Brown's beer: What I would do if I were CEO of Britain PLC

Historian and writer Pete Brown laments the loss of Britain’s institutions

I’m perfectly aware that I’d make a rubbish CEO of Britain PLC.

For one thing, I loathe the very phrase – there’s something a bit self-satisfied about it. But that’s not as bad as the logical inference that if Britain is PLC, then we ‘plebs’ (as Tory millionaire Andrew Mitchell likes to think of us all) are mere employees, or maybe consumers. 

Personally, I’m happy with the inalienable rights enshrined in law that I have as a citizen, thanks.

So I wouldn’t get off to a good start. But more than that, I’d make a pretty rubbish CEO of anything. I’m not a big enough bastard. I’m too soft and just want everyone to like me. 

Well, in person anyway.

But I often think about the concept of Britain PLC, usually when government looks at how business works, copies the most rubbish or inappropriate lessons from the private sector, and ignores the really good ones.

I used to work in marketing and brand strategy, and I’m used to writing marketing plans and business plans and strategic plans. 

I know about Porter’s five forces and the notion of competitive advantage. SWOT analysis is second nature. And I wonder if anyone in government – successive recent governments – has ever applied techniques like this to Britain. 

If they had, you’d expect them to recognise the sources of competitive advantage in Britain, and invest heavily behind those sources of competitive advantage, nurturing them and prioritising them. 

You’d expect them to especially focus on the ones that were harder to replicate, where barriers of entry could be built up to prevent other countries stealing our share.

I’ll accept that banking is important to us, and government obviously bends over backwards to accommodate banking’s every whim. But what about more consumer focused areas? If you asked people around the world what Britain as good at, what would they say?

I think creativity would come pretty high on the list, as manifested by the profile our artists, fashion designers, writers, actors, filmmakers, and especially musicians enjoy around the world. I’m writing this from Canada, and in the bar last night, as the house band played cover versions of Jessie J and Amy Winehouse, I chatted to a group of French Canadians about The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Sex Pistols, Clash, Oasis… by the time we got to the dubious Coldplay, the point had been made.

Music royalties are a massive contributor to the UK balance of payments. 

So how does the UK foster its competitive advantage in this lucrative area? 

By destroying the financial conditions by which young bands can afford to form and practice, by closing community centres where they can rehearse, and by tying up venues in red tape to make performance more difficult.

Nice one.

Another source of competitive advantage is the British pub. Yes, really. In 2011 travel expenditure by non-residents visiting the UK accounted for 11 per cent of total exports of services. And every single time anyone carries out a survey of what foreign visitors are most keen to see and do while they’re here, a visit to a traditional British pub is near the top of the list – usually just behind seeing some manifestation of the Royal Family.  

So how do successive governments support and invest in this massive source of net tourism income?

They increase duty on alcohol by 42 per cent in four years, allowing supermarkets to absorb this increase and create a yawning disparity between the price of alcohol in the on and off-trade.  They then blame pubs for the problems that this cheap supermarket alcohol causes, and introduce wave after wave of new legislation that now ties up the average publican in red tape for half a day of every week. 

They offer pubs no financial help or breaks whatsoever through a period when, at its peak, 52 pubs a week were closing their doors for good, to be turned into housing, Tesco Metros or car parks.

Read the pub trade press, and publicans think the government hates them and is trying to get rid of them. To be fair, they are world-class moaners, but it’s hard to find any evidence that contradicts their point of view.

Finally, what do tourists want to spend their money on in our pubs? That’s right – traditional British beer! Brewing is a British manufacturing industry that is regarded by those who know it as one of the world’s best. 

Only Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium have a reputation that’s even in the same ballpark. In the craft brewing revolution, British beer exports are a resounding success story. Fuller’s is everywhere I go here in Canada. In the US, Samuel Smiths is better known than in its native Yorkshire. Scottish bad boys Brew Dog export 70 per cent of their output, as do Norfolk’s St Peter’s ale. British cask ale is unique, as special to the Japanese tourist visiting London as vintage Bordeaux in France.

The aforementioned Duty Escalator makes it very clear how highly both Labour and Conservative governments value this British manufacturing success story. When Alastair Darling cut VAT in his attempt to kick us out of recession in 2008, he thoughtfully introduced an extra duty on beer so that it was the only sector of the economy that did not benefit from this tax cut. When VAT went back up, this extra tax of course remained. 

I visited the Houses of Parliament last week. The souvenir shop sells a parliamentary branded Scotch whisky, which is great. It also sells a souvenir French champagne, and a souvenir Portuguese Port.

It does not sell a souvenir British wine (despite British sparkling wine now beating champagne in competitions), nor does it sell a British beer or cider. The Strangers’ bar serves German lager. Diplomatic functions serve French wine.

Can you imagine going to a do at the French embassy and being served Australian wine?

Yes, I’d make a rubbish CEO of Britain PLC. But at least I’d show some pride in what we do well. And even if you strip sentiment away, and just look at the balance sheet, I’d make sure I wasn’t waging war against the few remaining sources of positive figures on it.

Pete Brown is one of the UK’s leading beer writers, working across business and consumer press. He’s the author of several best-selling books and blogs at He was recently named joint-37th most influential person in the British pub industry – a claim he strenuously denies.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Anonymous

    You mean English wine, and English sparkling wine. "British wine" is, legally, wine made in Britain from imported grapes. Apart from that - you're 100% correct in everything you write.

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  • I agree, there needs to be more pride shown on the success stories of this country and more support to insure things stay competitive and supported.

    As an American, I'd love to hear it from Brits (rather than me telling them) how great the British music scene is, how great the mix of British Beers/Drinks are more. Good on you for telling it like it is!

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