Since the fall of the British Empire back in the 20th century, many have believed that the British are doomed to forever pine for the glory days. Yet while Britain may never be as powerful as it was in its heyday, there are signs that reports of its decline, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been exaggerated. The BBC says that the UK leads the world with an “internet economy” worth more than £2,000 per person. Internet commerce in the UK outpaces healthcare, construction and education.This may at first appear to be just an interesting factoid, but it is in fact extremely good news for the British. For centuries, one of Britain’s greatest strengths has been a culture that values innovation. The British have always been a nation of early adopters who seize on to new ideas and new technology faster than others (a tradition it exported to the other nations of the Anglosphere). This has allowed them to carry on and thrive even as other neighbors struggle just to remain relevant. The progress of internet commerce in Britain suggests that the old fire hasn’t completely died down.Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, we can see what happens when other cultural forces are at work. The euro crisis highlighted the Greek state’s reputation for backward thinking and unfriendliness toward entrepreneurship, but the full extent of the problem is still emerging from the gloom. This New York Times story on one aspiring entrepreneur’s struggle to create an e-business for olive products reveals a society that is almost pathologically resistant to innovation. Amid the usual bureaucratic obstacles were some unfamiliar ones: stool samples, X-rays, and pages and pages of paperwork. And this was only the beginning:
E-commerce is still relatively new in Greece, though growing. But Internet businesses with international sales are so rare that when Mr. Antonopoulos sought help with processing payments, three different Greek banks seemed incapable of grasping the concept.Before the banks would agree to act as clearinghouses for credit cards, they insisted that portions of the Olive Shop Web site — including the company’s marketing and privacy policies — be written exclusively in Greek, even though Mr. Antonopoulos tried to explain that his customers would not understand Greek. […]The worst moment, he said, was when representatives from two agencies came to inspect the shop and disagreed about the legality of a circular staircase. They walked out telling him that he “would have to figure it out.”“At that point, we actually thought about just going to the U.K. with this,” he said. “One of the inspectors knew about new legislation. The other didn’t. And they just refused to come up with a solution.”
The contrast could not be starker. The UK and Greece are both developed countries, and there is no reason that new technologies could not be harnessed equally well by entrepreneurs in both places. Yet Britain’s online industry is thriving, while Greece is doing everything it can to strangle e-commerce before it gets off the ground.Britain may have lost some of its luster since the glory days, but its culture of innovation continues to serve it well. It may even be that waves of immigration (which many British hate, but which probably do them some good by breaking comfy old habits) will re-energize the UK and give it more of the dynamism and drive that once made it the dread and envy of the world.