Relative economic decline has been the British story for almost 100 years. Two world wars, loss of empire and the rise of America played their part, but for a nation that invented the railways and brought mass industrialisation to the world, an entrepreneurial spark has been lacking in the post-war years. As, one by one, the steel, coal, motor and shipbuilding industries all shrank and were overtaken by new entrants, disappointingly few British champions emerged to replace them.
Can we change? Could a new British entrepreneurialism take root and flourish?
That is certainly the hope of Chancellor Gordon Brown, who recently hosted a grand international conference in London called 'Advancing Enterprise'.
Business heroes such as Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Sir Terry Leahy and outgoing Unilever chairman Niall Fitzgerald were in attendance, as well as representatives from all the major world economies.
Delegates heard how Britain would be launching several new initiatives in the quest to build a more entrepreneurial culture, including a new National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship. In addition, in November 2004, the first-ever national Enterprise Week will focus on inspiring the young; young entrepreneurs from Britain will meet and learn from their American counterparts.
Other ideas were floated: all pupils should have the opportunity, before they leave school, to enjoy 'not just work experience, but enterprise education too', the chancellor said. An annual British competition for the British town or city of enterprise was proposed, as well as a competition for a European city of enterprise. And a joint US-UK Forum on Enterprise will be held this summer.
The Government is realistic about the limitations of all these wizard new schemes. 'Building an enterprise culture doesn't depend on any one initiative or individual,' said Brown, 'but on changes in attitude and outlook, which will, in time, transform our culture. In other words, advancing enterprise depends upon the efforts of all of us.'
What can we do about this? Can we teach entrepreneurship? Or do we just have to wait for enterprising people to force their way to the top?
As the director of the London Business School's Foundation for Entrepreneurial Management, Professor John Mullins has seen hundreds of wannabe entrepreneurs pass through LBS's lecture halls in recent years. 'The simple answer is that, no, you can't "teach" entrepreneurialism,' he says. 'But we can enable people with the right capabilities to become a better entrepreneur.
There is a lot to learn, not least from other people's experiences.'
Professor Simon Parker, director of the Barclays Centre for Entrepreneurship at Durham Business School, agrees. 'The characteristics of prominent entrepreneurs are rare and probably quite hard to emulate,' he says. 'But if you are talking about the disciplines of small-business ownership, or developing people's interest in starting up businesses, then, yes, we can do that.
However, we can't necessarily do a lot about people's innate ability.'
So what does it take to become an entrepreneur, and how do you know if you've got it? Dr Adrian Atkinson of the consultancy Human Factors International, who has been researching entrepreneurship for many years, identifies the main characteristics of successful entrepreneurs. 'There is arguably some sort of genetic component, but that is controversial territory. What is clear is that childhood experiences tend to create the sort of person we become. The third aspect to this is the learning and development that can support an entrepreneur.
'Often, male entrepreneurs have had some sort of traumatic experience in childhood, or have felt marginalised in some way. Many of them are dyslexic. Some are the children of immigrants who have felt a sense of injustice at seeing their formerly prosperous parents struggle in demeaning jobs.
'Some people with this sort of background end up becoming criminals,' he adds. 'Entrepreneurs are different, because of their strong values and sense of right and wrong. I have yet to come across an entrepreneurial son of an entrepreneur, though. They may make good businesspeople, but are not risk-takers.'
Women are different. 'They tend to become entrepreneurs later in life, after a good education. They are highly independent, and find in their twenties and thirties that they don't want to work for other people.'
There is an important distinction between serial entrepreneurs, such as Sir Richard Branson and Stelios Haji-Iannou, and theme entrepreneurs like Chris Evans or Sir Alan Sugar. The former move from one idea to another, starting up new businesses without worrying what area the business is in. 'In these cases, intellectual ability is almost irrelevant,' says Atkinson. Theme entrepreneurs are committed to specific fields, such as bioscience or high-tech manufacturing.
Either way, the drive seems to come from within. 'So am I suggesting that we need to make people's childhoods more unhappy?' he asks. 'Of course not. We can't just "create" Richard Bransons, but we can encourage corporate entrepreneurs, calculated risk-takers, who never stop working.'
Denys Shortt of DCS Europe, one of the UK's top 10 entrepreneurs in MT's January 2004 feature, says hard work and a disciplined approach lie behind his success in business. He is a regular attender at LBS's annual masterclass on entrepreneurship, but confesses: 'I'm sure I'd have benefited from more formal training in managing a business, but I was too busy building it to stop.'
Guts, commitment, getting out to customers and knocking on doors have all been central to Shortt's success. Yet he would not want a business staffed solely by entrepreneurs. 'That really would drive you mad,' he says.
LBS's Mullins believes the popular image of lonely, swashbuckling entrepreneurs is misleading. 'Most successful entrepreneurs don't do it all on their own,' he says. 'They bring in strong people to help them and build a good team.'
Successful entrepreneurs learn quickly from their mistakes, he adds.
'They are good at making mid-course corrections. They have a Plan B, a Plan C and D, and so on. And they are comfortable with ambiguity. In a larger business, you know your customers, your markets and your products.
There is a lot less ambiguity. It's not like that for entrepreneurs - which is why it isn't for everybody.'
The SSDA recognises the need for this creative spark. In a recent speech to the Skills Convention, SSDA chair Margaret Salmon said: 'The increasing importance of knowledge, creativity and skills is changing the way firms compete. As a country, we are more reliant than ever on the skills of our workforce.'
So how do we encourage this flourishing of entrepreneurial talent that we all seem to want? The work has to start very early, even in school, says Durham's Parker. But, he adds: 'Schools and universities tend not to encourage people to take risks. Teachers are probably not the best people to talk about this.'
Entrepreneurialism is 'caught rather than taught', through the influence of friends and family, and personal experiences. The Chancellor isn't so wide of the mark when he talks of the need for schools to offer 'not just work experience, but enterprise education, too'. We just have to find the right people to provide it.
CASE STUDY 2 - A LIFE OF LEARNING
GARETH JONES, graduate high-flyer, Phones4U
'Sometimes, simple solutions are the hardest to find. When you're trying to become market leader, the pressure can cloud matters further. The light at the end of the tunnel appeared for me when I met a customer service expert who encouraged me to clear away the clutter (of channels, products, in-store marketing and selling practices) to get to what really mattered: customer excellence. That means investing time and effort into discovering exactly what customers want and then giving it to them at the best price.
The long term isn't about commissions and bonuses; it's about building relationships and loyalty by supplying the demand in the best manner possible, every single time.'
CASE STUDY 3 - A LIFE OF LEARNING
MIKE SANDERSON, chief executive SEMTA
'My training was rather haphazard and I learned most things on the job.
I didn't leave university until I was 25, and by the age of 28 I was managing about 300 people at Wilkinson Sword, most of whom were 20 years older then me. Pretty challenging. I soon joined the board as engineering director for consumer products, and I was working solely with marketing men. I had to learn how to behave like a marketing man and communicate in a simple way. That was a big learning experience. It took me six months just to get the language right. I would have done better to have gone on a course at business school, but I learned on the job. After seven years, I became international marketing director and briefed teams for our TV ads.
More formal training in marketing would have made life easier.'