Starting up is hard to do

It is tempting to see all the recent attention paid by Cabinet ministers to entrepreneurs as little more than bluster. After all, for politicians keen on a meritocratic society, buccaneering businesspeople make great heroes.

But perhaps we should not be too cynical. In the long term, we might view recent events as marking a turning point in Britain's view of business.

The reason is that attitudes are important. Sure, entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who back them might always be calling for positive action; the latest cry is for capital gains tax to be slashed. However, a signal that risk-taking will be rewarded is perhaps not as crucial as changing attitudes or cultures.

Britain has long been proud of its position as Europe's leading entrepreneurial nation, but research published earlier this month should sound a wake- up call to anybody feeling complacent about that record.

The "Global Entrepreneurship Monitor", a survey published by Apax Ventures and carried out by the London Business School and Babson College of the US, is the first attempt to study the level of entrepreneurial activity around the world.

The good news is Britain is confirmed in its intermediate position: behind the US, Canada and Israel, but in line with Italy and ahead of France, Germany and Japan. But when it comes to seeing a business start-up as a respec-table occupation, only the Japanese score lower, while just 16 per cent of respondents feel there are good opportunities for starting a firm in the UK.

Michael Hay, of the London Business School, feels methods are improving. His says increasing numbers of MBA students are looking to start their own businesses rather than join a consultancy or take a faceless management position in a big corporation.

This change of approach needs to go much deeper. Parents should view business careers for their children as worthwhile as those in the traditional professions, and schools need to give students a more realistic view of the role of business in society.

The Prime Minister's speech to an "entrepreneur's summit" last week recognised this. He said all the right things about how fast-growth firms were creating the jobs and wealth on which the nation depended.

Sadly, coverage of the speech was distorted by Tony Blair's remark that he would like to see a bit of enterprise in the public sector, too. If the Prime Minister now decides to lie low in the wake of the furore, all the excitement generated over the past few days could be quickly lost. As the entrepreneurial community that gave him such a warm reception might say, it's time to take the risk, Tony.

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