Nation of shopkeepers needs winning spirit

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Two hundred years ago Napoleon dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers.

But while his judgement at Waterloo was lacking, his assessment of the English was accurate.

Shopkeepers require a spirit of enterprise to prosper and as a nation we have excelled at that entrepreneurial blend of ambition, ideas and courage.

Napoleon’s phrase was borrowed from the economist Adam Smith who coined it in the context of a country ruled by shopkeepers who built an empire to create a customer base.

Empire has since been replaced by the new markets of globalisation and although the spirit of enterprise still exists – look at James Dyson or JCB – it is not always enough on its own, especially in the modern world.

Today there are 4.3m businesses in the UK; the vast majority of which are small and medium-sized enterprises generating half the jobs and wealth of this country.

These are statistics of which we should be very proud, but while the UK is better than many countries in terms of entrepreneurial activity – especially Continental Europe – it lags behind others, most notably the US.

Today, as part of Enterprise Week, the Confederation of British Industry publishes its report ‘Building An Enterprise Culture’ which argues that our biggest challenges are just as much social as economic.

There is a need to alter the perception, especially among policy makers, that encouraging enterprise involves ‘doing more’, when in many cases, action can stifle, not support enterprise.

Most crucially enterprise relies on willingness to take risks, to compete, to innovate. It is about having aspirations and wanting to push the limits to reap the rich rewards.

That’s why the CBI is pleased the government is adding enterprise to the school curriculum – but it should not be an ‘add-on’ or a short-term initiative.

If young people are to develop a more entrepreneurial attitude, and the UK is to continue to compete internationally, enterprise should be at the heart of the curriculum, from primary school to university.

But worryingly, at the same time as business leaders and some in government are promoting enterprise, there is a pervasive attitude from the politically correct which is undermining their efforts.

I hear we must now refer to failure as ‘deferred success’ to avoid upsetting anyone.

We have certain exams which are more difficult to fail than to pass, and competitive sport among schoolchildren is becoming an endangered species.

In some schools (but, it has to be said, by no means all), the young have sports days where there are no winners and everyone gets a medal.

It is a totally nonsensical attitude but one that has infected the thinking of too many people and, if unchecked, will leave children unprepared for the realities of the modern world.

We are telling youngsters that risk does not exist and regulating the lifeblood of enterprise out of people.

We are fast becoming a nation of rights with no one taking responsibility for their actions.

And, while this cosy codswallop exists, there are 1.2bn risk-takers in China, one billion in India and 280m in the US, all eager to grab their slice of the globalised pie.

In those countries, the race is to be first, to be best and there are no medals simply for showing up.

Unless we act now – and the changes must start with the government – Britain will be left trailing behind.

To tackle this, the CBI has been trying to engage young people with enterprise.

It was one of the founders of Enterprise Insight which is running a national campaign to promote the spirit of enterprise to young people and those who influence them.

But business can do more. More entrepreneurs should engage with young people and show them the challenges and rewards of going for their dreams.

They must be willing to share their experience with new and aspiring entrepreneurs, to provide advice and support for them to be able to convert their ideas into reality.

They should work more closely with schools too – head teachers are crying out for more local business people to get amongst their teachers and pupils.

Equally, if the government wants to be taken seriously when it talks about enterprise, it must put its own house in order.

There is a growing feeling in the business community that, for all the fine rhetoric, we no longer have a government which shows by its actions that the nation first has to earn the money ministers are so keen to spend.

By acting with greater entrepreneurship, Whitehall departments and local authorities alike can improve efficiency, deliver better value for money and improve services to the public.

Responsibility for championing enterprise should not start and end within the DTI; every state department, whether it is Education and Skills or Culture and Sport, has a role to play.

So the CBI suggests in today’s report that the Government nominates an existing minister in each department to carry a specific brief for enterprise and to encourage their colleagues to be much more enterprising, both in policy and operations.

These enterprise champions should then co-ordinate their activities to ensure a joined-up approach across Whitehall to maximise the benefits to society and the economy.

Wealth creation and social inclusion can be good bedfellows.

Staying ahead in the global marketplace is getting tougher and tougher. If we are going to unleash an enterprise revolution and drive our economy forward then we need all parts of society – individuals, business and government – to play their part.

The writer is director-general of the Confederation of British Industry

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