“You [are] a nation of merchants, and that all your great riches, and your grand resources [arise] from commerce. What else constitutes the riches of England. It is not extent of territory, or a numerous population. It is not mines of gold, silver, or diamonds. Moreover, no man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper. But your prince and your ministers appear to wish to change altogether l'esprit of the English, and to render you another nation.” -Napoleon Bonaparte
As a Canadian who had learnt of the history of the world’s greatest crusader for free trade, I was quite astonished to arrive in the UK a few years ago to see the entrepreneurial culture so fabled to be all but extinct.
Whereas it is the dream of all my Canadian colleagues to one day set up their own businesses and be their own bosses, the majority of people I have met here aspire to be either academics, public servants, or corporate employees. It seems the allure of job security, a pension, and freedom from any and all forms of risk have killed off the once great merchant class. One only needs to look at the makeup of Britain’s economy in recent years to see that outside of professional and financial services, growth is almost non-existent, and that this has contributed to a major stagnation of productivity.
There is no fundamental reason that this ought to be the case, though the overvaluation of the pound for the last decade did not help in building an export market. This has now thankfully been corrected. It is not for lack of skill and ingenuity that Britons are failing to build new businesses, and it is not for lack of capital that scalability is lacking. I overheard someone saying at Conservative Party Conference not too long ago that if Google had been set up in the UK it would have ended up the biggest search engine in Guilford, not the world. This is a problem of an underlying structure that is far more complicated to tackle, but one that must be addressed as soon as possible.
British capital is being invested in low risk projects as opposed to the high risk, but potentially game changing ventures that are brought about across the pond. On top of that, despite having some of the finest research institutions in the world, especially in high value fields such as computer science and engineering, the firms developed from that work are usually set up in other countries. This misallocation of resources presents a huge barrier to growth, and if corrected could bring huge productivity gains to the nation.
Given that the British people have given the government its largest historical mandate to restore a sovereign and global Britain, one of the main barriers to this accomplishment is a lack of new enterprise. I urge that the government to unilaterally remove all trade barriers to this country; that it disentangles us from onerous EU regulation as well as archaic domestic regulation in order to regain competitiveness; and that it furthers its move towards practical rather than university education, of which free schools and the apprenticeship levy are a step in the right direction. Another innovative proposal would be to encourage local councils to develop their own entrepreneurial grants, creating regional competition to attract entrepreneurs and investors, improving the risk appetite that is sincerely lacking.
As we leave the European Union, it is important that our politicians remember Great Britain’s history. This is a nation of merchants and shopkeepers, and nothing should be worn as a greater badge of honour than that. That a Frenchman saw it better 200 years ago than many here see it now, is something that we have been granted the opportunity to correct.
Ryan Kuhrana is a contributor at Generation Conservative