- To many he is the face of the UK’s Dragon’s Den, with new shows coming out, he talks to the Observer about his life.
You have two new TV programmes coming out. One of them, Business Nightmares, has some amazing cases, doesn’t it? Persil Power, so strong it shredded knickers…
One of the programme’s revelations is that all washing powders shred knickers to some degree! In many ways, the most poignant case is Gerald Ratner. His story [in a speech in 1991, he described his company’s products as "total crap"] has been told so many times, and it’s funny, but actually it was a big tragedy for him.He lost the business and he tells the tale of having to buy petrol for the car and not knowing what you do. He took years to recover from the shock.
I think you can enjoy the horrible stories of the disasters that befall people while nevertheless respecting them for doing stuff. Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of. If you’re not making some mistakes, it probably means you’re not trying hard enough.
What about Made in Britain?
That one is about whether Britain has got enough industry. Can we survive without manufacturing? Can we build an economy on services? It’s all bound up with issues of national identity. The Germans are clear about what they do – cars and machine tools; the Japanese are clear about what they do – electronics; the Chinese are clear about what they do – they’re the workshop of the world.
We’re less clear and that’s because we’ve moved towards the intangible sectors more than other developed economies. We are a huge net exporter of business and commercial services: insurance and finance, surveying, architecture, legal services, advertising, university education.
Is that a good thing?
The service sector raises a number of problems. Here’s the nub of it: old industries – manufacturing industries – had lots of good reasons to disperse geographically. You had shipbuilding in Sunderland, steel in South Wales and coal scattered around the country. The new industries are brainy industries and so-called knowledge workers tend to like to be near other people who are the same. Think of the City or Hollywood. People cluster. This means you have winning regions, such as London and Cambridge, and losing regions. The people who want to be top lawyers in Sunderland are hoovered up by London.
Is the answer more manufacturing?
We have got too little manufacturing, and I’m not saying that out of some romantic idea that mining is good for you or it’s better to make things. There is a strong link between the following three things: exporting, manufacturing and the degree of saving by the population. It’s complicated, but if the population doesn’t save, the economy will not tend to export as much, and if it doesn’t export as much, it won’t manufacture enough.
Hang on, what’s saving got to do with it?
When a population saves – and the exporting powerhouses, the Germans, Japanese and Chinese do save – what happens is this. First, the companies that operate in those countries where the population are not big spenders are forced to look outside the country to find sales. They become export-oriented.
Second, the financial system has more funds, because the population has put its savings there, so it has to be less choosy about who it gives the money to – it can justify capital spending. Britain has been a low-saving nation and has less equipment per worker; we’re less capital intensive.
And then, third, is the exchange rate. When a population saves a lot, the funds are invested outside the country as well as inside. If the Japanese invest in the United States, it pushes their exchange rate down and makes their manufacturing more competitive.
That is really interesting…
What I like about it as a theory is that it puts it back to us. Instead of saying there’s some conspiracy by Margaret Thatcher, it’s been a collective decision. We’ve become a consuming nation; we suck in imports rather than exports; we build shopping centres rather than factories. The consequence is that our manufacturing industry has been too small.
As well as making business TV programmes, you’re also a presenter on the Today programme. Were you annoyed that you weren’t in when Osama bin Laden was killed?
A little bit. I’m not a jealous person though actually, with Osama, I did think, God, that’s an interesting day to be on. But, in fairness, it was Jim and Justin and I’m modest enough to think, oh well, that’s the best team, as they are American experts. But why did I have to do some godforsaken bank holiday when nothing happens!
When you started on Today, some people deemed you lightweight. Do you think you’ve improved?
I’m keen not to lose the things that made people say I was lightweight, but I’m also keen not to be seen as lightweight. There would be no point if I became a clone of the others, but equally it would be no good if I was seen as the one who did funny features about walking dogs in the park. Finding that balance isn’t easy. In five years I might have cracked it.
Does it annoy you when you’re called a gay presenter?
It doesn’t annoy me but I think of myself as a presenter who is gay, rather than a gay presenter. It’s a subtle distinction, but that’s how I view it. I don’t think I’m hugely camp on air. Private Eye did do a funny spoof of me interviewing Peter Mandelson in which it was all, ‘Ooh get her…’ [laughs]. I’m quite proud to be gay; I’m not hiding it.
What about when you were photographed in jeans with a biker chain…
I was papped! Apparently, I was breaking some hidden Daily Mail sartorial rule that meant I had to dress in a suit to go across the road to get milk. I think the headline was "Please Mr Davis, Won’t You Dress Your Age?". That phrase – "Please Mr Davis" – is used in our household quite a lot by my partner. "Pleeeease Mr Davis, won’t you do the washing up…"