Cameron’s repackaged initiative

Posted on 30 Mar 2011 by The Manufacturer

Don't believe the rhetoric - there's nothing new about David Cameron's StartUp Britain, says Jane Gray

This week Prime Minister David Cameron has launched a ‘new’ initiative to support entrepreneurialism in the UK. But helpful as the objectives of StartUp Britain may be, can government really claim it is doing anything fresh or unusual through it?

StartUp Britain is essentially an industry led initiative to disseminate the immense wealth of successful businesses among the up and coming businesses of tomorrow. These bright new stars will play a crucial role in future supply chains and so it is well worth the while of companies like Google and Microsoft who are participating in the scheme.

However, although government may like to give out the impression that it is uniquely sensitive to industry needs in its support of this initiative, the fact is that it has had little influence in its evolution and, in any case, the model is almost identical to similar incarnations both in the UK and the USA.

Firstly, in the UK the previous government, under the leadership of Gordon Brown, launched, with high hopes, the Entrepreneurial Magnet Enterprise Week which was rolled out with almost identical rhetoric to that for StartUp Britain. The words ‘vibrant business-baked campaign’ have become somewhat over-baked in this scenario, as Jonathan Guthrie of the Financial Times pointed out yesterday (March 29).

For Cameron, StartUp Britain, which started life organically through intra industry partnerships, the launch has been an easy PR stunt. Having axed funding for the Labour-born Enterprise Week, it was necessary for the government to be seen to be making its promises of support for small business growth in the UK tangible. StartUp Britain has cost the government and the public purse nothing and has the added bonus of being able to steal its structure from similar projects in the US and Australia; Startup America and Commercialisation Australia.

However, although using these presidents increases the chances of the StartUp Britain functioning rationally and will hopefully avoid teething administrative pains, it does rather defeat the competitive aspect of the concept. Why is it that Britain always seems to be playing catch-up with foreign nations and competitors in its quest to support sustainable competitive advantage?

Entrepreneurial support is not the only case in this point – just look at the recently applauded TIC (Technology Innovation Centre) project. This growth motivated programme for research and development with commercial intent is largely based on a German precedent, as is the network of University Technical Colleges, provision for which doubled in the recent Budget as government tried to add weight to its words of support for vocational education.

There is nothing wrong with lifting a positive approach from foreign competitors. However, in establishing programmes like StartUp Britain the unique administrative, legal and skills environments for business in the UK do need to taken into account. Considering this it is disappointing to see relatively little involvement in StartUp Britain from trade organisations such as CBI and EEF. Without the benefit of experienced, sector specific advice for entrepreneurs on the dynamics of starting a business venture in the UK – the areas of tax and administrative advantage and disadvantage – StartUp Britain will simply become another chronic case of catch up Britain in which we fail to foster business acumen and the ability to play to strengths of our markets.