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Small Business Nostalgia for Thatcher is Badly Misplaced

12/04/2013 17:16 BST | Updated 12/06/2013 10:12 BST

"I think all of you will know that I have a special sympathy with small businesses because I was brought up in one.

There was no 9 to 5 routine. We seemed to be on the go the whole time. Number 10 is like that, and I still live over the shop. But then many of our large companies began life that way.

.... Large streams from little fountains flow,"

These words resonate like the ringing of cash registers in the dreams of independent entrepreneurs and leaders of small businesses of the UK back in the 1980s.

The words come, of course, from the mouth of arguably the fiercest and most passionately vociferous supporter of small business this country has ever seen - Margaret Thatcher and they come, in fact, from a speech she made to the Small Business Bureau at the Lakeside Country Club in Frimley, Surrey in 1984.

During her oratory, this grocer's daughter from Grantham articulated her vision of the free market in the most precise of terms with words - simple and terse and instructive - designed to enfranchise and empower her vicarious army of ambition-filled, would-be (and wannabe) business trailblazers who, she believed, would push through her policies of autonomous wealth creation and commercial freedom by sheer dint of their own will to succeed.

Her vision - robust, precise, and brimming with conviction - was made crystal clear to the Frimley audience. See these words (also lifted from the same speech);

"I came to office with one deliberate intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society--from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation.

Small businesses are the very embodiment of a free society--the mechanism by which the individual can turn his leadership and talents to the benefit of both himself and the nation.

The freer the society, the more small businesses there will be. And the more small businesses there are, the freer and more enterprising that society is bound to be."

Thatcher was basing these policies, it has been convincingly argued, on how her father Alfred Roberts ran his Grantham grocer's - with discipline, thrift, and an acutely opportunistic eye. She wasn't just positioning herself as a friend for the entrepreneurial class to turn to, she was, she was saying, of the same bloodlines as they.

If it was ever myth, it then became legend that her Grantham-focused father would take her to local business meetings and local council sessions where he was respected and influential, demonstrating to his daughter the potential of self-management, of getting up earlier, of working harder than anyone else, of persevering even when the tide was against you (and persevering hardest then).

Coverage since her death on 8 April at the Ritz Hotel, London has been dominated by reference to privatisation, rigid budgetary policies, the North-South divide and the profound aggression of the Left which she cultivated. Twitter almost blew a gasket with its now definitive mix of unbridled joy, clamour for definitive comment, emotional gut-reaction and splutter-speak.

But turn to the pages of small business titles and you may find an altogether different reaction: nostalgia, melancholy, respect.

Entrepreneurs do not forget a helping hand and they appreciate those politicians seen to demonstrate strong opinions, a clear identity and a sense of natural independence, three qualities which Thatcher had in spades.

But why do the entrepreneurs of 2013 still seem to empathise?

The notional idea of an 'entrepreneur' has now changed drastically since the Thatcherite reconfiguration in the 1980s.

Back then the general perception of an entrepreneur was of an individualistic business person pursuing their own economic self-interest, who ran on a fuel of roughly-hewn courage, risk, and shovel-blunt communication. Think of the ruffled brow, grizzled features, grey shiny suit and growl of Sir Alan Sugar and you'd be thinking along the right lines.

They promoted aspirational wealth, material success and profit above all things. There was, however, the distinct whiff of anti-establishment to them as well, it has to be said, somewhat perversely given Thatcher's roots in stringent, establishment-centric Conservatism.

Now the entrepreneurs we instinctively think of are notably very different, the American Brins, Zuckerbergs or the Brit Colin Needham (of IMDB.com) of this web technology and social media-dominated age - all flexi-time, chinos and Oxford blue cotton, open-necked shirts.

You can start up a business with comparatively minor overheads and barely any capital expenditure thanks to the dynamism and reach of web-based technologies.

The prevailing attitude which hangs over contemporary entrepreneurship is far less barky, far less forceful and instead, more open, and more 'touchy-feely' as snippets from this piece of research suggest.

Back in the 80s, the focus for small business leaders and entrepreneurs in a viciously tough economic climate was around access to capital, loans, filling skills gaps, cash-flow and efficient payment processing. Thatcher and her government recognised this and introduced schemes like the Loan Guarantee Scheme, the Business Expansion Scheme and the Enterprise Allowance Scheme.

Of course, for contemporary entrepreneurs, these issues still remain - albeit in transmuted forms - but now the issues that keep entrepreneurs awake at night revolve around things like e-commerce, equality legislation, social media management, business internet security, and health and safety regulations.

But perhaps the key difference is now that entrepreneurship is seen as having a directly social impact too. Independent enterprise arguably now favours innovation, creativity and dynamic work culture over the glamour of profit margin success.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates's intention to divert the vast majority of his accrued wealth to health and educational initiatives is well documented. Google Giving is Google's massive arm dedicated to supporting non-profit organisations technological and financial support. Here, in the UK, http://www.escapethecity.org/ was set up with one of its key intentions to serve the demands of a growing entrepreneurial audience looking to for professions with worthwhile social impact.

When Thatcher made her bet on market freedom, it is hard to imagine that she really ever envisaged this type of socially conscious, and whisper it, fair-minded entrepreneur evolving in the space behind her jetstream.

Thatcher is dead. And so are her ideas about Small Business.