What is our problem with entrepreneurship?

I wrote a piece for the supplement that accompanied The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit last week:

What is an entrepreneur? “A person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so”. The dictionary definition will do but it doesn’t come close to taking in the full range of meanings. If you’re British you could probably add a secondary definition: “unemployable”, “difficult”, maybe “shifty”. Entrepreneurs are, on the whole, thought to be possessed of a personality disorder so profound as to make them impossible to accommodate in any ordinary organisation. Less fortunate sufferers from this disorder are to be found lining the shop doorways of our great cities after dark. This attitude is not universal but it’s widespread enough for us to begin to form an understanding of Britain’s problem with entrepreneurial behaviour. We interpret the activities of entrepreneurs as, well, dysfunctional, antisocial.

We tolerate entrepreneurs but we don’t really trust them. This is ironic, of course, since we invented the idea. The merchants- and guildsmen-turned capitalists who made Britain’s industrial revolution (the first of its kind anywhere in the world, remember) were entrepreneurs of the purest, prototypical form, as were the upper class boot-boys who built fortunes on slave labour and cheap natural resources in the colonies. The speculative use of capital in difficult, long-range investments like textile mills and tobacco plantations gave us the template for modern entrepreneurialism. Pig-headed determination married to financial and engineering brilliance produced some of the world’s great firms and took root in the newly free United States of America to become that nation’s founding ideology.

Britain continues to produce outstanding speculators, inventors and investors but they’re outsiders. Britain’s great institutions are still, almost without exception, hostile to entrepreneurialism and to business in general: the civil service, schools and universities, parliament, the health service, the BBC. All keep a sort of queazy and reluctant eye on business but would really rather it didn’t come up at all. The BBC’s flagship morning news programme – Today – notoriously shoe-horns business and enterprise culture into a three minute slot on the half-hour while the political establishment carves up the rest of the show, including its top slot: the 8:10 interview. The big interview – political media’s Everest – is reserved exclusively for Government ministers, party leaders and pretenders to those posts (and is, incidentally, the only part of the show available as a podcast). Britain’s elite – fifty years after Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, twenty five years after the triumph of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham and nearly ten years after Blair’s pro-business landslide – still pointedly ignores the contribution of enterprise to the ecology of a grown-up nation.

In the late nineties there was a brief but influential flowering of pro-business thinking in Britain. Coinciding with the arrival on these shores of the (whisper it) dot.com boom, a generation of journalists, politicians and wonks unschooled in – or just impatient with – the class war and bitter zero-sum industrial conflict that had characterised post-war Britain until then, set out a new narrative. They were influenced explicitly by the self-confident, playful, apparently post-ideological capitalists of the US West coast. California, in one influential Think Tank publication, was even presented as a model for the modernisation of the UK economy.

With the ensuing crash, though, came not just disillusion but a renewed cynicism and an apparently justified rejection of modish pro-enterprise thinking. Since the NASDAQ’s catastrophic tech-driven collapse in 2001 no one has dared suggest that a period of consistent, engaged, long-term investment in tech businesses would grow the British economy, press down on inflation (and interest rates) and prepare the country for the epic competitive challenge from the East. The hangover of the crash, long forgotten elsewhere, still holds back British enterprise. The explosion of young, inventive and forward thinking businesses that are building what we’re encouraged to call Web 2.0 on the other side of the pond just hasn’t happened here. My experience tell me that there’s no shortage of candidates for investment, no shortage of ideas. What’s missing is the commitment of investors and institutions to this vital, creative layer of the economy.

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