Ian Duncan Smith has proclaimed that we should again be a nation of shop keepers. Why is it that politicians insist on the misuse of this hackneyed phrase, originally attributed to Napoleon and meant as a fairly derogatory description of Britain?
Rising above this slur having morphed into a purportedly aspirational quote, Duncan Smith is not the first to play further with its meaning.
However, in 2011 it was more literally associated with the government’s bright idea to set up Mary Portas to lead a high street revitalisation – a scheme that had to be one of the government’s bigger failures. Despite £1.2m being spent, five out of six of the towns selected saw high streets shrink still further.
Portas blamed the government for slow funding and not giving her control over implementation. High street experts, retail bosses and the people directly affected blamed Portas. There were unpleasant rumours of Portas being more interested in enhancing her own career than the future of any high street, and a bubble of bitter resentment took longer than the scheme to die down.
Given the unfortunate memory is not that long sunk, it makes it somewhat stranger that Duncan Smith has revived the phrase in conjunction with the new appointment of Michelle Mone.
Mone is charged with leading a review to find out what is needed to encourage further entrepreneurship within deprived areas such as the one she herself came from. Given that we are talking about all types of startups, it seems strange to of Duncan Smith to associate it. Even more unfortunate when the brief is to encourage entrepreneurship in benefit claimants, young people, disabled people, ex-offenders and women.
Surely Duncan Smith could not be making some association in his mind between women and shopping?! On all fronts, he would have been better to choose another phrase.
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I sincerely hope the scheme is a success. There are few entrepreneurs as well placed and inspirational as Mone to achieve it. Cynic that I am, I worry about the whole concept being a little too vote winning, a little too much of a PR stunt. The UK is already rated the best place in Europe and indeed one of the best in the world to start a business. But there comes a point when you can just have too much of a good thing.
Not everyone is cut out to run businesses. Many prefer to work for others and leave their troubles at work rather than live and breathe a business 24/7. I would ask two questions – the first being that surely there will become a saturation point, when a majority of people actually suited to running a business have set one up. Is it a kindness or even good use of funds to go for overkill and encourage more, given the still high failure rate?
The second question is for me a perennial one. So much is done for startups and so little for SME’s who are already started. So much more needs to be done to encourage, to provide practical help in order to realise the dreams of the S to become the M in SME. The re-packaged Business Growth Scheme (the Growth Accelerator for anyone who doesn’t recognise it) needs a far higher and sexier profile. Why has this not been given some inspirational entrepreneur to spearhead it?
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