It would be hard to deny that we are an inventive nation. Take sports. Billions around the world are obsessed with them — playing and watching. The British invented and formalised football, rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, table tennis, netball, badminton, snooker, squash, darts and bowls. Others helped to develop them but without our input they might never have become popular.
Britain is also world class in more intellectual pursuits. We have received the second-highest number of Nobel prizes — more than Japan, France, India and China combined. This haul doesn’t rest on long-ago victories: we have received 12 Nobel prizes in the past five years, more than most countries have achieved in 120 years.
In the years ahead, we will need that ingenuity more than ever. The gruesome toll of the pandemic and lockdowns means we have more than £2.2 trillion of national debt, the highest unemployment rate in a decade, mass insolvencies and widespread gloom over the way many institutions have performed in the past year. Sadly, borrowing, unemployment and corporate failures will all increase. Our cities are shattered; public transport systems are bleeding vast sums; the practicalities of trading with the EU are troubled. We have been living beyond our means. Now we need to graft more, invest more and repair the damage of the past year.
The only way we can dig ourselves out of the wreckage is through economic growth, and that will come from newer businesses. These tend to create the jobs and innovate more than bigger, more-established companies. It is no coincidence that Pfizer relied on BioNTech to pioneer its vaccine.
Lots of think tanks, academics and policymakers believe that the way to build a more enterprising nation is through government. Lower taxation and more intelligent regulation can help to stimulate growth, and sometimes state investment makes a difference. However, the underlying reason why certain places are more enterprising than others is their culture. It is people who launch new firms and breakthrough technologies. Cultural shifts are not dictated from Westminster: they flourish from the ground up, in homes, classrooms, pubs and workplaces.
Unfortunately, there has been an oppressive emphasis on safety and security at any cost since March last year. A fearful and dependent society is highly unlikely to encourage risk-takers to stake their savings and futures on new ventures. We must not allow a neurotic attitude of risk aversion to inhibit Britain’s entrepreneurial instincts. The national conversation has been utterly dominated by politicians, academics, doctors and others on the public payroll. Too many of them sign up to concepts such as the precautionary principle because they have minimal interest or understanding of the private sector. Without a business revival, the state will be unable to pay their salaries and pensions, let alone the rest of the welfare bill.
Yet there are signs of optimism. New business formations grew by 14 per cent in 2020 to a record 772,002. The animal spirits of entrepreneurs are irrepressible — they will always see opportunity, even in the darkest times. It may be that more people will be encouraged to start their own businesses as part of the (dread phrase) “new normal”. Perhaps they have been made redundant; possibly they have reassessed their priorities and decided the freedom and independence that comes from working for yourself matters more than the apparent comfort of employment.
Apart from our history, Britain has many advantages. We have superb universities, exemplified by Oxford’s principal role in devising the Astra Zeneca vaccine, demonstrating our capabilities in life sciences. We have dynamic and world-leading financial services, which means that, generally speaking, deserving firms can raise both early and late stage capital. Our success in the creative industries is outstanding, be it computer games, television and film, publishing or music.
Entrepreneurs have naturally hated the lockdown restrictions. However, despite the huge economic destruction, endless frustrations and even looming bankruptcies, I don’t know one who is surrendering. Being your own boss is a way of life and a philosophy — it can provide a satisfaction no other career can match. In the next few years, Britain will need their fierce ambition, brilliant ideas, hard work and confidence like never before. There is much to be done. We well understand the task ahead. Let us hope that the founders, risk-takers and adventurers seize the moment to lead us into the sunlit uplands.