THE BLOG

Creative Conferences?

30/09/2013 10:15 BST | Updated 27/11/2013 10:12 GMT

It's the season of party conferences here the UK.

In the wake of Lehman, and almost by default, politicians of all colours like to call for a rebalancing of the UK economy towards manufacturing. Making things seems, prima facie, a common sense way to help revive the nation. But what if how we think of our history is wrong? What if Britain never had an industrial revolution? What if making things isn't, in fact, what we are best at?

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented the first commercially successful steam engine. Yet when people talk about this period they emphasise the making of the machine and not its invention. Not everyone has forgotten how important creativity was. As Jeremy Black, a professor of history at Exeter University, points out the climate was, "characterised by the free expression of new ideas".

Scientific discoveries such as Newton's breakthrough with gravity, the invention of the spinning jenny, the multiple triumphs of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and a burst of political ideas around freedom of expression, the rule of law and individualism allowed for a creative bubble to harness innovation after innovation. Everything was done differently - from glass making to agriculture. This was not an industrial revolution. This was a creative revolution.

This creative streak has a long tradition in Britain. From the political utterances of 'Freeborn John' (John Lilburne), the work of John Stuart Mill, the life of Quentin Crisp, through to the explosion of punk and the art of Tracey Emin. It flourishes not simply because Britain has had a tolerant culture but because our country celebrates difference, eclecticism and intellectual curiosity. It contrasts sharply with the dirigiste sentiment of continental Europe.

But creativity didn't become the dominant narrative. It was mass manufacturing and the creation of industrial jobs that became part of this island story. Mass manufacturing has also had a series of knock-on effects: it required a standard of education for the workforce, defined places and ways of living and began to foster a centralising mentality. This command and control outlook took hold during the Second World War and embedded itself in Britain with the establishment of the welfare state.

The reality is that we cannot manufacture our way back to more jobs. We are not going to be able to compete with China and we shouldn't try.

The Advertising Association recently reported that the creative industry is worth £100billion to the UK economy annually. A second creative revolution is what Britain needs. It would create more jobs, more wealth and more tax receipts for the Exchequer.

This is not a call for politicians to get stuck in and help creativity. Subsidies, grants and tinkering would stifle innovation before it began. Punk, Brit Art and the rest were bottom-up not top-down. That doesn't mean politicians don't have a role to play.

They can use their access to the media to talk about creativity: explaining its importance and encouraging it. If obstacles to creativity exist in in regulation and the tax system they should swiftly remove them.

They should look at how we educate young people. Does our system harness creativity or stifle it? A renaissance of the creative revolution will not happen if our schools are producing clones for the conveyor belt.

Finally, and most importantly, they should stop trying to hoodwink the public into thinking that a few more low-paid factory jobs will fix everything.

They won't. But just maybe, a careful, unobtrusive nurturing the fragile flower of creativity, could.