The Not-So-Fantastic Mr. Fox

by Alice Gallop

According to trade secretary Liam Fox, the UK is “not the free-trading nation it once was.” In the words of the Rt Hon. Gentleman, British businessmen have grown “too lazy and fat” and would rather spend Friday afternoon on the golf course than be out chasing new business deals.

One would struggle to draw a cruder caricature.

Dr. Fox’s ‘unguarded’ attack was not only insulting to a number of businessmen who are in fact the very opposite of fat and lazy, but also troubling that the trade secretary should be so out of touch with the businesses he is supposed to represent.

Toucan champion Richard Reed and co-founder of Innocent Drinks led the criticism on behalf of British entrepreneurs calling Mr. Fox’s comments ‘absolutely disgusting’, adding that he had never played golf in his life.

If you’re self employed and running your own business, you tend to work very long hours. Entrepreneurship is about finding worth in the worthless and possibility in the impossible, and hard work is a necessity. The upside is there is sometimes flexibility in the working week compared to the traditional 9-5. Fox’s remarks draw attention to the odd Friday afternoon off rather than the sleepless nights, working weekends or laptops taken on family holidays that are truly far more common.

Fox brandishes a golf club to defend himself against an army of British entrepreneurs who appear neither lazy nor fat

Contrary to Fox’s nostalgic appraisal of the good ol’ days of business vitality, the UK government actually reported that the number of private sector businesses were at an all-time high in 2016. At the beginning of 2016, there were one million more small businesses and 4000 more medium firms in comparison to the beginning of 2010. Furthermore the report showed that small businesses accounted for 99.3% of all private sector businesses and their combined annual revenue amounted to £1.8 trillion (47% of all private sector turnover in the UK). These businesses are the ones that create the most jobs and drive economic growth in the UK, which raises the question shouldn’t government officials be going out of their way to support rather than criticise them?

Of course, it is unfair to tar the entire government with the same brush. Small business Minister Margot James has committed herself to helping small businesses to thrive and has recently launched a consultation to establish the role of a Small Business Commissioner to act as a representative for small firms across the UK. The government has also launched a review to see if employment rules need changing due to the sharp rise in self-employment.

But the government could go further still; a few quick suggestions might be: tax breaks on hiring staff – simplifying employee pension schemes for small firms – tax breaks on importing raw materials (given the pain of the weak Pound) – and expanding the Start Up loans scheme to support fledgling companies in need of a cash injection. .

Whether Fox was trying to light a fire beneath industry and trigger a post-Brexit stimulant is unclear. But as the old saying goes ‘before criticising anyone, walk a mile in their shoes’. Since Mr Fox has never had the pleasure of running a business it may make sense to spend a few years doing just that before making such obtuse comments. Afterwards we would be happy to have a chat about the state of British entrepreneurs… over a round of golf perhaps?