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What Happened Next? 5 Decade-Defining Events That Shaped British Business

As politicians argue over Theresa May’s take it or leave it deal with the EU, we are still largely unclear what type of Brexit – if any – we will be living with.

It’s clear, though, that Brexit will have a profound impact on both our personal and business lives – if it hasn’t already. Whichever side you sit on, whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, it’s unlikely things will ever be the same again.

Which got us thinking…

What other events in British history changed everything?

What are the moments in politics, culture or technology that set our history on a different course?

And, to bring it all back, who were the winners and losers in the business world?

 

The 1960’s: The Beatles take over

We’ll start with a fun one. The Beatles can rightly claim to be the most successful music group of all time but their influence reaches so much further. Not only did they change the musical landscape, paving the way for the British Invasion of the USA, the concept album, and music video, they were at the epicentre of the sweeping cultural and social changes that transformed Britain in the 1960s.

When the boys from Liverpool first broke the charts with Love Me Do in 1962, Britain was still very much marked by the two world wars. Society was steeped in the traditions and morals of the Victorian era. By 1970, the year of the Beatle’s breakup, society had shifted towards embracing more progressive attitudes on everything from fashion to politics – and let’s not forget sex and drugs. Richie Unterberger of Allmusic.com puts it best: “Relentlessly imaginative and experimental, the Beatles grabbed hold of the international mass consciousness in 1964 and never let go for the next six years.”

Winners:

Before the Beatles, only three British acts had topped the charts in the US. By the end of the decade, “the sixties belonged to Britain”. Today, the UK music industry is one of its most successful exports, no doubt spearheaded by the successes of these early pop trailblazers. The UK may not be a world power like it once was, but this era showed that it could still be a cultural force.

And let’s not forget The Beatles empowering impact on real people. The ideals of individual expression and experimentation championed by The Beatles and the hippie movement have had a marked influence on entrepreneurs everywhere from the tech industry (see Steve Jobs) to the food industry (see Ben & Jerry’s).

Losers:

“Guitar groups are on the way out.” Those are legendary words of Decca Records, perhaps the most infamous, but one of many record labels who turned down The Beatles.

 

The 1970s: The UK enters the European Common Market

OK, now, a contentious one. For the first 30 years following the end of the Second World War, the UK was on the fringes of European integration. Torn between its ties to the United States and its Empire-turned-Commonwealth, many UK politicians, including Winston Churchill, were initially resistant or just disinterested towards joining the European Union (or the European Economic Community as it was known then). Membership was put to a referendum vote in 1975. This was at a time when the French and German economies were booming and the UK was known as the “sick man of Europe”. With a huge majority, the UK public said yes to membership, beginning 40 years of ever-closening political and economic ties with Europe. Until, of course, 2016.

Winners:

There are strong arguments to say the UK has benefitted economically from being a member of the European Union. Indeed, 71% of CBI members felt the EU has had an overall positive impact on their business, including 67% of SME members.

Losers:

There’s no doubting EU membership shifted power from Westminster to Brussels. Much of EU regulation, particularly in relation to farming and fishing, is deeply unpopular, whilst immigration has become a hugely contentious topic. Businesses, too, claim to face more ‘red tape’ as a result of regulations from Brussels. Whether this will improve post-Brexit is open to debate.

It was a free vote, without constraint, following a free democratic campaign, conducted constructively and without rancour. It means that 14 years of national argument are over.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson Speaking shortly after the 1975 referendum

The 1980s: The Thatcher Years

More controversy. We’ll try and lay down the facts and steer clear of any bias here.

The post-war years were marked by an economic boom which lasted until the 1970s. During this period, there was a broad consensus across Western countries on certain strands of economic thinking. By the time Margaret Thatcher was elected (in 1979), however, many saw the economic system of the post-war years to be broken.

Thatcher, along with US President, Ronald Reagan, held a belief in the transformative power of free-market capitalism. Bit by bit, the economies of UK and US were, indeed, transformed. The role of the state was shrunk back as taxes and regulation were cut. Manufacturing heartlands were deindustrialised, a process that saw once-powerful unions taken on and dealt lasting defeats. In amongst all of this, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed.

The legacy? Though radical at the time, much of Thatcher’s economic policies are now part of mainstream thinking.

Winners:

Many businesses and entrepreneurs welcomed Thatcher’s belief in wealth creation and the role of free enterprise. Firms based in the City reaped the rewards that came with deregulation of the financial markets – the so-called Big Bang. The construction of Canary Wharf in London’s then-derelict Docklands was symbolic of the City of London’s re-emergence as a global financial capital.

On a cultural level, Thatcher, one of the first female leaders in the western world, discredited any notion that women were incapable of high office (a not-uncommon viewpoint before then). When Informi asked SMEs who was the best PM for business in the last 30 years? Their answer: Margaret Thatcher.

Losers:

To put it crudely, few eras could be so pointedly marked by winners and losers. Thatcher presided over an era of rising unemployment, inequality and poverty figures. Indeed, rising inequality has continued as a trend worldwide ever since. One particularly controversial legacy has been the privatisation of services and utilities, trailblazed by Thatcher. Many would argue this has not brought about the much-touted consumer benefits of free-market competition – an example being ever-rising rail fares.

 

The 1990s: The World Wide Web

The 90s are often remembered as a golden age in the West. The Cold War came to an end, ushering in a new era of peace, stability, and, for many, prosperity. Advances in technology also had a pronounced effect on culture and society. One invention, in particular, symbolised the utopian ideals of the period: the World Wide Web.

Launched to the public in 1992, the inventor behind the project, Sir Tim Berners Lee, famously gave away the technology for free, tweeting at the London 2012 opening ceremony: ‘This is for everyone’. As he predicted, this started a revolution in information access. Now anyone with an internet connection could browse the Web, forever changing the way we seek and consume information. By the end of the 90s, 25% of UK households were hooked up to the internet. Today, that figure is 90%.

Winners:

Some of the most well-known brands in the world today, Google, Amazon and eBay, were part of the original dot.com boom. As time has gone on, though, web development has become much more accessible and, today, most small businesses have a web presence of some kind. This has opened up new sales channels and markets for businesses while consumers now have more choice than ever before.

Losers:

Bricks and mortar businesses continue to grapple with the competition they face from online businesses. Arguably this has been a major reason for the decline of the High Street in recent years. Web-based companies are today in the ascendency and those industry leaders who have failed to adapt have fallen by the wayside. One stark fact demonstrates this: since 2000, 52% of companies in the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired, ceased to exist or dropped out of the Fortune 500. 

 

The 2000s: The emergence of the mobile phone

The transformative potential of the mobile phone was clear, even if it took a good 30 years before it became a mass-market product. Whilst the large and cumbersome early models failed to do this – instead becoming a status symbol for the rich and powerful – that was all to change by the turn of the century. By the early 2000s, Nokia and Motorola were shifting millions of pocket-size handsets and revolutionizing the way we conduct our lives.

This new found ability to communicate on-the-go enabled us to live our lives with increasing freedom and flexibility. Remember when you actually had to turn up on time for things? Then came the iPhone in 2007 to elevate the mobile phone to something different entirely. The intuitive touchscreen technology instantly became industry-standard, evolving the phone from predominantly a communications tool to a super powerful mini-computer; an appliance for conducting every aspect of our lives.

Winners:

Apple, already on a roll following the iPod, was soon shifting over 200 million iPhone units a year. In 2018 they became the first company to be valued at a trillion dollars. Through the App Store and Google Play, a thriving ecosystem of third-party developers flourished, paving the way for the likes of Uber and Deliveroo to disrupt industry heavyweights and transform consumer habits.

Losers:

At first a winner, Nokia’s fortunes quickly took a downturn following the launch of the iPhone, as did Blackberry and Motorola. The smartphone also had the effect of making many standalone tech products redundant. The market for MP3 players, portable game consoles and point and shoot cameras is pretty much non-existent in 2018.

 

The 2010s: Brexit?

Exiting the EU represents a huge gamble – treasury forecasts predict that the UK will be worse off economically under any form of Brexit. Do the benefits of making our own laws, controlling our borders, and trading with countries outside the EU, outweigh the costs? Are these projections just scare tactics as the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg would have you believe?

The debate continues. At the moment, stalemate remains a likely outcome under the current hung parliament.

As Theresa May attempts to break this deadlock, there are difficult and painful decisions ahead. It’s quite likely these decisions will have a major bearing on shaping Britain over the next 50 years. We can’t wait to write that blog in 2068!

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Huw Moxon is the Digital Marketing Manager for Informi.

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