Readers in all sorts of places — at the club bar, over a birthday lunch, even along the church pew — had been telling me I was wrong not to subscribe to the ‘save AstraZeneca’ campaign, and too complacent about the future of British science when I wrote: ‘the game is Pfizer’s for the taking, as soon as the price is right’. Now Pfizer has retreated, it looks like the battle has been won by the bandwagon I missed, whose crew included Ed Miliband, the Unite union, and former AZ chief Sir Tom McKillop — better remembered as the chairman of RBS who presided over its catastrophic merger with ABN-Amro, so at least speaking from rueful experience.
But the reality is that the game was not taken because the price was wrong. When Pfizer finally upped its offer to £55 per share, AZ’s board did not respond that in the cause of ‘British science’ they would have no truck with Yankee asset-strippers at any price. On the contrary, they helpfully indicated that their door would open at £58.50 — £20 more per share than the stock market thought AZ was worth before the first approach, and evidently more than Pfizer’s analysts believed could be recouped through economies of scale and tax savings. With Senator Carl Levin and other Democrats in Washington threatening to stop US companies reducing their tax bills by using acquisitions to shift their domicile abroad — potentially scuppering Pfizer’s core rationale for chasing AZ — momentum was lost. Some AZ shareholders clearly hoped the deal wasn’t dead, but short-selling of AZ shares by hedge funds in anticipation of a fall back to the pre-bid price seemed to confirm that it was.
So where does that leave British science? The Zeneca (formerly ICI) side of AZ does indeed have a relatively good name for nurturing laboratory work, certainly better than Pfizer’s reputation in this country, but its British presence is already much smaller than it used to be, and not much of AZ’s ‘pipeline’ of new drugs turns out to be British in origin. The point with which I began three weeks ago holds strong: that the thrust of the pharmaceutical industry, under pressure of squeezed global revenues, is towards cross-border mergers that combine research, market access and capital strength. Both Pfizer and AZ will go on hunting for partners — and when the time is ripe and the shareholders are restless, they might even talk to each other again.
Meanwhile of course we should protect and support British scientists. But the way to do that is not to take a Canute-like stand against the globalised tide of big pharma. It is to do everything possible — through tax breaks for start-ups and research, focused higher-education spending and recognition for achievers — to favour home-grown little pharma, meaning the hundreds of bioscience ventures spun out of universities and teaching hospitals that are potential gems of the recovering British economy. That’s a bandwagon I’m happy to join.
Save the high street
There is an unresolved national debate about the role of the high street, the future of retail, and the survival of civic amenities in an era of shrinking council budgets. A provocative contribution was a recent piece in the Observer by Emma Duncan, who argued that ‘bumping into each other in the greengrocer’s’ is no longer a vital form of human interaction and ‘community is not being destroyed’ by the desolation of town centres — in which redundant retail space can usefully be turned into low-cost homes, while shopping and social connection migrate to the internet.
I took the opportunity to contemplate those ideas on a tour of middle England last week. In Leicester, the vast Highcross shopping mall lurked like a spaceship behind Victorian and 18th-century streets struggling to find new life. In Birmingham, the penthouse rotunda of the new £189 million central library offered a view of a city that has taken strides to reinvent itself; likewise Manchester in the early evening was abuzz. But on a smaller scale and closer to home, the Yorkshire town of Malton was tearing itself apart over an edge-of-town superstore approved by the district council but fiercely opposed by traders and residents. And here in Helmsley, we were discussing — indeed some of us were chatting about it in the greengrocer’s — how to sustain our small but cherished library against the next round of county council cuts.
My conclusions are very different from Emma Duncan’s. Far too much has already been lost by the erosion of traditional town centres. The power of big retail and the impotence of hard-up councils is a killer combination. But in the aftermath of recession, out-of-town shopping is also out of fashion and tough for developers to fund, and its prospects are more damaged by the online revolution than those of surviving smaller retailers. The ‘town centre first’ bias which is supposed to hold sway in the planning system has a better chance of prevailing now than it did a decade ago, when big retail was king. And the best examples of regeneration through civic and commercial partnership light a path for others to follow. For 2015’s manifesto drafters, saving the high street could be a vote winner — and it should begin, as I have argued before, with a radical reform of business rates.
Own the company
My proposal in the Daily Telegraph on Monday that the Sunday Times Rich List should be a set text for sixth-formers — to encourage positive attitudes towards entrepreneurship and discourage whingeing about the life-chances left for them by their profligate parents — provoked a tirade of unhinged postings from readers who seem to regard all wealth as theft. I’m reminded of Marva Collins, a black educationist I met in Chicago, who taught poor primary-school children how the stock market works: ‘If they argue over who has the best trainers, I tell them: “Don’t fight over the trainers. Own the company that makes the trainers.’