It’s become fashionable for Scots to talk about values. Every debate, political discussion or election campaign sooner or later will focus on those things that we, as a population, value most, and top of the list are usually standards of positive behaviour like tolerance, inclusiveness and community spirit.
While no-one could rightly argue with that, the problem is that you can’t eat values and recent publication of the GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) figures was a cogent reminder that it takes more than warm words and generosity to fulfil the basic function of keeping a roof over our heads and food on the nation’s table.
To those positive traits on which we rightly pride ourselves should be added a greater commercial ethic and a renewed spirit of entrepreneurialism.
For too long we’ve regarded private enterprise and the pursuit of wealth as concepts alien to our national character. It’s unsurprising generations of Scots who learned to associate industry and commerce with closures, redundancies, unemployment and decimated communities should be fearful and suspicious.
There are too few business start-ups and just 50 companies are responsible for half of all our exports. But things are changing and we need to embrace those changes if we’re to enjoy a prosperous and fulfilling future.
I was recently chosen to front an advertising campaign by Axa, who commissioned research that showed the nature of the modern business world has more in common with Scottish values than many might think.
Half of new business owners now see their competitors as “brothers in arms” or “friendly rivals”, according to the study, with only 4 per cent saying they actively work against them. Self-promotion was named the aspect of running a business with which owners are most uncomfortable.
Few are in it purely to make money, with just 7 per cent saying that getting rich was important to them – most were motivated by a desire for more time with their family.
New business owners are also most inclined to use their business time and resources for good causes, with a quarter saying they regularly work free for hard-up or vulnerable people; 28 per cent volunteer time for good causes and one in five support community projects.
There is a lot of important work being done to generate business growth north of the Border, with organisations like Entrepreneurial Spark providing funding and mentoring for young start-ups and a more progressive approach to childcare meaning a greater number of women are now starting their own businesses.
More Scots are now coming round to the view that wealth generation is not a dirty phrase. Our instinctive, national revulsion towards the “greed is good” culture of the 1980s made us forget something our predecessors believed in strongly – that economic production is a moral cause. Business creation generates employment, facilitates education and makes us a better and more successful country, allowing us to improve living standards for all and to take care of our most vulnerable members.
Children should be taught business skills and becoming a business owner should be something that’s encouraged by teachers, similar to high status professionals like doctors and lawyers.
Even that great taboo, the public sector could be more entrepreneurial in its approach.
Any suggestion of outside involvement in schools and hospitals is automatically denounced as privatisation by the back door, which means a culture of stasis and a lack of ambition often exists within organisations.
We should rightly be proud of our values in Scotland and one of those should be an ability to admit when we can do much better.
Mike Stevenson is managing director of Leith-based Thinktastic and a contributor to Speaking of Values, published this week by the Royal Society of Edinburgh