We Tories must shake off this hostility to business and embrace entrepreneurial capitalism

George W Bush famously said that “the problem with France is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”.

In reality, the French have plenty of words for it, but as Emmanuel Macron has grasped, simply not enough actual entrepreneurs. Instead, they’re in London – now France’s fourth biggest city – escapees from the country’s self-defeating labour laws, drawn to London’s renaissance as a vibrant global city. 

De Gaulle’s famous dictum that it is hard to govern a country with 300 cheeses has been turned around: the recent revival of British cheese by entrepreneurs now means that the UK has more cheeses than France. (We are seemingly becoming less governable, too.) 

Macron wants to exploit Brexit to lure back French entrepreneurs, and with them UK and US scientists and businesses alienated by Brexit or Trump’s isolationism. Smart move. Entrepreneurs and enterprise are the keys to Western Europe’s economic vitality. Unsubsidised, self-motivating, risk-taking, globally-ambitious, job-creating, customer-empowering, tax-generating engines of opportunity: if you described this to one of the many committees in Whitehall looking at entrepreneurship, they’d say it was unrealistic to expect people to take such risks. But they do. And we need to support them.

The buccaneers of British innovation – people like James Dyson, Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Brent Hoberman, Martha Lane Fox and Luke Johnson, and countless less famous but similarly successful others – have done more to transform this country than most ministers ever will. Investor entrepreneurs like German-born Hermann Hauser (the only man to start 10 companies all now worth over £1 billion), and the thousands of “angel” investors backing start-ups, are funding the modernisation of our economy. Companies like Vodafone, Virgin and Dyson have showed what’s possible. A new generation of high growth companies emerging from UK “incubators” and clusters like Tech City have the potential to be the BP, Virgin or GSK of tomorrow, employing tens of thousands and – in turn – generating billions for our public services.

Which makes the creeping sense of hostility to business in British politics generally – and the Conservative Party since the Brexit referendum – all the more peculiar. Thirty years after unleashing a renaissance of enterprise which reversed this country’s prospects in the space of just seven years (1979 to 1986), a Conservative Government confronted by a growing anti-globalisation backlash seems to be flirting with anti-capitalism. 

Of course we need to be tenacious guardians against cosy cartel capitalism, fat-cattery, rip-off merchants, money launderers and the international criminals who pose as businesses or exploit our laws (we aren’t nearly tough enough). But we must always promote real entrepreneurship: the fresh, insurgent, empowering, disruptive sort that is the oil that makes the engine of capitalism hum.

While the UK is still a crucible of entrepreneurship, the engine isn’t humming – and not just from the rising cost of goods or worries over the impact of a hard Brexit on access to markets and talent. Popular support for business is waning, too. The truth is that a whole new generation of “millennial” voters, shaped by the impossibility of getting on the housing ladder, an ever-rising cost of living (especially rent and childcare), all the while observing London and the South East become a playground for the global super rich, are feeling locked out of the system. Is it any wonder that the virtues and benefits of capitalism are not apparent to them? Why would you support capitalism if you have no prospect of owning any capital?

Wider share ownership, and obvious consumer choice and power, are keys to popular capitalism. And for a new generation it needs to be clear that capitalism isn’t just about share value but about shared values. For markets to flourish they need the consent of consumers, seeing the values they hold dear cherished rather than trashed. The damage that those like Philip Green do isn’t just to BHS but to all of us fighting off the real threat of renewed socialism and the poverty it will guarantee the poorest.

As Theresa May has rightly flagged, market failure should offend real Tories. The way in which so many of our core markets – banking, energy, water, transport – have been allowed to evolve towards entrenched dominance by a few established players (often with government subsidies or protected monopoly privileges) to the detriment of customers is extraordinary. In fact, given this country is home to so many of the most exciting new companies with the ability to bust open cartels and drive innovation, prosperity and opportunity, it’s inexcusable.  

Too often our public sector is a barrier to UK innovation, when it should be a catalyst. Nowhere is this more clear than in the field of “life science” (the development of life-changing biomedical technologies) where the NHS is too often an obstacle to innovation, instead of being a research partner to world class start-ups like Oxford based Immunocore (pioneering drug cures for cancer), which was my crusade as Minister for Life Science, pre Brexit.

By embracing a partnership between private and public sector, we could unleash a new cycle of growth with the UK as the melting pot of the innovation emerging markets are crying out for. In my 15 year career before Parliament, working in the MedTech, AgriTech and CleanTech sectors, I was lucky enough to help start some of these innovative new companies. Vectura, for instance, now the UK’s world leading drug delivery technology company, began on my desk as a one page memo on an idea for a new type of company. Because of the entrepreneurial drive of its management, staff and investors, it’s now worth over £1bn and employs thousands. 

If Britain is to get out of our black hole of debt we cannot cut our way out – we must grow our way out. And we will have to do that by innovation growth, not population growth. As the economic power of mass consumption shifts to the East, we can be, and need to be, the crucible of new technologies: the renewable energy and battery tech, vaccines, digital health, disease and drought resistant crops that are transforming emerging markets.

As a democrat in a sovereign Parliament I’m reconciled to making a success of Brexit. But we will only do that if we make it a moment of national renewal. The moment we stop blaming others for our own failings and confront them honestly – with the same entrepreneurial energy, ambition, rigour and purpose that characterises our great start-ups.

To unleash this spirit of 21st century enterprise we need to implement some real reforms to create the conditions for new businesses to flourish. But we also need to ask some hard questions about the failures of British capitalism in the last 20 years, and the failures of the Conservative Party in the last couple of years to be the champions of enterprise and all it can deliver.

Will Brexit be the moment we turn our backs on the world and turn in on ourselves, or the moment we reform and renew our economic model to create a more insurgent capitalism for the 21st century? 
Monsieur Macron is waiting for us to fail. We mustn’t. 

| This article was first published in The Telegraph

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