Britain hasn’t given up on innovation, like how immortalists haven’t given up on a cure for death
Let’s do the timewarp
We may measure politics in weeks, our finances in quarters and Archers storylines in years, but in this issue we gauge two sterling careers in decades. After 45 years as one of the country’s most eminent solicitors, Martyn Gowar has retired, and in his final column for us he reflects on what has changed since he qualified (in brief: almost everything).
The second career has so far run for 40 years but shows no sign of stopping. David McDonough, reputation manager and trusted adviser to heads of state, politicians and global business leaders, writes for us about his career, which started under the ambitious Basil Feldman, soared with the ambitious Tim Bell and continues to thrive at McDonough’s own practice — full of ambition, naturally.
This got us to thinking about whether Spear’s could have existed in the Seventies, when Martyn and David started their working lives. Aside from the small inconvenience that the magazine’s founder was still in short trousers, and its editor a decade away from birth, Britain would not have been a conducive country for a magazine devoted to fair dealing with the wealthy. For a start, there were far fewer wealthy people here. The last World Wealth Report counted 550,000 HNWs in Britain, and the Sunday Times Rich List says the wealthiest thousand — many of whom have migrated here since the Seventies — control £547,000,000,000. By contrast, in that troubled decade our aristocrats were fleeing to Jersey to avoid punitive tax rates.
Spear’s of the Seventies would not have talked about the pleasures of the country house, since you — along with a thousand others — would most likely have demolished yours before the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act, and we would not be reporting from off the inaccessible coast of Canada, the Outback of Australia or the middle of the Utah desert as we do in this issue. (Admittedly, you could have used Concorde, which we now can’t.)
The fundamentals, though, have been unchanging since Martyn and David started out. Money is always a promise and a threat. Trust is in short supply even as trustees hover. The context may have changed, true: Britain is more open to the world, society is more tolerant, noblesse oblige has transmuted into richesse oblige. But as Spear’s approaches its own decade in 2016, it’s comforting to know that good advice dispensed by great advisers never ages.
Ever heard of injectionless vaccination, crowdsourced air quality analysis and technology that turns wasted phone signals into power? You might not have, but these are the wonders lighting up British labs, fuelling investment and keeping the UK economy afloat — and one man stands behind all of them.
Josh Spero has lunch with him: sci-tech guru, former minister, motor-racing entrepreneur and ‘unusual revolutionary’ Lord Drayson. Josh tries to get under Lord Drayson’s skin to discover where an entrepreneur finds the wherewithal to start three successful businesses, meanwhile going into government and founding a green racing company.
Whatever Lord Drayson has, it’s something Britain needs more of. Scanning through the recent Thomson Reuters Top 100 Innovators list, which includes no British firms, you’d be forgiven for thinking the UK had given up on innovation altogether, and that the rich tradition of Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, James Dyson and Tim Berners-Lee was over.
The obstacle sits in several parts, Lord Drayson suggests, including our approach to education, industry-academia engagement and a certain bourgeois Britishness which goes under the intriguing title of the ‘country-house problem’. So how should Britain bring back its world-beating inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs?
We won’t, you’ll be relieved to hear, go into policy prescriptions — there are unread think-tank reports for that. But what we would argue is that you need an entrepreneur in every home, and one of the best ways of doing this, beyond equipping people with business skills and relevant knowledge, is by creating a culture where fear of failure does not dominate.
Those Silicon Valley tech billionaires don’t (generally) succeed with their first ventures — they may have a string of failures behind them. We need that same healthy attitude to new enterprises: a failure simply means you’ve learnt something for your next go.
Calling time on time
Life’s two inevitabilities, we are told, are death and taxes. Well, HNWs have gone quite some way towards eradicating the latter, but what about the former? As we learn in Rasika Sittamparam’s article, the death of death is no longer a pipe dream but rather now a scientific project actively worked on.
But what would an HNW do with eternal life? First, as Rasika’s article suggests, you could make a lot of cash: investing in successful anti-ageing technologies would be a huge money-spinner. (Although, we must add, the gap between animal experimentation and human genome-tweaking is a chasm, let alone commercialising it.)
If you could tear yourself away from growing and protecting your fortune, you could see the wildest reaches of the world, learn every language, enjoy each of Picasso’s works (there are 50,000, you know). There need never be another Liam Neeson revenge thriller (also numbering about 50,000) which goes unseen.
Even with all these treasurable opportunities, though, unease creeps in. A millennium of private views? Centuries of your advisers cosying up? Quarterly statements to worry about whether your wealth will last you until AD35,000, when you decide eternity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
That’s before you even consider the effect on your family. Cruel as it may seem, there will be heirs lining up to push you out of the CEO’s seat (and off a cliff, probably), struggling to define their identities and make their own lives when an overpowering patriarch or matriarch won’t give up their sway.
No, much as we might want to prevent early death, unending life is not the answer. If we can put our energies (and funds) into increasing the quality of life, we might not care so much about the quantity of it.