The people have spoken – let entrepreneurs be unchained
First published in the Sunday Times on 10th May 2015.
David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon are not the only big winners this weekend. British entrepreneurs are, too — because the electorate rejected the left-wing policies of Ed Miliband, and chose free enterprise instead.
I was not always a capitalist. When I was growing up in the 1970s in a leafy Buckinghamshire village, my family were serious socialists. My mum stood to become a Labour MP in one of the 1974 elections. I remember tearing down a Tory poster in support.
Tony Benn came to speak on her behalf in the school hall; my father edited the most famous left-wing magazine in Britain. I attended state schools, not so much because my parents couldn’t pay the fees of a private school education, but because private schools were against their principles.
But things change — people grow up and lose their childish illusions. My father rejected the takeover of British society by trade unions so much that in 1977 he was threatened with a libel suit by Jack Jones, general secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union.
I embraced business by accident at 18, and have been madly excited by its possibilities ever since. Because the objective of my first enterprise — a student nightclub — was to meet girls, rather than make money, it helped to frame my philosophy. Business is a means to an end. Profit has never been my sole — or even my main — purpose in starting and backing businesses.
To me enterprise has always been about limitless opportunities, and freedom to choose. About the idea that, for example, you can be a drop-out student working in a motel room in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in, say, 1975, and form a computer company that had revenue of just $16,000 in its first year — and that it might be Microsoft. And that way you can create thousands of jobs and change the world for the better using technology, and end up the world’s greatest living philanthropist.
Every start-up is a bold act of faith in the future, in your ability to defy the odds and succeed on your own. It means walking away from the comfort blanket of a conventional job as an employee — instead taking the extraordinary journey to become an entrepreneur, and shoulder responsibility for your own destiny. For more than 30 years, I have believed that making that leap is one of the bravest and most exciting acts that life offers. It is not right for everyone, by any means. But I am fantastically encouraged that approaching 5m Britons are self-employed — almost 15% of the workforce — twice the proportion of 15 years ago.
In my experience, most of the self-employed understand all too well about the tax-and-spend beliefs of Labour. They rightly fear a creed of redistribution, a bloated public sector, and fiscal irresponsibility.
Most of them voted Conservative because they did not want the country held to ransom by the public sector unions, Labour’s paymasters. They knew Ed Balls was promised as chancellor, who helped to almost bankrupt Britain during the financial crisis — and never accepted any blame.
Ed Miliband constantly attacked business — using the phrase “predatory capitalism” — threatening controls on prices in the energy and rented property sectors, and promising to reverse the sensible Tory reforms to employment law. It was felt that he alienated wealth creators to stoke the politics of envy.
He and his cohort knew virtually no entrepreneurs and poured scorn on the remarkable generation of 2m new private sector jobs in the past five years. By contrast, the Conservatives embraced business, and promoted entrepreneurship relentlessly.
Yet Labour big-thinkers had no credible alternative ideology. While Cameron offered discipline over public spending, and a free market agenda, Miliband implied a command economy and welfareism. They did not grasp the importance of private ownership, or of business innovation, or the power of Keynes’s animal spirits.
At heart, Labour’s ruling elite mistrust the profit motive, and feel suspicious of too much material success. Yet the British voters admire tycoons. In 2005, 2010 and 2015, billionaire Sir Richard Branson topped polls asking people who they would like as their fantasy prime minister. The public like winners who know how the world works, who are used to competition, and who have to sell their wares to customers not just once every five years, but every day.
So this battle has been won, but the war is far from over. Citizens need to be reminded constantly that no 21st century nation can prosper without a fiercely pro-business culture. Politicians demonise and over-regulate free markets at their peril: for then the taxes dry up, the jobs disappear, and the risk-takers flee. There are far too few impressive practitioners actively making the case for business as a powerful force for good, an unrivalled engine of material progress, and a wonderful promoter of individual freedom and choice. More entrepreneurs and bosses need to send the message — the era of big government is over — the only viable future is a dynamic private sector, from which everything else flows.