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Team GB

Governments, and particularly new governments, like to sing in a major key. A cheery tone is felt to be preferable, for obvious reasons.

The remarkable success of the nation’s sporting heroes in Rio – the first team to follow on from hosting the Games by winning even more medals at the next Olympiad – offers an obvious opportunity for the new Prime Minister to perform a happy tune. Her predecessors would have limited their attempts to do so to the hosting of a drinks party, a la Cool Britannia, in the hope that some of the stardust might rub off, or by issuing a series of tweets. May will no doubt do both, but it is symptomatic of her more thoughtful Downing Street that she is also reported to be analysing this sporting success for policy lessons that can be applied elsewhere.

Today’s Sunday Times reports that the Olympic medal haul will inform Downing Street’s new industrial strategy. This isn’t PR fluff (ok, it isn’t just PR fluff) – ministers are right to note that success in the London and Rio Olympics is the product of a very specific policy programme, not just the fruit of fortuitous talent and happy accident.

We have already noted that Lottery funding has played an essential role in recovering from the dire days of Atlanta 1996. Some on the left have pointed to Team GB’s triumph as evidence that taxpayer-funding is in itself a guarantor of success, but they miss the subtle reality of the story. Just as important as the provision of money is the way in which it is allocated. Yes, those sports which did well in 2012 were given lots of funding to build on that success in 2016 – but at the same time, those that fell short found their cash was cut or taken away from them entirely. ‘Brutal but effective’ was the verdict of one expert in sport policy this week.

The strategy evidently works, which is why Downing Street is citing it in the development of their plans for a “proper industrial strategy”. Greg Clark, the man who will be responsible for implementing that strategy, tells the paper:

“By making the most of our strengths, improving our facilities, developing the skills of athletes and coaches alike, we have become a world-beating sporting nation. We have a real opportunity to apply many of the same insights as we bring together a long-term strategy for our industrial and commercial future. Recognising our strengths — from science to the creative industries — and making sure they are nurtured and encouraged.”

So far, so jolly. But there are two minor notes lurking in the Government’s upbeat melody, whether the performers want them there or not.

The first is the question of whether this is really as simple as it seems. Whitehall’s track record in picking winners is not a tale of unalloyed success. And the Olympics is somewhat less complicated than the entire British economy. For a start, sporting success is more easy to measure than economic success – and while the roster of Olympic sports only changes very slowly, Britain’s entrepreneurs are constantly inventing whole new industries. We have yet to hear how civil servants in BEIS and the Treasury are going to ensure they are capable of picking the right industries to fund and support. For that matter, why should they be any better at it, investing with other people’s money, than the market, where investors make decisions backed by their own funds?

The second fly in the ointment is the unspoken implication of such a strategy. It is both pleasant and enjoyable for ministers to talk of backing success, nurturing the stars of the British economy and delivering industrial success. Who doesn’t like the sound of that? But an industrial strategy truly inspired by the success of UK Sport wouldn’t just be about back-slapping and enthusiastic cheers. Remember that quote above: ‘brutal but effective’. UK Sport’s effectiveness rests on that brutality; it is an essential feature of their system. If the Government is to start picking winners to support, then it would also have to pick losers to ditch – a far less enjoyable process for politicians to oversee.

When the sporting authorities began this new approach, there were howls of outrage from a variety of sports which lost out. To their credit, those allocating the funding stuck to their guns, and it paid off, but it took guts and gumption to insist on such a harsh process. Refusing to fund the continued failure of the national basketball team is a rather easier thing to do than refusing to back an entire industry, with all the job losses and outrage that would cause. Looking back on Nick Timothy’s fury at those who suggested abandoning the steel workers of Port Talbot, it is hard to imagine the Government genuinely pursuing a plan which is as red in tooth and claw as that implemented by UK Sport.

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