Is the sale of Arm to Nvidia, a foreign company, the wrong strategy?

The sale of Arm to Nvidia symbolises Britain’s role in the global economy

Q: What do you think of the sale of Arm to Nvidia? Surely giving all our companies away to foreign firms is the wrong strategy?

A: A fortnight ago, I enjoyed the superb views of Cambridge colleges seen from a punt on the river Cam. I was lucky; it was the last hot sunny day in September. The buildings were outlined by the autumn sunshine and I saw some drama when the punter in front lost his pole after it got stuck on the river bottom.

My visits to Cambridge usually involve shoe repair and key cutting shops, so this was a rare opportunity to reflect on the university’s involvement in research and development. It might seem a long way from cobbling to laser beams and artificial intelligence, but digital technology has brought Timpson massive benefits by helping colleagues to provide a better kind of personal service. So should we be worried that one of the “crown jewels”, built by boffins in Cambridge, is now in foreign hands?

Arm has been out of home ownership since September 2016, when it was acquired for £24bn by SoftBank, the Japanese tech giant that has now agreed this $40bn (£31bn) sale to Nvidia. The deal is rumoured to have been brokered during a telephone call between Masayoshi Son of SoftBank and Nvidia founder Jenson Huang. 

Huang nurtured Nvidia since its beginning in 1993, building a $300bn business and gathering a stack of awards for leadership and philanthropy along the way. He appears to be a good guy who, in contrast to the classic venture capitalist, seems more likely to develop Arm than strip out assets or tempt talent to leave Cambridge. Indeed, Huang has announced ambitious plans to create a world-class Artificial Intelligence Research Centre at Cambridge. Cynics may think this promise is designed to help get the deal done, but it shows how foreign ownership can sometimes bring welcome investment into the UK.

Visitors are attracted to Cambridge by the magnificent buildings that I viewed from the river, but the big draw for foreign investors is the array of technical talent gathered around Silicon Fen. It’s totally understandable these tech entrepreneurs wish to turn their creativity into some serious cash (something that pioneer Alan Turing deserved, but never received). Who can criticise them selling out to the highest bidder? 

As long as the new owners pay UK taxes and invest in British talent, I believe we should welcome them with open arms. Despite the current restrictions imposed by Covid-19, we need to recognise our role in the global economy. 

Q: Do you see any future for music venues? They’re on their knees with no chance of opening in the near future. It feels like the death knell for the smallest of them – what can be done?

A: Imaginative musicians have produced online performances and some have busked on the street or played in socially distanced venues, but “live” music has almost come to a complete standstill. It will be some time before I see Rod Stewart or, come to think of it, Manchester City performing at The Etihad. Cliff Richard’s 80th birthday tour won’t happen until he’s 81.

Companies and self-employed artists who depend on theatres and music venues are among those left hanging out to dry by Rishi Sunak when he axed the furlough scheme. Performing arts, conference and exhibition companies, and wedding venues must choose between throwing in the towel or paying colleagues for doing nothing for many months to come.

For 60 years, music has been one of our biggest exports, from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Ed Sheeran. But this performance blackout could stifle new talent.

In March, when our livelihoods were turned upside down, the Chancellor promised to see us all through. He delivered for most of us, but sectors still locked down by the second wave are no longer thought viable. More should be done to keep live entertainment alive,

Sir John Timpson is chairman of the high-street services provider, Timpson.

Send him a question at [email protected]