The Brexit torment of the past 40 months has produced a mini-lexicon of frequently repeated words that we once might barely have used in a lifetime: backstop, yellowhammer, prorogation.
But the one that mystifies me is the adjective that surfaces when pro-Leave politicians advise on the attitude with which British business should now go out into the world: ‘buccaneering’.
Who’s used it? Who hasn’t.
In his Conservative Party leadership campaign, the now foreign secretary Dominic Raab promised to lead “a buccaneering approach to global free trade”.
In an address to the local business community in Redruth, home secretary Priti Patel talked about “re-energising Britain’s buccaneering spirit post-Brexit”.
And both Boris Johnson and former international trade minister Liam Fox have reached for the pithy “buccaneering Britain”, to sum up their vision for the country’s new approach to doing business around the world.
None of these politicians has ever run a business and, to the best of my knowledge, none has ever engaged in piracy – yet all are content to use the language of the latter to shed light on the former.
What do they mean by ‘buccaneering’? I doubt that even they know. Personally, I can’t think of a single business to which it would comfortably apply, among all the ones I deal with, across every category I work in – which is most of them.
That said, there was once an outrageously successful British business that was the very embodiment of the term, to the great enrichment of its stockholders: The East India Company.
This was the real thing – a corporation with cannon and, at its zenith, a private army of 260,000 men. It carved out for itself a massive share in India – not of the Indian market, but of India.
And consider: the foundation of the enterprise dated back to a period when religious differences had seen England wrench itself apart from its European trading neighbours, forcing it to look outwards, across the high seas. Remind you of anything?
You can’t ‘buccaneer’ at the door of the Ministry of Industry and Trade in Moscow.
Perhaps, whether consciously or otherwise, this is the spirit those politicians yearn to see revived: British business venturing forth on a wind and a prayer, hacking through the tiresome thickets of local laws and norms, and swashbuckling its way to the world’s prizes – only without any actual blood, this being 2019.
As ever when politicians talk business, there comes a point when rhetoric collides with reality – and we have surely arrived at that point here.
Even if you take the tamest possible interpretation of ‘buccaneering’ – ‘bold and incisive’, say – you can see why those who promulgate it are setting themselves up for frustration in a complex, regulated world.
Escaping the ‘shackles of EU red tape’, as government ministers like to put it, might be a novelty for a day – but, as most businesspeople know, and others will quickly discover, bureaucratic tape can be every bit as red and a great deal stickier in other markets around the world.
It takes upwards of eight years to get approval for a new pharmaceutical product in the US. And that is after you’ve got the initial FDA ‘green light’. Even something as innocuous as a new skincare formulation can take up to three years for full approvals.
Brazil is a vibrantly attractive market – the world’s ninth-biggest economy.
Unfortunately, it is ranked 109th by the World Bank for ‘ease of doing business’.
So when marketers in a workshop talk about launching a new fragrance there, they will need to be apprised of the multiple government agencies from which approvals will need to be sought, and the numerous regional and city bodies entitled to ask for additional evidence at any time.
British brands can do well in Japan, but the watchword – even as advised by the UK Department for International Trade – is patience. The list of those that underestimated the complexities and eventually withdrew include Tesco, Boots and Pret.
These are genuine obstacles that you can’t get all Captain Jack Sparrow about and athletically backflip your way past. You can’t ‘buccaneer’ at the door of the Ministry of Industry and Trade in Moscow.
Does that mean I am pessimistic about the prospects for British business in a post-Brexit world? No. In my experience, two of the three necessary qualities for success are already in evidence in British brand-owning companies: resourcefulness and adaptability.
The third vital quality is imagination which, to be frank, is in shorter supply. But it will reward those businesses that invest in it.
It is the imagination to work with the world as it is, to discover elegant solutions to the complexities of bringing good things to market, and to anticipate where the next social norms and their associated regulations might take us – as opposed to imagining that it is circa 1830, and Britannia rules the waves.
This is where our businesses, and our marketers, need to focus now. As a glance at the panel will show, there really is zero point in looking to the mercantile pronouncements of our politicians for guidance.
The responsibility is ours. The buccaneering stops here.
When politicians talk business
It might be better if they didn’t. Among our senior parliamentarians, hands-on experience of running a business, or even heading up a department in one, is scant. It shows.
British business is too lazy and too fat.
Said by Dr Liam Fox, then secretary of state for international trade, at a Conservative event in 2016. He went on to add that most business leaders would “rather play golf on a Friday afternoon” than pursue growth. The paunchy former medical doctor meant to galvanise British business but instead drew opprobrium for his lazy caricature. Physician, heal thyself.
How are we going to revive this economy if we do not encourage the small business man, and the tall business man, too?
Jacob Rees-Mogg – who else? He might do well to remember that, according to the recent Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, one in three entrepreneurs are women. And a recent paper from Aston University reports that, over the last decade, the rate of entrepreneurialism in the UK has grown much faster among women than men.
I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.
Dominic Raab’s spectacular naivety about how we trade. A report by the Institute for Government said that £119bn worth of goods passed through Dover in 2015, representing around 17% of the UK’s entire trade in goods by value.
British prime minister Boris Johnson. And he just might.