Ninety minutes with Lord Sugar

The British Library, and its peerless Business & IP Centre, has been the focal point of this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, which finishes today. The week, which celebrates and promotes the spirit of enterprise across nations, was launched with great fanfare at the Library on Monday (November 16). Luminaries included Britain’s tallest entrepreneur, Peter Jones and Jim O’Neil, chief economist from Goldman Sachs.

The Library also published its "Enterprising Voices" report, ten suggestions about how to turn Britain into the world’s most enterprising economy. Like our own Saving Britain’s Future mainfesto, this one recomends a genuine exemption from tax for start-ups in their first 18 months of trading. Other useful recommendations come from IP lawyer Denise Nurse, who says early-stage businesses find it tough to protect their ideas because of lengthy patent application processes. "The development of a fast-track scheme for small businesses fighting patent infringement or the creation of a UK-wide insurance scheme could be vital in helping SMEs," says Nurse.

But it was the appearance of Lord Sugar of Clapton, for a live Q&A with an audience of aspiring entrepreneurs that, inevitably, dominated attention. Lord Sugar (not plain "Sir Alan", as he reminded guests) is not only one of Britain’s most successful businessmen, he’s also now the government’s "enterprise champion" (not "czar", as he reminded guests).

The evening was billed as "a unique opportunity to hear from one of the UK’s best-known entrepreneurs about his path to success and his inspirations along the way." My role was to prompt useful debate. Hmmmm. On both counts.

Lord Sugar has taken huge flak recently for labelling some small businesses as "moaners" living in "Disneyland". In his view, the banks should not be expected to support such businesses in perpetuity. The Federation of Small Businesses took great umbrage and demanded his resignation. Lord Sugar has mulled that he might even "fire" himself.

So the British Library audience may have expected emollient tones from Lord Sugar. They didn’t get them. His tour around the country in his "enterprise champion" role seem to have left him dismayed: "I have seen disastrous situations where people have used the so-called recession as an excuse to pass on blame to others, particularly to the banks. I have seen some hopeless cases that no one in this room would lend a penny to.” Where is the vim and vigour of the seventies and eighties, he wondered, the great Thatcherite spirit of on-yer-bike? Recession has encouraged a lily-livered spirit; business is tough. Live with it. As the Financial Times‘ Jonathan Guthrie said of the British Library evening: "It was a case of 200 against one. The 200 were badly outnumbered."

As for my own role in compering the awesome star of The Apprentice ("we’re not here to discuss that," Lord Sugar reminded guests), Mr Guthrie eulogised. Seldom has he witnessed such bravery in the line of fire, he pointed out with admiration. The weakling boardroom contestants could learn a thing or two from that Matthew Rock, he reckons. Guthrie’s phrasing could do with a bit of work, mind: "The compere, the normally unflappable Matthew Rock of Caspian Publishing, wore the expression of a guppy that finds itself sharing a tank with a piranha. Even if he framed a question as a compliment, his beady-eyed interlocutor would rip it to shreds."

This was the Lord Sugar show in full colour, haranguing, besmirching, occasionally encouraging, mainly exasperated. Beneath it all, there is an intriguing purpose. As Richard Tyler points out in the Telegraph: "[Gordon] Brown, and his adviser Baroness Vadera, hired Sugar because they decided that businesses needed to hear such tough messages that they couldn’t give themselves." Fearful that the bank-bashing of the past two years is turning into a noughties-style dependency culture, they’ve unleashed the attack dog. And, my, is he snarling.

You can watch the full show, live and dangerous, here. I’m off to feed the fish…

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