To live in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s was to be pitied, particularly by Brits who had fled abroad. There were still attractions. The theatres were vibrant, the BBC produced outstanding programmes and the newspapers provided a world view you did not find in many other countries.
But there was a prevailing shabbiness. Public infrastructure was rickety and decayed. Industrial relations were poisonous. There were strikes everywhere: on the railways, in the hospitals, in the car factories, which produced vehicles notorious for their unreliability.
Shortly after I joined the Financial Times as a management writer 30 years ago, the late Peter Martin, one of the FT’s greatest journalists, told me there was no culture of British management that anyone else recognised or respected.
That is not true today. Anyone offering to talk about the virtues of UK management at an international conference would not meet sniggers, as they would have back then. In advertising, technology, pharmaceuticals, mobile telephony, even sport, there are companies that attract worldwide attention. No one scoffs at WPP, GlaxoSmithKline, Vodafone or the top football clubs of the Premier League.
What are the contours of successful UK management today? An embrace of the new, an openness to the best ideas and people, and a hard-won realisation that past glories count for nothing.
How did we get to here from there? There are many factors but, having written about UK companies for the past three decades, I can name three of the most significant.
First, trade union reform. Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the unions may have gone too far for some, but one change transformed the landscape: making it compulsory for unions to ballot their members before a strike. Unions used to be able to order their workers out whether they wanted to strike or not. No more. The number of work stoppages fell from 2,737 in 1977 to 101 in 2016.
Second, the arrival of Nissan. The Japanese carmaker’s…