I recently took a boat trip to one of Europe's furthest-flung spots: St Kilda. The archipelago lies some 60 kilometres west of the Outer Hebrides, and there is nothing west of it until the Americas.
For some 4,000 years, the islands supported a human population.
They carved out a difficult but viable existence from the land and sea, living on a diet of sea birds and having very little to do with anyone else. By 1930, however, life on St Kilda had become impossible, and the remaining islanders were evacuated to the Scottish mainland.
It is interesting to ponder why this happened. For there is, I believe, a lesson in the St Kildans’ story for those of us who inhabit Europe’s fleshier pots and now face a challenging economic future.
People often think the St Kildans succumbed to diseases from the mainland to which they had no immunity, brought by the summer tourists who visited the main island of Hirta by steamer in Victorian times. It’s true that the islanders were often laid low by flu after the “foreigners” left and that some islanders fell prey to mainland diseases, such as tuberculosis. But that is not why life on St Kilda became unmanageable. Interaction with outsiders brought many benefits; it all went wrong when they began to rely on outsiders for supplies.
For centuries, the St Kildans had found everything they needed within their island province. They preserved gannets harvested from the sea stacks in summer to eat in winter. They spun cloth from the wool of the native Soay sheep. They grew vegetables and corn. They dried turf for winter fuel, and burnt oil from the fulmar, their staple fare in summer, in hand-crafted stone lamps.
By the time the evacuation came, this had all changed. The St Kildans had stopped growing crops and no longer harvested gannets. The people were thus reliant on supplies from the mainland, but the vicissitudes of the weather meant these often couldn’t get through.
Today’s Europe, to me, is a kind of meta St Kilda. We are open to each other and the world, and that is good. Steamers are welcome in the bay. But in all the excitement we have somehow forgotten that we need to continue to make and grow things ourselves – to do what we have always done – or face terrible consequences.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the UK. However, much the chancellor George Osborne may chatter about diversifying the British economy, it remains oriented towards companies that don’t make or grow anything truly useful.
A recent announcement from the MPI (Meeting Professionals International) Foundation provides a case in point. The foundation joyfully informs the world that the UK meetings industry generates three times more GDP than agriculture and the equivalent of one million full-time jobs. In fact, the meetings industry is the UK’s 16th largest employer.
This may be good news if you’re in meetings. The rest of us should be appalled to learn that meetings are now more important than crops in one of Europe’s largest economies.
These kinds of dysfunctional developments help to explain why we in the West are piling into emerging markets. Very interesting, then, to read a recent insight from S&P Capital IQ into where buyers from Russia, India and China choose to invest in Europe. Small and medium-sized enterprises in Germany and Austria are in the frame.
“[Emerging-markets] investors seem willing to pay a premium for greater market presence within one of the key segments of the German ‘export machine’,” says S&P Capital IQ.
I’m guessing they wouldn’t pay a similar premium for meetings and their ilk.
As the emerging markets buyers know, making good things and growing good things that people need and want is the only way to succeed economically. When will we wake up this fact and get people out of meetings and into farms and factories? Better be soon. Evacuation threatens.
Fiona Rintoul is Editorial Director at Funds Europe
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