Every time Sir Alan Sugar fires a contestant on The Apprentice, the nation quivers in admiration; likewise whenever Sir Richard Branson launches another airborne publicity stunt. Serial entrepreneurs are accorded guru status, yet whenever Britain’s most prolific kick-starter of enterprise sticks his head above the parapet he is showered with abuse and told to get on with his real job, which is — as the comedian Marcus Brigstocke tastefully put it — ‘waiting for his mother to die’. The Prince of Wales, through the charity he set up when he left the navy in 1976, has helped more than 60,000 young people to start their own businesses. But he gets remarkably little credit for an achievement which in scale and imaginative reach surpasses all the start-up wheezes of successive governments over the same period. The Prince’s Trust’s 30th birthday last month attracted far less attention than the Prince’s scrap with the Mail on Sunday over the publication of his private diaries.
Detractors suggest that HRH’s urge to put his naval severance pay into a fund to help troubled youngsters was driven by the same solipsistic view of himself as a misunderstood outsider that is evident in the diaries. But whatever the psychology, the results are remarkable. Most of those supported by the trust had no savings, no track record, no access to bank loans; some had criminal records and histories of addiction. More than half managed to stay in business into their third year of trading, which is considerably better than the national average for start-ups; several went on to create multi-million-pound businesses — of which one, Gameplay.com, a supplier of computer games started in 1994 with £2,500 from the trust, has floated on the stock market. A more modest example is Ahmed Mohammed, whom I spoke to this week. A Kurdish barber from Jalawlah in northern Iraq, he was imprisoned by Saddam’s regime; arriving here in 2002 he suffered every indignity today’s Britain offers refugees.