In the Daily Telegraph today, Boris Johnson explains that Ed Miliband will never understand that the risk-taking, profit-seeking investors that Labour scorns are vital to turning scientific breakthroughs into technology that benefits us all.Boris begins: “I don’t think we can entirely hold it against Ed Balls and Ed Miliband that they have no experience whatever of the private sector.
They have never been responsible for the profits of a real live business. Neither of them has sat miserably as the finance director demands that nice old so-and-so be sacked in order to save costs.
They haven’t had to worry about weekly sales figures. They don’t know the desperate feeling that you have to innovate, the whole time, in order to fend off your rivals.
This pair’s lives have been funded and formed by taxpayers’ money. They have been cushioned and bowered exclusively by the state – but then they are hardly alone in that respect; and that is not why this nation’s businessmen are starting to view them with despair.
The reason even Lord Haskins is beginning to turn against them is everything they say or do seems redolent of a distaste for wealth creation, a suspicion of enterprise, and an absolute hatred of the profit motive.
It isn’t just the new taxes they want to impose on property, or the financial transaction tax, or the hikes in income tax. It’s the underlying mindset – the intellectual failure to grasp that the profit motive can be good; that it can be necessary; that capitalism is not just compatible with satisfying the wants of the poorest and neediest in our country – but essential if we are to meet the biggest challenges facing the human race. In fact, there are some sectors of the UK economy where we need to be more ambitious, more tycoon-like, more ready to build vast commercial empires: in short, to be more American in our outlook.
This week I am in Boston, home of the world’s biggest and most successful cluster of life sciences companies. The mission, as ever, is to tell the world what we are doing in London – and why our country is now the place to come and invest: the place to find the talent you need, the place to launch a start-up; the ideal partner in any international venture. We have a growing MedCity – an amazing constellation of scientific and healthcare institutions, which stretches along the Euston Road from King’s Cross in the east to Imperial College in the west.
This year we will see the opening of the Francis Crick institute, a vast structure that will house 1,500 scientists devoted to revealing the innermost secrets of human life: what really happens in our cells, and how they can be protected from disease. To assist them in their research, London boasts one of the largest and most trusted sets of medical data in the world – the anonymised records of the eight million people who use the NHS in the city. MedCity is a bustling cyclotron of talent – to borrow a metaphor from another scientific discipline – with people and ideas pinging off each other at an ever greater rate; and it is not surprising that there are the regular flashes of inspiration that produce the breakthroughs.
British scientists have led the way in the past 25 years in finding all sorts of therapies for cancer. It was a British scientist, for instance, who pioneered the use of monoclonal antibodies. Now the Brits are again in the lead, with an even more promising system for tackling the killer that has its invisible bullets streaking towards half the population. They are using T-cells – the antibody cells so called because they form in the thymus – to attack and destroy the cancerous cells. How? By highlighting them, as it were, with a fluorescent pen.
One of the reasons cancer is so nasty is that the cancerous cells have a stealth quality that somehow enables them to evade detection by the body’s natural immune system. The latest breakthroughs involve figuratively putting a beacon on those cells, and so allowing them to be zapped by the T-cells. You only have to think about this for a second to see its enormous potential for alleviating suffering.
We have grown used to cancer treatments that involve surgery, or chemotherapy – cutting or poisoning us in order to kill the mutants. Now we seem to be on the verge of enlisting our own legions of antibodies in the struggle. It is a heart-lifting prospect – and yet there is a curious feature of all these British advances: that as soon as they happen, their commercial potential is instantly snapped up by someone else, and that someone is usually American. As soon as the seedlings of an idea have taken firm root, as soon as they begin to bud or flower in Britain, it is as if a gigantic combine harvester has arrived to deracinate them and transplant them elsewhere. The result is that for all our ideas, we do not produce the same scale of businesses – and that means we are not producing the jobs and growth commensurate with our innovative genius.
All sorts of reasons are given for this, not least the historic failure of British science to think with the same sort of commercial energy as our transatlantic friends; and if that is so – and my friends in MedCity say it is – then the last thing we want is a political environment that is sneery and deprecating about the very idea of wealth creation.
It is a measure of our cultural triviality that we obsess about whether the Harrovian or the Etonian will win the Oscar or the Bafta, when the important point is that they are portraying two British scientists who changed the way we understand the world; and in the case of Alan Turing, paved the way for the very computer on which I am writing this article – but which is made by an American company whose collective sales have created the biggest cash mountain the world has ever seen.
You need capitalism to make these things. You need venture capital to cure cancer; you need people who are willing to wager huge stakes on the success of these therapies. And I am afraid those investors will always be fired not just by a desire to better the world, but by a good old-fashioned profit motive – and the last thing we need is a Labour government that fundamentally hates the idea of profit.