Tonight I am launching my new book; Dragons: How Ten Entrepreneurs Built Britain; at the RSA.
You can read my remarks below; watch the discussion on the RSA website – livestreamed from 6pm – or join the discussion online using #Dragons.
Renewing Our Entrepreneurial Democracy
Remarks to the Royal Society of Arts on
Dragons: How Ten Entrepreneurs Built Britain
Tuesday 24th May 2016
Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP
Nearly 20 years ago, I was innocently sitting in an auditorium like this, blissfully unaware that my life was about to change forever.
I was just about to start at the Harvard Business School
And begin study with a class on the ‘Making of America’
Over the months that followed, I listened in awe to some of the most amazing stories I had ever heard.
It wasn’t like any history I’d heard before – full of facts and figures
These were stories full of flesh and blood – of the entrepreneurs who helped build America
I was hooked
Within a year, I’d persuaded my wife, Sarah, who was six months pregnant, that it’d be a good idea if I turned down the lucrative job offers from consultancies and banks – and live on our credit card while I wrote a business plan for a start-up.
And I decided one thing more:
That one day I would write the book about the Making of Britain – not with loads of dry facts and figures, but with the flesh and blood of the stories of our greatest entrepreneurs from Dick Whittington to John Spedan Lewis.
So: here’s the book I’m been trying to write for 16 years
It’s not quite Horrible Histories meets the Apprentice – though at times it gets quite close – but it offers a simple truth:
This amazing country, still home to world’s fifth biggest economy, was built not simply by sovereigns, and soldiers, and scientists and statesman – but by some of the greatest entrepreneurs in history
They were buccaneers like Lord Robert Rich, masters of the broadside and the balance sheet who created the first colonies and companies in America, winning along the way rights and freedoms not just to trade but to keep their profits safe from despotic kings.
They were traders like Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt who built great trading empires amid the giant old economies of the East.
They were pioneers like Matthew Boulton who mastered the steam engines that revolutionized power for the factories and forges of the Industrial Revolution
Capitalists like Nathan Rothschild who helped build the world’s greatest capital market in London.
They were visionaries like George Cadbury and William Lever who brought mass production to new consumer products, from chocolate to soap, while tycoons like John Spedan Lewis created new giants of the great British high street.
They have been amazing stories to write – and I hope they’re amazing stories to read – not least because they taught me such a lesson about politics – and such a lesson about life.
A LIFE LESSON
The truth is this book almost never saw the light of day. Last year, I wasn’t sure I had to strength to write it.
You see, although I loved start-up land, I’m the son of two public service workers, and when I lost my mum to cancer at the age 52, I realised that I had to get on with the business of giving something back and stand for parliament.
I was lucky. I went up through the ranks. I got all the hard jobs. I tackled them with gusto – and that didn’t make me many friends – and I made some big mistakes.
Not least, the leaving note I left at the Treasury joking ‘there was no money’
David Cameron used it as a stick to mercilessly to beat my party, and it brought me a terrible public shame.
But, what I could not say at the time was that my public shame was overwhelmed by the private shame I felt as I lost my father to a twenty year battle with alcohol.
My dad’s death and our election defeat brought me to my lowest ebb.
I felt a total failure.
In despair I took myself off to visit the wisest man I know. An uncle who knows everything.
He walked me up the cliff outside his house, overlooking the glorious English channel and as I held my head in my hands, he gave me the most extraordinary advice I’ve ever heard:
It’s an old line of Samuel Beckett’s:
‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better.’
That’s the wisdom I suddenly saw in every story here – and that’s why I knew I had to finish this book.
All of these entrepreneurs failed.
But then they just got up and sought to fail better.
Rich, nearly lost everything in his battle with the king, and was almost forced to emigrate before his fortunes turned.
Pitt, made a fortune and then lost a fortune fighting the French, and had to start over again.
Boulton was constantly on the brink of bankruptcy – and when the millers burned down his great factory, Albion Mill, he had to find a way to pick up the pieces.
The Cadbury brothers spent years nearly going under until they found a way to thrive.
Spedan Lewis nearly lost his life as a young man, and was in constant battles with his dad, until he found a way to prevail.
All of these entrepreneurs lived out Kipling’s advice ‘meet Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same’.
They know you have to match the audacity of hope with the tenacity of hope.
And, that’s a lesson our country needs today.
THE POLITICAL LESSON
It’s no secret capitalism is in the dog-house.
Growth is flat.
Some like Larry Summers call it an age of ‘secular stagnation’
The author Robert Gordon has just written a big new book called: ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’. Its message is simple: our best days are behind us.
Larry Fink says the new giants of the global economy are failing to invest in the future.
So it’s no wonder, voters are furious and reaching for radical solutions, from Donald Trump to Brexit.
Now we could give up. Turn back. Walk away from the world.
But here’s the lesson from history:
Entrepreneurs are the answer.
Today, we need to try harder. Fail again. Fail better.
Down the ages, this country was built and rebuilt by some of the greatest innovators on earth.
Theirs are the ‘animal spirits’ we need today to drive an entrepreneurial surge to create new industries – in big data, cyber-security, genetic science, or the internet of things – new jobs, new wealth and new possibilities.
They’re the people who spread the power and potential of new times.
Now, I think we’ve got reason to be optimistic in this country:
- Britain boasts nearly 2 million more firms than at the turn of the century;
- Over 40% of Europe’s ‘unicorns’ (new firms worth over $1 billion) are UK based.
- By the next election, there will be more self-employed people than public service workers.
But, here’s the inconvenient truth.
We need to be doing much, much better:
- A million people have left entrepreneurial activity in the last three years.
- Globally, we’re only 48th out of 60 in the global enterprise league table – and of the top 300 companies created in the last thirty years, only a handful are British.
- The only two British websites in the global 100 were actually founded in America – google.co.uk and amazon.co.uk.
Down the ages, Britain’s entrepreneurs offer us an extraordinary inspiration.
Of course, there are angels and demons.
But at their best, Britain’s enterprise spirit has driven forward innovation, new industries, and world-beating firms which not only created new wealth but invented new ways to share it from Port Sunlight to Bournville to the boardroom of John Lewis.
Now, I’ve got some ideas for how we fix this:
- In our schools and colleges;
- In government science policy and support for small business
- And in our banking system
But I am very blessed to be on stage with two people who know far more than me about how we once again, become a nation of world-beaters, a country that takes some inspiration from the past, but which is ambitious that our best days lie ahead.
So I just underline the lesson of the last six hundred years.
Great entrepreneurs change history – by inventing the future. And if we want a great future, we need to help them, not only fail better. We need to help them succeed.