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Change Makers: Shevaun Haviland on the resurrection of public-private partnerships post-election

This article by Michael Hayman was originally published in Elite Business

Britain needs its mojo back. We need to be more confident in Brand Britain and we need to put our best foot forward to the world.

It’s a clarion call not from Sir Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak, but Shevaun Haviland, Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), or perhaps better described as its chief optimism officer: “Optimism is a massively underrated leadership quality,” she tells me for the Change Makers podcast. “By being optimistic and having a vision, you bring people with you.”

For Shevaun, optimism is a superpower. And it’s no surprise that this is the perspective of someone whose motto as a child was “pourquoi pas?” and grew up in perhaps the most optimistically titled town in the whole of the UK: Port Sunlight.

Shevaun’s friends have said she has a ‘rose tinted brain’ and while that could lead to accusations of naivety, it is those who ask ‘why not?’ rather than ‘why?’ who make the most successful leaders.

It’s a style our potential Prime Ministers may want to consider in a General Election campaign that has been far more about what’s wrong in the UK, rather than what’s right. An election all about the plumbing, with very little of the prose.

“What’s our pitch?” Shevaun asks me. It’s certainly not a question I have the answer to. But luckily, she has her solutions ready: “radical togetherness” and a “resurrection of public-private partnerships” with business as the beating heart.

Her belief in the positive potential of business is no happy accident. Shevaun’s father worked for Unilever for 30 years, part of a company that wrote the book on business as a force for good.

But it was at the Cabinet Office working under David Cameron where Shevaun saw that government could create an environment to get things done when it partnered with business. For all the scrutiny of the Conservative record over the past 14 years, it was the ‘entrepreneur-led recovery’ from the financial crisis that Cameron and George Osborne made the case for, acting as the springboard for four million business births from 2011 to 2022.

Where the partnership works, Shevaun tells me, is in the complementary strengths of government and business. The former brings incredible convening power and capital, the latter brings innovation and agility. Together, they can team up to create a vibrant and inclusive economy.

In recent years though, that partnership has faced challenges. Remember Boris Johnson’s four-letter epithet in 2018? When I ask Shevaun whether today’s Conservative and Labour parties are listening, the answer is that they are, but that we are missing a long-term economic plan forged from the best of what government and business bring to the table respectively, and a structure to deliver that.

“We need to be getting out there,” Shevaun maintains, “spreading the word about how great Britain is!” Despite the impact of Brexit, Shevaun says that “[international partners] are delighted to have Britain at the table” and that London remains “the best place in the world” to do business.

It’s about playing as a team, not least when it comes to attracting inward investment. ‘Team UK’ was the key recommendation of a recent Chambers report on inward investment, which I contributed to as chair of its Global Britain working group.

It’s a new drive to champion and revitalise ‘Brand Britain’ by showcasing the best of what we can offer inward investors; taking the storied history of Britain on the world stage and reinvigorating it with the mojo and zeal for an entrepreneurial age. A reminder that we are not a has been economy, but that our best days are ahead.

The vaccine taskforce was proof if any were needed that when the going gets tough and the incentive is clear, public and private have the ability to collaborate and accelerate progress. That is the approach we need for a longer-term partnership, with ‘one front door’ that gives business voices an easier entry into government.

Shevaun has her foot in that door, with “shadow chancellors, chancellors and prime ministers on speed dial” according to the BCC’s President, Baroness Lane Fox. But that is to serve the interests of the 50,000 businesses and six million employees she represents in 52 chambers across the country.

Her tip for life, she tells me, is to “say yes to every opportunity” and “see the world as soon as you can”. It’s a message business and government can learn from. Whatever the election result, now is not the time to close our doors to the world. It is the moment for a renewal of our national story, a renewal of our optimism, and a renewal of the case that Britain is open for business and the best place in the world to do it.

You can listen to Change Makers with Shevaun Haviland here and wherever you get your podcasts.

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