Rory Sutherland

How James Goldsmith’s wisdom on mistresses could revolutionise mobile phones

Like the spork and the sofa bed, the smartphone is still a bad compromise

How James Goldsmith's wisdom on mistresses could revolutionise mobile phones
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I wouldn’t worry much about the future of the British economy. Because I have a simple plan to make the UK the world’s leading exporter of mobile phones. They will be manufactured by a new consortium including Alfred Dunhill, Cordings and Bowers & Wilkins.

The idea came to me when I was watching coverage of the new scandal in France, where a government security officer was photographed at 8 a.m. delivering a bag of croissants to Hollande’s love nest. My first reaction was disgust — I mean, how bad must things be in a country when even the president can’t get a cooked breakfast? But his behaviour also made me think of a peculiarity of the French: while our Gallic chums have largely been slow to absorb the teachings of Adam Smith, there is one place where they seem to believe fervently in the division of labour: not in the pin factory but the bedroom.

It was the half-French James Goldsmith who observed, ‘When a man marries his mistress he creates an immediate job vacancy.’ The French approach is that mistress and wife are two separate roles which cannot be combined: a ‘wifetress’ doesn’t work. It’s like a sofa bed, a washer-dryer or a spork. Something that pretends to do two jobs, but in effect does both of them badly.

I wouldn’t propose applying this French approach in Britain. With our property prices, having a mistress is a bit like living in central London: something you only do if you’re a billionaire, a foreigner or on benefits. But there is one other place where we could apply this French idea and separate one bad thing into two good ones.

You see, the modern smartphone is a rubbish idea. It’s a spork. It is a slab of glass combining two entirely different functions — that of a tele-phone and that of a tablet-shaped connected media device. Combining both makes no more sense than merging a television with a toaster.

A tablet and a phone should be different things. One of them you use sitting down, the other you may use standing up or walking around. Tablet technology advances very fast, driving rapid obsolescence, whereas mobile phone voice technology has barely improved in 15 years. A tablet needs 4G or Wi-Fi data connectivity, the phone needs only 2G. Without the parasitic tablet attached, phones could have far longer battery life. A tablet needs to be square, a phone could be any shape. The list goes on.

So a separate phone could be a beautiful thing designed to last years — it could be an example of what I call Wasp tech, those things like brogues, Aga stoves or Harris Tweed jackets which magically look just as lovely after years of regular use. Smartphones are like alloy wheels or Russians: they only look good for a couple of years.

Here, then, is my proposed design for a British mobile phone. It will be hewn from granite or encased in a stout length of malacca cane. It will be heavy, so you know you’re carrying it, and to ward off any attacks from villainous Lascars. And it will only do two things — send text messages and make phone calls of spectacular audio quality.

Its battery life will be sufficient for a five-day Test match. It will also come with an inbuilt plug (no stupid separate charger to ruin the cut of your tweeds — the three folding prongs hidden by an embossed silver cap at one end will fit straight into a UK socket). There will be a choice of cases: the ‘Drummond’, the ‘Dornford’ and the (waterproof) ‘Maturin’.

The Goldsmith phone will be available to a limited number of Spectator readers from 2017, at the introductory price of 450 guineas.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.