Governments and nations seem to think it is totemic to have their own airline. This attitude has slowed down the natural process of consolidation in what remains a very challenged industry.
Countries such as Belgium, Switzerland and Italy have seen their flag carriers slide beneath the waves, in some cases to reappear. But they invariably sought government help for their resurrection.
At the moment, another industry has joined the queue outside treasuries around the world asking for assistance – the automobile manufacturers. Is it essential for every developed country to have an indigenous car manufacturing industry or airline?
In the supposedly free markets of Nafta, the EU and the rest of the alphabet soup, let us buy a car or an air ticket from a neighbour if he can offer it profitably.
Why does this matter to the world of retail? Because the longer the list of supplicants to Number 11, the worse the fiscal outlook becomes. I am not sure that the retail fabric of the country is fully appreciated by the UK Government just now.
The beleaguered and underappreciated farming sector maintains those picturesque British views as a by-product of trying to maintain a vestige of our self-sufficiency in food.
These are no doubt appreciated by many tourists from overseas. Many of the visitors will also shop on our high streets and in our shopping centres. 21st century shoppers are as likely to be attracted by Mammon, in the shape of a new mall, as a cathedral or museum.
Their patronage is important in ensuring the sector’s financial health. Just look how London’s retail fortunes have moved ahead of the rest of the country in recent months, with a 6 to 7 per cent better like-for-like performance, according to BRC data.
The London retail scene has more to offer than just a green store in Knightsbridge. A Spanish tourist in London is excited not by the sight of another Zara, but by a raft of brands displaying that quirky and evolving notion of Britishness, in as varied a tenant mix as possible. The trick, of course, is to spread that tourist spending more evenly across this decreasingly green and pleasant land.
Arcandor has been trying to extract financial help from the German government. I don’t believe it is the role of any government to intervene in the natural cull of retailers that takes place in an economic downswing. They should not tilt the playing field.
But it would be as well to remember, when the austerity plans are drawn up by whoever is in power next year, that the retail sector is important not just because of the vast numbers it employs but also because it is part of what attracts foreign spending to top up our depleted coffers.
Dead high streets are depressing enough for us natives, but they are a major handicap to any Visit Britain campaign.
- Paul Smiddy head of retail research, HSBC