Last week, the Prime Minister gave a speech saying it’s essential the whole of the UK is levelled up, and regardless of your political view, I can’t imagine anyone would argue with that. If Britain is to be Great again, it requires the whole country to prosper, not just a select few.
I was reminded of an event a few years ago, when I was asked to put questions to Charles Handy CBE, the brilliant author and philosopher. He talked about the responsibilities of businesses, and how they, far more than government, can effect positive change. I wish the conversation had been recorded so I could share it verbatim, but I recall these three, key points.
1. Across Europe, our buildings have tended to show who had power at different periods of history. First it was the Castles and Palaces, matched only by the Cathedrals for grandeur. Then came the municipal buildings, the seats of government both national and regional. Now, the major towns and cities are dominated by anonymous glass skyscrapers, with little or no indication as to who occupies them other than perhaps a logo with a few letters. Handy made the point that the powerbase changes, from monarchy and clergy, to government, and then to corporations. He predicted that it will change again, and the baton would be passed to small businesses.
2. Many people will have several different careers during their life. Whereas previous generations tended to stay in one field for 40+ years and then retire, now, with life expectancy extending far past three score years and ten, they will start new ventures for the final chapter of their lives. Handy forecast that a FD of a major pharma business might start a niche landscape gardening company, a CEO of a factory might start a specialist painting school, and that other industry leaders will get involved with charities and other causes to contribute to society.
3. Small and medium sized businesses are the engine room for the UK and most other developed countries. This view is supported by the Federation of Small Business whose report last year highlighted:
- At the start of 2020 there were 5.94 million small businesses (with 0 to 49 employees), 99.3% of the total business. SMEs account for 99.9% of the business population (6.0 million businesses).
- SMEs account for three fifths of the employment and around half of turnover in the UK private sector.
- Total employment in SMEs was 16.8 million (61% of the total), whilst turnover was estimated at £2.3 trillion (52%).
- Employment in small businesses (with 0 to 49 employees) was 13.3 million (48% of the total), with a turnover of £1.6 trillion (36%).
Whilst it is disputed that it was Napoleon who called Britain, “A nation of shopkeepers”, far from being disparaging, the statement suggested that Britain’s greatness came about for our trading skills and the rise of the “merchant class”. My sense is that history can repeat itself.
I accept that my natural optimism might be getting the better of me but I feel that we’re poised for a business revolution and that small company owners will be in the vanguard. I don’t recall another time in my 40+ year career when I’ve felt so positively charged, in no small part as a consequence of being privy to so many exciting plans for growth that our members are actionning as we enter the CMP (Covid Managed Period).
The government is committed to levelling up, but it will be business, and small business in particular, that will deliver it.
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