9 Industries the UK Leads the World in

It’s easy to name certain countries’ most famous exports.

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For the Gulf states it’s oil. For Japan it’s electronics. For Germany it’s luxury cars. For France it’s cheese or wine. For Belgium it’s chocolate. It seems likely that the Belgian economy doesn’t depend entirely on chocolate production (and a quick Google suggests that its exports are partly prosaic things like chemicals and machinery, and partly the more exciting option of finished diamonds). At the same time, chocolate production is clearly something in which Belgium leads the world – alongside managing to function without a government, which Belgium did for 589 days.
What Britain exports is a bit more mysterious. There are plenty of British brands with worldwide name recognition, from Burberry to Land Rover, but no one would describe Britain as a country particularly known for the production of clothing or cars; that particular combination clearly belongs to Italy. Yet Britain has one of the largest economies in the world, so we must be making something. In this article, we take a look at what that something is.

1. Music

Britain consistently punches above its weight on the international music scene.

Only seven bands and artists have ever sold more than a quarter of a billion records. They are the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd – and of that list of seven, a full four are British, while the other three are American. Given that the US population is five times that of Britain, it’s clear that the UK punches significantly above its weight when it comes to producing musicians. And that’s not just historically; look at Adele and One Direction for examples of modern British musicians having remarkable success both at home and internationally.
It’s hard to say exactly why Britain does so well on the international music scene. Various cultural factors have been suggested – for instance, that British schools are relatively good about providing time for music, or that various eras of British politics inspired great musicians – but there aren’t that many of them that hold up to scrutiny. And of course, the UK has performed woefully at the Eurovision Song Contest, having failed to reach the top ten for the past seven years.

2. TV

British children's shows such as Peppa Pig have wide international appeal.
British children’s shows such as Peppa Pig have wide international appeal.

The story of Britain’s TV is pretty similar to the story of its music. It’s harder to track the success of British TV shows than it is albums, as TV ratings have shifted dramatically over the past few decades, and the most-watched shows of different countries are idiosyncratic and dominated by sports and programmes shown on public holidays. But British TV exports were worth £1.28 billion last year, which gives some indication of how popular British TV is around the world. An eclectic mix of programmes – Peppa Pig, Doctor Who, Downtown Abbey, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Top Gear and the Great British Bake Off – are sold or have their format licensed in a remarkable number of countries.
The key component in this success is the BBC, Britain’s national broadcaster. Every household in Britain with a working TV has to pay a licence fee annually, which funds the BBC and ensures that its content is not dependent on the whims of advertisers, a level of creative freedom which seems to produce outstanding results. Not all of the programmes listed above are BBC programmes, but the excellence of the BBC means that its commercial competitors in the UK have to be at the top of their game.

3. Medical research

Scientific research, particularly medical research, is another area where the UK punches significantly above its weight. In terms of citations for research papers, the UK comes second only to the USA, which is helped by its significantly larger population and its higher per-capita spend on healthcare. The UK has several research centres of excellence, most notably Oxford, Cambridge and London, which contribute a great deal to the UK’s outsize contribution to the field. The UK government, through the Medical Research Council, funds over three-quarters of a billion pounds of research every year. Another £1.3bn comes from the plethora of charities funding medical research, the largest of which is Cancer Research UK, with annual revenue of over £600m.

Britain consistently leads the world in medical developments.
The UK consistently leads the world in medical developments.

The success stories of British medical research range from DNA fingerprinting to the first draft of the complete human genome sequence, published in 2000 at the Cambridge Sanger Centre. The Centre, now named the Sanger Institute, shares a futuristic campus with the European Bioinformatics Institute, where over a thousand researchers work on deciphering the human genome, combating disease pathogens, and developing bioinformatic tools that are made freely available worldwide. This global outlook is an important principle for the Sanger Institute, which makes collaboration a priority. In general, Britain’s leading role in medical research is considerably attributable to its openness to international collaboration, which is aided by outstanding universities that attract top students and researchers from all over the world.

4. Financial services

Financial services in the UK play a massive role in the economy; in 2012, the financial services centre contributed more than 10% of the total UK government tax take, and provided one in every fourteen jobs in the country. Britain is the world’s largest exporter of financial services.

The UK's multiculturalism enables its financial services to diversify.
The UK’s multiculturalism enables its financial services to diversify.

There are a handful of factors that make this the case. Britain straddles Europe (and until recently, the EU) and the Anglophone world, especially the USA, crossing a cultural divide. High levels of immigration within a thriving multicultural society also means that Britain is able to offer financial products that are not available in many other countries, such as Islamic finance. Then there are good transport connections and other infrastructure, and a well-educated population so recruitment is usually straightforward, plus a government that is keen to support the industry, and you have the recipe that leads to an average daily turnover in the City of London of around $2 trillion.  

5. Aerospace technology

Whilst more popularly known for its luxury cars, Rolls-Royce is a world-renowned producer of aircraft engines.
Whilst more popularly known for its luxury cars, Rolls-Royce is a world-renowned producer of aircraft engines.

The British aerospace industry is the second or third largest in the world, covering companies such as Rolls-Royce (the world’s second largest manufacturer of aircraft engines) and BAE Systems (the world’s third largest defence contractor). Aerospace technology covers aircraft and spacecraft, and Britain’s contributions range from aircraft, to satellites, to missiles, to exciting new ideas such as the Skylon spaceplane, which could theoretically travel from London to Sydney in four hours, and which should have its first test flights within a decade.
The success of British aerospace companies is connected to the success of the British financial services sector. Financial services are disproportionately based on London, and the economy is over-dependent on them and on the capital in general. Aerospace companies provide jobs primarily outside the capital, often in parts of the country that otherwise lack job opportunities, so it has been in the interests of government to rebalance the economy by encouraging aerospace industry growth. And the same drivers of other British success – outstanding universities – also help provide the R&D background that helps British aerospace companies thrive.

6. Education

The UK seldom comes top of international league tables for education, but we’re usually in the top handful. When it comes to primary and secondary education, countries such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea do better, while US universities come just ahead of British universities when higher education is compared. That said, the UK is unusual in coming out well in education across the board; UK state schools, private schools, summer schools and universities all rank highly.

UK universities remain desirable places to study.
UK universities remain desirable places to study.

Partly this is as a result of considerable investment. Tony Blair, British prime minister from 1997 to 2007, set out his top three priorities for office as “education, education, education”, and reaffirmed this when campaigning for reelection in 2001, with a goal of 50% of school leavers going on to university. But it’s also as a result of British attitudes to how education should work; that the priority should not be memorising facts or learning what to think, but rather analysis and learning how to think. When all those facts can be accessed at the touch of a button through the Internet, learning how to think is a sensible priority, and it seems to have paid off in that British schools and universities have retained their standing over time.

7. Artificial intelligence

This one might come as a surprise. Surely all artificial intelligence research is happening in Silicon Valley, or perhaps in Beijing, where Baidu is based? Certainly a great deal is happening in those places. But one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence companies, Google DeepMind, is based in the UK, in London. DeepMind was founded in 2010 by partners who met at University College London, and was bought by Google in 2014 for $500m.

It is more common to look to the US and the Far East for developments in AI, but the United Kingdom certainly holds its own.
It is more common to look to the US and the Far East for developments in AI, but the United Kingdom certainly holds its own.

Since then, DeepMind have achieved a number of remarkable milestones in the development of artificial intelligence, probably most famously the defeat of one of the world’s highest ranked Go players, Lee Sedol, by the computer Go program AlphaGo. This has been compared to the defeat of chess champion Garry Kasparov by Deep Blue in 1997, but in fact, it’s much more significant; a chess game can be won by a brute-force calculation of all the possible ways the game could go, but Go has far, far too many possible outcomes for this to be feasible even with the use of all the computing power in the world. AlphaGo has to work out its Go strategy through a more complex process – and that’s what makes DeepMind’s work so impressive.

8. Electronic systems

Electronics is another area in which the UK does remarkably well, particularly in niche areas. British labour is both skilled and expensive, so mass production of parts is done more effectively by other countries, but small-scale production of electronic components is better suited to the British skillset.

Buying a Raspberry Pi is an inexpensive introduction to practical computer science.
Buying a Raspberry Pi is an inexpensive introduction to practical computer science.

There is also considerable innovation in British electronics. One example of this is the Raspberry Pi computer, a tiny inexpensive computer that can be used to teach basic computer science. Current models only cost around £30, but it isn’t something you can plug and play – all you get is the circuit board, and then it’s up to you to customise the computer as you see fit. It’s been used in schools, including in the developing world. Outside that, it might seem as if the Raspberry Pi is of interest only to geeks, but if that’s the case, there are a lot of geeks out there – it’s now the best-selling UK personal computer, with more than eight million sold.
The Raspberry Pi was initially developed to encourage innovation in younger generations; it was invented after a pair of UK lecturers discovered to their dismay that UK students were no longer taking apart their computers and putting them back together again, or tinkering with their code, and as a result weren’t ready to create the next generations of UK electronics. In turn, the device has been put to many uses that weren’t expected by its creators, such as being hooked up to refrigerators and other such items to create ‘smart’ household gadgets.

9. Literature

We don’t normally think of literature as an export that gets manufactured like chairs, pencil cases or Westlife, but it’s another area where Britain makes a supersized contribution to the world. Check out the tables of fiction in airports when you travel – it’s sometimes the case that the majority of crime stories, romances and thrillers there have been translated from English.

Harry Potter defined a generation of childhoods worldwide.
Harry Potter defined a generation of childhoods worldwide.

Excluding religious and political books where circulation numbers are unreliable, only seven books have ever sold more than 100 million copies. Of those seven, five are from British authors – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, And Then There Were None, and She: A Story of Adventure. It gets more mixed as you go further down the bestseller list, and a few authors are very strongly represented (such as JK Rowling and Agatha Christie), but British authors still dominate. This is particularly the case among children’s books – it’s not just Rowling, but also CS Lewis, Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter who have sold vast numbers of books. It feels appropriate to focus on books set in schools, given that it’s clear how much creativity and education are at the centre of Britain’s success.
Image credits: vauxhall bridge; union flag; guitar; mri scanner; bank notes; turbo jet engine; cambridge; robot face; raspberry pi; harry potter books