Earlier this year David Cameron made a speech assessing the UK’s place in the world. I made an impassioned plea as to why our place in the world matters and concluded by saying:
“Pragmatism coupled with innovative thinking led by inspirational and ground breaking ideas backed up with a bit of bulldog spirit. It is what has defined this country and how we have helped define the world. Long may it last.”
So how do you think I felt earlier this week when a friend told me bluntly, “Britain has got fat and lazy. It lacks ambition, its people lack ambition. Compare the Brits today with those who built the empire or won the Battle of Britain. You guys are in terminal decline”. This came from someone who is a senior advisor to a Commonwealth Government and is very pro-British. He wasn’t being vindictive but merely stating his view as a regular visitor to these shores. His criticism was about individuals as well as our public sector, our outlook on life as well as our ambition.
Our discussion then led to the days of empire, the fantastic developments this brought to the world – including his country - and the kind of men and women that spread out across the world to find their fortune or make a difference, in doing so, benefiting not just themselves but all of Britain and often the wider world.
I know there was horrible poverty and social issues in Victorian Britain. There were also amazing people looking to take a chance in search of fame and fortune or adventure. My point here is do we create global leaders in their chosen fields anymore? Are there enough school leavers and graduates trying to be global leaders? Are we motivated to by our teachers, politicians or role models? Do enough of us take a chance, a leap of faith, a gamble that might make a difference?
From my friend’s point of view there aren’t. We have become a risk-averse nation verging on being timid. Too many in Britain today have horizons that don’t even extend beyond their own neighbourhood. There are generations of families who have never been in employment. In many ways we have become too comfortable, the welfare state too accommodating, opportunities too few and far between, our role models too often soap stars rather than entrepreneurs. The result: our lives are rarely tested. When they are – dealing with the 7/7 bomb attacks or fighting in Afghanistan – acts of courage can be found. For this we should be grateful. But why are extraordinary deeds largely only found in times of adversity?
It would be fantastic if more people tested themselves by starting businesses, pursuing careers in science, research, engineering, medicine or our culture celebrated success rather than sneering at it. Then ambition wouldn’t be a dirty word and more people would have ambitions beyond becoming a celebrity. Perhaps then the world will look to us in the way it used to, once we are fat and lazy no more.