Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man | 8 May 2010

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

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I haven’t watched Triumph of the Will all the way through, but I am fairly confident that at no point in the film does Hess suddenly turn to the crowd and say: ‘Yes, sir, your question. Row 689, the blond gentleman in black with the skull insignia? No, not you, sir — the slightly more Aryan-looking gentleman to the right — just behind the eagle.’ (Maiden with coiled plaits wearing dirndlkleid strides over with a boom microphone.)

Man: ‘Does the Führer have any idea how difficult it is to bring up two children on an Unterscharführer’s salary, what with hyperinflation and that?’

Fuhrer: ‘Well, Horst — it is Horst, isn’t it? It’s funny you should ask that because I was riding through Munich just the other day when I met someone from a typical hard-working family who…’

No, I’m right. It’s not there. And there’s a reason why not. For, as party strategists should have spotted, this particular format, as used in the recent leadership debates, is wholly inimical to oratory. It is also rather ill-suited to right-wing politics. When random members of the public can share minor problems with politicians in front of a crowd, convention and politeness require candidates to acquiesce in the left-of-centre notion that all human problems have political solutions.

The whole thing effectively becomes an empathy competition — in one instance making participants sympathise with the wife of an accountant who couldn’t afford a larger house (sad, yes, but it’s not exactly Jarrow, is it?). There is no place for brutal honesty — for the answer that ‘maybe it’s not our problem’. The effect is to perpetuate the false promise that politicians have the answer to everything.

Yet, if you look at recent history, it’s perfectly obvious that most improvements in our daily lives have not resulted from government’s juggling with handouts. Instead, the vast bulk of progress, growth and wealth creation results from scientific research, inventiveness and entrepreneurialism.

Much of this inventiveness, it is true, comes from the private sector and may be best encouraged by low taxes and a business-friendly regime. But a large part results from government funded research (let’s not forget that Tim Berners-Lee was a public sector employee when he invented the web).

Here, perhaps, politicians should be doing more. It may not placate voters so rapidly, but to what extent would money currently spent on the NHS benefit the public more if it were spent on medical research? And how many other problems could be better solved via innovation than through direct spending? The answer seems to be ‘a lot’.

A report by Jonathan Haskel and Gavin Wallis from Imperial College suggests the £3.5 billion a year the UK currently spends on publicly funded research generates an additional annual output of £45 billion in UK companies. My assumption is that, given the quality of British universities, increasing that sum would bring a better financial return than almost anything else, not to mention the other, less quantifiable benefits to quality of life.

It’s true you’ll never adopt this approach if you listen to the immediate wants of voters. But as Henry Ford said, ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.’ There is a big difference between serving the public and hanging on its every word.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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