital world.
‘Mr Johnson sees Peppa Pig as a symbol of the energy and originality of the private sector’
These parallel the excellence of our life sciences – not least the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – and of course the explosion here of fintech (financial technology).
Companies such as Worldpay, a spin-out from the Royal Bank of Scotland, have transformed the global payments system.
Similarly, British architecture leads the world, from Norman Foster’s Bundestag dome in Berlin to David Adjaye’s Museum of African History in Washington DC.
If there is a downside to the Peppa Pig story, it is that the ownership and control of the brand have been allowed to fall into the hands of overseas buyers.
Entrainment One, the company that owned Peppa Pig, was sold off to US toy giant Hasbro for £3.3billion in 2019.
Peppa Pig World in Hampshire suffered the same fate when the UK theme park behemoth, Merlin Entertainments, owner of Madame Tussauds in London, was sold to a private equity consortium (which included a Canadian pensions investment company and the family behind the Danish brand Lego) for £5.6billion.
That, however, is no reason to despair. We have a vast British creative sector that makes up almost 10 per cent of the economy when all components are taken into account – almost the same size as the City of London’s world-beating financial services industry.
Creative Britain’s expertise ranges from the James Bond film franchise to the vocal and songwriting genius of Adele and Ed Sheeran, to computer gaming and JK Rowling. Indeed, the Harry Potter author is an export industry all of her own.
As for UK broadcasting skills, these have converted Premier League football, F1 motor racing and international rugby into lucrative commercial assets fought over by traditional broadcasters such as America’s NBC, and newcomer Amazon Prime.
And animation – let’s not forget the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit – represents a vital slice of UK broadcast and film.
Sky Studios at Elstree has become the great centre for technology innovation and production for American cable giant Comcast.
It is ploughing £3billion into turning the studios into Europe’s mini-Hollywood, deploying cutting-edge tech and creating 2,000 jobs.
Much of the output will be edited and turned into TV series and films in the post-production studios dotted around London’s Soho and in Media City in Manchester.
As for video gaming, at a time when much of the UK economy struggled during Covid, our gaming industry had a record year, accumulating a remarkable £7billion in sales.
There is no question that Britain’s creative industries are rooted firmly in the private sector. That is why the Government’s £1.57billion Culture Recovery Fund was a lifeline during the pandemic.
But as we emerge from the worst of the crisis, recovery for the creative sector, like the rest of the economy, must be firmly rooted in private enterprise.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak must continue to resist calls from Labour for taxes on entrepreneurship and capital. Higher taxes on enterprise will only drive potential investors in creative Britain elsewhere.
His critics may continue to mock, but to the CBI yesterday Boris Johnson was delivering a timely reminder that our future prosperity depends on entrepreneurship, vision, imagination and innovation.