May’s masterclass in politics

It may have been long overdue (like the pun there?), but the UK Prime Minister’s decision to call a general election this morning was a piece of political masterclass and a bold, calculated gamble.

By calling a general election Theresa May is attempting to resolve several major headaches at once, assuming that she is successful: Firstly, the move creates political certainty in the UK at a time where it is sorely needed. Secondly, the move will end questions around the Theresa May’s political support within the party itself and lastly it will strengthen the UK’s negotiating hand with the EU.

If the Conservatives win (especially by an increased margin), then Theresa May will have a clear mandate for her Brexit negotiation strategy. This will give investors, businesses and political leaders a greater sense of what the UK will choose to prioritise and a clearer idea of which figures will manage the UK’s transition from a full EU member state to an independent nation. Assuming that the PM will stay for a full five-year term, the Conservatives would govern until 2022, giving them the ability to handle the transition after Brexit as well and a chance to resolve any outstanding issues with EU members, the WTO and Scotland.

The surprise election is also likely to be popular with the Conservative political base, partly because the opposition are so weak. Labour remains extremely divided between its core factions, while the Lib Dems will have a mountain to climb to recover even the 40 seats it previously held before 2015. The SNP can only lose from their current position and Northern Ireland has been in deadlock since the last regional government collapsed. In 2015 UKIP won 3.9 million votes, today the country has voted to leave and they have no credible or popular leader. All of this explains why the polls suggest a clear Conservative lead, and even though polls have been consistently unreliable in the last 18 months, few polls have predicted a winning margin of this magnitude that has been overturned in such a short time period.

The reason why winning an election is important however is that it is the key to ensuring party unity. The Conservative party is famous for its political backstabbing and without an election win under her belt, the PM would have been vulnerable to challengers if the EU negotiations turn ugly. Incidentally there are even rumours that the election will help to neutralise the Conservative political right, by forcing the PM to adopt a less aggressive position to win the election. If the Conservatives wish to keep seats in London and the South West, they will need to win over unhappy remain voters and soft Brexit voters. With a mandate to govern secured on a hard Brexit, with very flexible immigration and extremely close ties to the EU, the PM will neutralise the Tory right and move the negotiations towards a less confrontational position.

The UK has had a number of challenges in getting the EU to agree on even basic terms for Brexit. The UK gave notice that they would invoke Article 50 at the end of March, but the EU has focused on the “negotiating framework” for the Brexit discussions. This focus has been both strategically and tactically driven. Strategically, by agreeing the framework for talks in advance the EU can already try and dictate the terms of the UK’s exit. Tactically, the major EU decision making member states either have elections, just had elections or have elections due in the next five months (The Netherlands, France and Germany), so delaying the main issues until after September avoids discussing the issues during elections.

The EU commission had assumed that after the EU’s major elections, its leaders would have fresh electoral mandates and solidarity across the block. This would have put the PM at a considerable disadvantage, as the EU could have decided to target politically sensitive areas like agricultural tariffs or financial service access to secure concessions. This threat has now been taken off the table. Even if the EU makes threats against these sectors, it will take years for the full effects to come through and politically speaking, the EU has lost its ability to alter who it will be negotiating with on the UK side of the table.

This is a move that carries risks though. Firstly, Labour may be more resilient than expected and the Lib Dems may well recover the 40 seats that they lost. If such an outcome occurs, the UK would have a hung parliament and the UK would enter a constitutional crisis. It is unlikely that the Conservatives could form a viable coalition at this time, but it is also unclear whether an SNP/Labour/Lib Dem coalition would be any better. This being the case, there is a chance that the UK might have a second election within a few months of the new one in June. Needless to say, Theresa May would be extremely damaged as a leader if the Conservative party did not retain an overall majority, while any further Labour party losses would trigger another bout of in-fighting over the need for  new leader to replace Corbyn.

The last piece of this story is that an election on which party will govern during and after Brexit, is also a tacit election on the Brexit process itself. If the Lib Dems did the unthinkable and gained north of 60 seats, with minimal Labour losses, the UK could very well have a crisis about the declaration of article 50 itself. More realistically however, the end of a conservative majority would likely lead to the UK seeking to remain as a member of the Single Market. Such a move would send political shockwaves through the UK and EU political system (assuming the EU even allowed it) and would leave the UK bitterly divided, in a far more dramatic way than it has been since the vote itself. Still, the election is the last chance that the British public will have to go out and vote on what relationship the UK will have with the EU.

If you haven’t registered to vote, then go out and do so. This may be one of the defining moments of British politics in the 21st century.

The politics beneath the noise

Whenever people ask me for my opinion of US politics at present, what always strikes me is how little is actually happening. While the press covers Trump’s regular tweets, public gaffes and the inevitable criticisms of his actions, the most interesting aspect of Trump’s presidency is how little in reality is happening.

Let’s start with the economy. While the US market certainly has been caught up in the “animal spirits” surrounding Trump’s proposed fiscal stimulus boost, few analysts have actually looked at how this would work in practise. For starters, Trump’s long expressed desire to boost US energy infrastructure is trapped in a permanent limbo until the number of FERC appointees rises from its present 2/5 to 3/5 or more. At present, the lack of a “quorum” for the US energy regulatory agency means that no energy projects can be approved at a federal level until a new appointee is selected and approved by the senate. That is still a long time away. Next consider how Federal fiscal stimulus actually works: The US federal government does not contract for infrastructure projects within states, rather the states themselves manage the process. Thus as most states are heavily indebted at present, it is highly questionable whether a large financial giveaway from the federal government would lead to increased infrastructure spending (it is far more likely the funds would be used to pay down debt). But beyond even the potential for a stimulus lies the more significant question of whether congress would even approve such a bill. With the Republican party still heavily influenced by the Tea Party, it certainly shouldn’t be assumed that tax cuts and increased spending is a given.

On healthcare, the picture is similar. While people expected a bonfire of medicare “repeal and replace” style, there have been no plans put to the public, the President or Congress that provide a clue about how Republicans will do this. Moreover, the few suggestions that have been raised are politically toxic with Republicans. These include aspects around Medicaid/medicare cuts and non-discrimination provisions (very popular with voters and hated by the US health insurance lobby). With the senate at 52-48 Republican, no democrat support for reform and division in the Republican House of Representatives. Reform here also seems unlikely.

Regarding defence, the Trump administration is remarkably consistent with previous administrations, including Obama. Additional military support in Iraq, statements of support to Japan and South Korea, Covert ops in the Arabian Peninsula and commitments to spend more on defence. So far, so Republican. Even on NATO, an area often attacked by Trump in his speeches and tweets, the actual messaging to Europe has been more focused on “we value NATO, but you need to pay more”. This again is hardly new. In fact, the last five Secretaries of defence (under Bush and Obama) have said the same thing publicly.

On law and social justice, the reality of what is happening is also far less controversial than the noise. The reforms to H1B visa are one example. While portrayed as a Trump attack on skilled labour, the area has been under review for years, with Obama considering raising the minimum required salary to $110,000 and Trump considering similar numbers. Even the delay in processing within 90 days, appears to be more a product of overworked government agencies than a specific anti-migrant move. Trump’s choice of Supreme Court nominee is also a good example. Despite the criticism in left wing circles, Neil Gorsuch was approved to his current position by a unanimous senate vote (including all Democrats) and was in fact a Bush Jnr era appointee. Moreover, Gorsuch is a replacement for a previously Republican supreme court position (he is even seen as a perfect model of the last figure), thus ensuring the balance in the court has barely shifted since Obama.

None of this is to say that the noise and tone of the Trump administration is not having a significant impact on America’s standing in the world and how people in America view themselves and their fellow citizens. However, it is striking how much focus and attention the tone and voice of a world leader receives, rather than the reality of what is happening on the ground.

A final observation I would share is how little resistance there is within the States to the actions of the President. While a number of states are certainly fighting specific actions, such as the travel ban executive order, there is a remarkable lack of strategy behind those who oppose Trump. For one thing, there is no meaningful discussion of candidates who could revive the Democrat party and provide a real leadership challenge to Trump. Nor is there any clear sign of a moderate Republican leader coming through the ranks. One challenge may be the desperate lack of new faces in both parties, but it is interesting that no US political figure seems like a ready replacement for the President. Interestingly as well, the momentum of protests appears to have petered out entirely. In Washington DC, the protest momentum after the inauguration seemed to be growing, but now there has been little to no real action. In part because, I suspect, there are few well organised and funded organisations that are able to sustain the momentum. Instead those in the nation who oppose Trump appear numb and subdued. A tragedy for democracy, and perhaps an answer to the question of whether Trump would seek a second term (and win).

Defending Ideologies

For about twenty years it seemed as though life was simpler. The European continent largely avoided any major wars, prosperity recovered after a series of economic challenges, the world become more multicultural, and technological innovations flourished. However, even then the signs of future challenges were clear. New ideas about how society should function were gaining popularity and nation states worried that their culture and identity were under threat by malign foreign influences.

If any of this sounds familiar, it shouldn’t. This was 1820-1840.

As human beings, we can be wonderfully contradictory. We praise tolerance and openness, yet criticize those whose views are widely divergent from our own. We talk about the need for businesses and governments to act on climate change, poverty and to promote fairness, yet criticise them when they raise taxes to do so. But perhaps the most interesting contradiction comes in how people react to the word ‘ideology’.

If you mention ideology today, the connotations are overwhelmingly negative. Those of a politically left wing orientation think of Fascism, Thatcherism and Capitalism. Those of a right-wing orientation think of Socialism, Communism and Protectionism. One thing both agree on however is that our society today is different. From the 90’s, people have professed that ideology is dead. From the famous “End of History” by Francis Fukiyama to the creation of “Third way” parties across the developed world, the impression our society has given is that the world is no longer governed by a fundamentalist set of ideas. Instead, people believe that our societies our governed by a scientific method.

According to this belief, the western world is governed by “what makes sense”, by “what is rational”, and by decisions based on “evidence”, not “emotion”. An alternative definition would be to say that our society is governed by pragmatism. The idea that decisions are (generally) made based on careful consideration of the evidence, accumulated by subject matter experts, reviewed against other considerations (such as budgets and the environment), before being implemented, often after an initial pilot project.

Against this backdrop its easy to see why China’s foreign policy, the election of Trump, the Brexit vote, the popularity of Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Putin all seems so scary to western societies. We have grown up thinking that decisions are only rational and therefore only plausible, if they pass a carefully assessed cost-benefit analysis. In this capacity, economists are the rock stars. As individuals who profess to quantify human behaviour into predictable patterns, the word of an economist is all-powerful. Uncertainty is the enemy of a rational, pragmatic based system of governance. It affects long term planning and it is difficult to respond to.

But while the intentions behind pragmatism are often noble, what the political leaders of today have forgotten is that belief in the scientific method, as a strategy for governance, is an ideology in and of itself. Even worse than that, it is a fundamentalist ideology that cannot answer the questions that fundamentally matter to society. To provide one good example, let’s look at international trade.

Free Trade is the perfect example of the strengths and limitation of the “Pragmatism” ideology. It is universally agreed by economists that free trade makes everyone better off. Free trade expands the combined economic pie, by allowing people to specialise and therefore work in the areas they are most efficient in relative to others. Moreover, the evidence proves that free trade expands a country’s economic pie over time. Seemingly therefore this is a clear win for pragmatism. Yet all over the world, hostility to free trade is fierce. For people of the Pragmatist ideology, the answer to why people are upset is easy: most people simply do not understand economics, they cannot get the bigger picture and they are easily misled by people with their own agendas. Safe behind these rhetorical defences, the pragmatists wistfully think of multilateral organisations that remove control over these policies from governments and some even muse about voting restrictions so that “only educated people can vote”. But they are wrong. It is not that the average voter is against free trade per se, or that they do not understand free trade. Rather, their opposition is rooted in the issue of who is benefiting from trade and who is not. It is these questions: of equity, of who should gain, of who should lose, and what compensation people should get, that pragmatism and the scientific method is totally unable to answer.

If you want to understand why seemingly “populist” parties are back in vogue today, then look no further than this. In a world which is rapidly changing, where new innovations and dynamic population shifts increasingly create new classes of winners and losers, the scientific method is painfully slow at providing the solutions people need. Pragmatism requires decision makers to be able to find the answers to problems, through studying a phenomenon and carefully analysing it. But that isn’t possible in a fast-changing world. Ironically enough, it’s not just voters who have realised that governance by pragmatic ideology is ineffective; it’s businesses too. It is no coincidence that companies like Facebook, Tesla, Amazon and Uber are riding high in the stock market and catching the interest of people across the world. It isn’t because they have all the answers, that they understand all the trends, or even that they have the best technology. Rather, they are run by people who have a clear vision of how they think the future should look. In short, they are run by people who have ideologies of their own.

Ideologies are an essential part of the human condition. Before the rise of literacy in the European middle classes, governance was driven by “pragmatic” considerations among the educated classes that subscribed to a set of beliefs prioritising stability and certainty over dynamism and volatility. The result was peace, but at the cost of dramatic human misery. It was the inability to govern according to an equitable set of ideas that led to the rise of socialism, liberalism, communism and nationalism. Without these four ideologies, the world would never have introduced basic human rights concepts into law, such as the right to a free trial, freedom of speech, basic workers’ rights, the right to healthcare, and education. The list goes on. Moreover, in contrast to a popular understanding of ideology, many nations would never have escaped serfdom and feudalist systems without nationalism. Nationalism was the driving force which allowed people to cross vast geographical and social divides, and to unite behind a common set of ideas. Without nationalism, it would have been impossible to break down many of the divides that existed between communities, even those separated by only a river.

None of this is to say that ideologies cannot cause immense human suffering. Clearly they can and have. However, ideologies are vital to our way of living precisely because they can answer the only questions in governance that really matter: is it equitable, is it fair, is it just and does it make people happy? The current obsession with governing by a pragmatic ideology is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. Dismissing people’s concerns simply because, in a purely rational world, the economic outcome of a policy is net positive, is not a credible way to govern. It was precisely this hubris that lost the remain campaign vote last year and which lost Hillary Clinton her presidential campaign. If those who define themselves as being politically centrist want to keep the world as it is and prevent the changes they see taking place around them, they need to understand this lesson. People are not machines; they are beings of emotion. If you cannot explain to someone why your system of governance is fair, why it is just and why it will make them happier, then you will not be able to govern.

Ideologies are back on the world stage. It is about time too.


“Brexit means Brexit” – a Translation

Following Prime Minister May’s speech on BREXIT, I have attempted to summarise and analyse the insights I have gleamed on the process over the last year below.


This has been one of the biggest areas of focus since BREXIT was announced, but we now have some clear outlines. First and foremost, the UK will not accept the EU’s freedom of movement, as it applies today. Instead it appears that the UK will offer its own equivalent of the American ESTA scheme, an online visa form which is approved quickly and lasts up to two years, for all EU nationals. This would mean that all European tourists, academics, artists and business people in would be able to visit the UK as easily as they can today, absent a 5 minute application online.  The second piece that we can say with a very high degree of certainty is that all EU nationals currently residing in the UK will be offered citizenship. Theresa May already offered this to the EU commission, in exchange for guaranteeing the rights of Britons living in the EU. We also know that the Home Office is pushing this approach as well. The costs and resources needed are extensive and frankly Theresa May’s government views this as an easy compromise that will encounter limited real resistance from within the UK or her party.

On work rights the picture now is also clearer. One school of thought is to create a skills based quota for each year and make it applicable for all global nationals, including the EU, which is in line with the US, Canada, Australia and other developed economies. This aims  to allow a quota of non-UK nationals to enter each year, provided they are sponsored by an employer. This is the approach championed by the Home Office under Amber Rudd (who previously supported Remain). The other option being proposed is to grant an automatic visa to any EU national who has a full-time job offer to work in the UK. This idea has been proposed by former foreign secretary William Hague. The ultimate choice is likely to be determined by the EU’s negotiating position. The automatic right to work, if an employer has made a full-time offer, allows the government to demonstrate that only “working migrants” are entering the UK, thus dispelling the pernicious lie that EU immigration is welfare driven. It also allows UK industry to recruit top talent across Europe, thus helping to address business fears about labour shortages in certain sectors (including the NHS). If implemented properly, this could even be a blueprint for the EU’s relationship with other future members, such as Turkey and Ukraine. However, if the EU appears to push for punishing exit terms and UKIP maintain the pressure on key Conservative seats, then the first option is more likely.

Foreign Policy and Security:

At this time there has been no suggestion that the UK wishes to change its cooperation with the EU at an international level. The UK has continued its increase in troop and materiel deployments to the Baltic states, and there are no signs of a thawing between the UK and Russia (unlike the USA). At the international level the EU often operates in a broader grouping that includes Canada, Australia and Norway at institutions such as the UN, World Bank and other multi-lateral agencies. It  appears clear that the UK will simply remain within this broader grouping, albeit with less influence on the EU’s ultimate position on issues than it previously held.

Amazingly the UK has not made any attempt to link security and NATO related issues to the terms of exit. This is despite a range of arguments that suggest the UK could leverage this angle, especially in light of the changing US position on NATO. While there have been early signs that the UK intends to expand its presence once again “East of Suez” and there have been discussions to re-open UK naval bases outside of Europe. However, given the UK’s limited manpower currently across the armed forces and its shrinking maritime presence, these recent moves appear to be more symbolic of a UK “open to the world” than a sign of significant redeployments to come.


While the Prime Minister has talked about staying in the customs union, it appears more likely that the UK will leave the EU single market and customs union. Given this outcome, the game will be about Tariffs, Equivalence and Regulation.

Let’s start with Tariffs. While there remain a number of technical issues to finalise, it appears certain that the UK will become an automatic WTO member, after its exit from the EU is completed. This membership ensures that both the UK and EU have strict limits imposed on the level of tariffs they can set on each other and when they can impose tariffs. To put into perspective the current WTO tariff levels, the tariff on cars between the USA and Europe is around 3%. For some areas the tariffs are higher, for example food, but as the UK is largely an importer of goods from the EU it is unlikely that the EU would want to impose large tariffs.

However, where the EU is likely to seek a clearer split with the UK will be around regulation and Equivalence. With an exit from the single market, the UK Financial services sector are likely to lose what are called “Passporting rights”, whereby UK firms can sell financial products directly to EU consumers and businesses without needing to have a local presence. What the net effect of this will be is unclear. The immediate answer will be that costs for all financial services companies in Europe will rise and the UK will lose some staff in areas like FX trading and clearing of some Euro denominated debt. Beyond that the picture is less clear. As the cost of regulation has increased since 1997, the Financial service sector has seen considerable consolidation, leaving Europe with a smaller group of larger companies than existed before the single market. As these players have operations all over the EU, it’s unclear whether firms couldn’t simply hire a staff member and a postal address in the EU to circumvent many concerns. This approach already exists to an extent within the EU today, as it allows companies like Facebook and Google to take advantage of different tax laws, see Luxembourg and Holland.

Again, the more positive outcome for both sides would be an agreement to keep all tariffs on goods at zero and to introduce “Equivalency”. This concept means that the UK financial services sector could sell goods into Europe, like a firm based in Europe, but they would be subject to EU regulation and EU courts. Moreover, the UK would have no influence on EU regulations and firms in the UK could be prevented from doing business in Europe if they did not match EU standards.

On the broader international trade piece, it looks as though the UK priority list will be the USA, followed by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I would also add, though it hasn’t been mentioned, that Japan would likely be high on that list too. Japan is a large investor in the UK and moreover, the UK and Japan have few sectors of extreme competition, with the UK unlikely to threaten Japan’s agriculture or electronics manufacturing, while Japan poses few threats to the UK services sector. The UK would likely use templates from the failed US-EU trade talks as the basis of terms with the US (50% of all US gains from TTIP were due to come from greater access to the UK anyway) and the UK is likely to use the current EU-Canada trade deal as its template as well.

Closing Comments:

The BREXIT process is subject to a huge amount of political brinkmanship. Should moderate EU parties do well in elections, the global economy accelerates, Theresa May remains popular in the country and Trump remains largely focused outside of Europe, then political leaders should have the breathing space to craft a reasonable and fair deal. If, however, Russia and the US increase pressure on Europe, the migrant deal with Turkey collapses and populists are successful in EU elections, a fortress mentality may set in. The EU, despite its challenges, remains extremely popular in Europe. For this reason I continue to believe that if the survival of the EU becomes more threatened, we are likely to see a youth led backlash in favour of greater EU integration.

The EU is, in the words of Romano Prodi “an unfinished project” and Europeans know this. Thus, how BREXIT plays out is not simply a story that can be told in isolation, rather, BREXIT is also the story of the European Union. Will it become what its fathers dreamed of, a full political union of nations, or will it unwind to an early form. Time will tell.

Thoughts for the year – 2017

While many will have breathed a sigh of relief on the 1st of January that 2016 is over, the consequences of last year will continue to define this one. Firstly, we shall see what effect the far right electoral successes and Russian electoral interference in 2016 will have on European general elections. Alongside these events we will also receive further details on Mrs May’s plan for the Brexit negotiations in March, and by the mid-year, we will know whether the “Trump boost” which has lifted global equity markets and triggered a selloff in fixed income assets, will have been justified.

But 2017 is likely to be a tale of two halves. Political paralysis in the USA and Europe has hindered economic growth and encouraged extremely cautious investment strategies. Thus, the consequences of the political choices which Europe and the incoming Trump administration will have to make in early 2017, will provide markets, businesses and other stakeholders with a clearer sense of travel for the world’s largest consumer economies. The second half of the year will then revolve around how the rest of the world responds to these decisions.

If confidence in the economic growth of the US economy continues to rise, and subsequently leads to the projected three rate hikes by the Fed, then the US dollar will continue to appreciate, causing a flight of capital out of European and Emerging Market asset classes (whether they be equities or fixed income). This will cripple companies in the developing world who have large US dollar denominated debt, even if governments in regions like Asia will be better insulated from the effects this time than during the Asian Financial crisis in 1997. Moreover, if the dollar appreciation leads to a widening of the US trade deficit, as witnessed during the Reagan years in the 1980’s, we would expect to see greater emphasis on an “America First” trade policy. The rhetoric and responses to President Elect Trump’s tweets on Trade, already indicate that this may be the course of action.

Though these comments may seem overly financial, their wider societal implications are enormous. If investors see greater returns in US markets, alongside greater political instability in other global markets, then access to finance will become constrained across the developing (and perhaps even developed) world. This comes at a time when global investment in infrastructure remains well below the estimated requirements by the world’s leading international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, ADB, African Development Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. To put figures to this effect, it is estimated that Asia needs to spend between US $2-3 trillion a year on infrastructure. The figure to date is roughly US $1trn, or 50% of that required. Elsewhere in the world, notable Africa, the figure is even lower. Such infrastructure includes basic goods such as hospitals, schools, roads and power generation assets. Without the ability of governments to finance and provide these goods, then societal frustrations with consistently poor living standards may lead to greater political unrest and support for populist parties. This is especially concerning in countries that are still experiencing large population booms and who have a growing, young population that need economic growth to find jobs.

Moreover, as the value of the US dollar rises, oil producers who have operational costs in domestic currencies, will see increased financial returns. This will help alleviate some pressure on the balance sheets of oil dependant governments, but it will also increase the real cost of oil for citizens and businesses in emerging and developed markets (oil globally is priced in dollars, so a rise in the dollar v.s. other currencies will increase the cost of fuel for consumers).

Looking beyond the potential areas of concern, there are areas where optimism is warranted. In 2016 investment in Renewable Energy overtook investment in fossil fuel based power generation for the first time since the start of the industrial revolution. In 2017 this trend will only accelerate. The UAE has already committed, in the first week of 2017, to spending US $163bn to provide 50% of its power from Renewables by 2050. Others will continue to follow. Moreover, electric car growth will continue to expand, fuelled by government incentive schemes and the launch of several new car models, such as the newest Tesla vehicles, directly targeted at middle income families and competitively priced (though government subsidy support will still remain crucial). In science, we may also see a breakthrough cancer drug brought into final stages by AstraZeneca by the end of 2017, as well as several major space launches and satellite passes of earths neighbours in our solar system.

As a student studying the world from an ivory tower in Washington DC it is easy to get lost in the noise of the world. But the one prediction for 2017 that I can make with certainty is not a macro level prediction, it is a micro one. Despite all the concerns and hysteria that the press will cover in the next year I remain convinced that the vast majority of people in the world will experience few changes to their daily lives as a direct consequence of the headline grabbing events. In fact, the biggest question in 2017 is whether despite all these huge events occurring around us, people will become more engaged politically at all.

In November 2016 I had the privilege to stand outside the White House after the election results had arrived. In a large student city, which voted overwhelmingly Democrat, in an election where Trump was (and is) described as a threat to the very nature of the American political system itself, there were more journalists present than protestors. Nor did DC see many protestors or rallies of significant size in the weeks after the result. In the UK too, after Brexit the protests were few (if any) and the rallies were poorly attended (if held). All this in a country where 1 million people marched to prevent fox hunting from being banned in 2005. Thus one question for 2017, that I hope to see answered, is whether this year of change is also a year of political awakening for the generations of citizens who have been sleeping for the last two decades.

Time will tell!

A few words at the end of 2016

It is easy as a commentator on events to assume that we have a unique perspective or insight that people will benefit from reading. After all, if we didn’t believe our opinions were of interest we would hardly be sharing them. But what is often forgotten when we write pieces is the reader themselves. It is easy to fixate on the issues which we are passionate about, to analyse every scrap of detail under the most forensic microscopes we are able to acquire and to wax lyrical on the importance of the issue we are discussing. What it is harder to do is to create something that is relevant, that is interesting, that is inspiring and that is thought provoking. It is for this reason that the default subject of articles often becomes current events and specifically critiques of current politics, people and passions. But while this may be easy and often immensely enjoyable for the writer, it often leaves the readers despondent, overwhelmed and occasionally depressed.

It is partly for these reasons why I think that people have found 2016 such a challenging year. As our world develops increasing ways to communicate with each other faster and in greater detail, it becomes easy to get lost in the noise. In fact, part of what has made 2016 so difficult is how ingrained our habits of checking social media and our phone have become. Instead of using communication to supplement our lives, it has increasingly taken over our lives. Try for a week to count how many meals or meetings you attend where attendees place their phone on the table before the event has even started and consider how many would have done so 10 years ago. It may well be understandable in the context of the world we live in today, but the fact that it has become understandable and that our obsession with constantly accessing information has become rationalised, is also part of the problem. It is important to know what is happening in the world and to know what is happening in our communities, but what people have forgotten is that life moves on regardless. There are no shortage of years where American’s have elected a president, convinced that the electoral system has failed and the candidate will be a disaster, nor are there a shortage of events where major referendums have been forecast to doom entire nations. But these events, while seemingly seismic in nature, often fade quickly into the background for most people, with the challenges they create becoming quickly assimilated into most people’s daily routines.

At the end of 2016 many people are still lost in the noise of Brexit, Trump, Paris, Berlin, Aleppo, Prince and the scores of other events that have left markers this year. But what we shouldn’t lose sight of is the fact that slowly but surely, changes have been happening in the world that are making it better too. At the end of this year the world will have made its first real commitment to keeping carbon emissions below 2 degrees centigrade and the world will have invested more in installing new energy from renewable sources than fossil fuels (the first time since before the industrial era). The world also will have seen the largest single philanthropic endowment of over $100bn from wealthy individuals to fight climate change.

On gender, the proportion of women in finance, notably venture and private equity, will have more than doubled in the last decade. Women’s sport numbers continue to rise, with over 700 million people watching the women’s world cup last year and in the armed services, women will be seen in more active combat roles than at any time in modern history. In politics, the UK has its second ever female Prime Minister, alongside a female German Chancellor and 22 other female world leaders, the highest number in recorded history. On race, we have had the first ever black president of the United States and the UK has its first ever Pakistani mayor of London, with Romania almost electing a Muslim PM for the first time in the country’s history.

On poverty, world poverty and world extreme poverty continue to decline, as does access to energy and access to medication. Technology is also changing people’s lives in profound ways that we take for granted in the west. For the first time this year, Burma has been able to store anti-snake venom across the countryside thanks to renewable technologies and energy storage, a vital innovation in a country with the world’s highest number of snake related fatalities (1.4 per 100,000 people). We also now have developed a cure for ebola and drugs that allow individuals with HIV to have sex without protection, with no risk of passing the disease onto their partners.

There are certainly many more such stories. Perhaps only small and incremental in many cases, but cumulatively they are changing our world for the better. But we risk forgetting about these changes, or even worse, ignoring these advances, if instead of carrying on with our lives we instead fixate on the few issues that constantly catch the headlines.

So at the end of 2016 and the start of the new year we should all consider a piece of advice from older British history, a piece of advice now seen across the world, “Keep Calm and Carry on”. It may not be glamourous and it is certainly clichéd, but during the Blitz in Britain people carried on with their lives regardless of the perilous and fluid environment around them. People knew that major events were unfolding, but they also recognised that the main determinant of their own lives were not the actions of governments but the decisions they took themselves as individuals. That message is one I want share again for the new year’s.

The world is scary and chaotic, but we as individuals determine what role that will play in our lives. So, enjoy your drinks at New Years, the potential hangovers the next day and remember in 2017, whenever you feel overwhelmed, that life still moves on even when your social media is exploding. And when it is, try turning off your phone!

Happy New Years all!

An open letter to the BREMAIN voters

BREXIT ImageWhy does a man who is one of the biggest winners of the European Union campaign so fiercely against it? That is the question that friends, colleagues, family and acquaintances ask me every time we discuss Europe. The funny thing is, I ask myself that question too.

Since I can remember, I have always visited Europe every summer and likely most winters of my life. My family have owned properties on the continent since I was 15, while my cousins have studied in the Czech Republic, Florence and Bologna. My sister studied in Montpelier and I’ve just completed my year in Bologna. My dad speaks three European languages. My mother is the same. My oldest friends are Swedish and German. Today, over half of my friends are non-UK nationals. I speak (albeit badly) German and some Italian. And (so I’m told), I’m a young voter (26,) and by most polling statistics available, ¾ of my UK contemporaries are voting to remain in Europe.

I love Europe, the place. I love Europe, the people. I love Europe, the food. And, I love Europe, the culture. But, I’m voting to leave. Why?

It’s fashionable to see people who support BREXIT as “little Englanders”. Nostalgic for the days of Empire, when “Britannia ruled the waves”. And perhaps I am. In my heart I am a romantic. Seduced by stories of heroism, triumph over overwhelming odds, and love. All popular elements in nostalgic history. The cliché of love conquers all and the triumph of good over evil.

But what is more Romantic than a continent at war, now at peace? A continent of prosperity and shared values, where all are equal, regardless of faith, gender or where they were born? In fact, is Europe not the most romantic of things? Furthermore, is it not in fact a totem to the success of the UK and its leaders? From Churchill to Thatcher, British leaders led the fight to free Europe from totalitarian rule, secured American intervention on the continent and, when the Cold War was over, it was Britain that brought the east of Europe in from the cold. Surely, for many, the successes of the EU are a testimony to the UK’s achievements. A sign of its importance in the world. But if this is all true, then why am I’m voting to leave?

Voters like me in this referendum could have and should have been at the forefront of the remain campaign. But we are not. It is this remarkable fact that seems to cause such utter shock, terror and concern across the world’s elite circles of high finance and politics. Why on earth do we want to leave?

The answer is that something with our society is very ill and this referendum was a chance for the EU and those who believe in the idea of Europe to articulate a vision of how we could fix it. This isn’t new, nor is it sudden. Myself and others have been waiting over a decade for a vision of Europe’s future. But the reality is, there isn’t one. That is the reason why I am leaving. Belief in an idea requires the conviction that it can work. That requires confidence and that requires trust, but also it requires communication. It requires people to understand what it is they are believing in and to buy into that idea. What Europe and the UK’s leaders have forgotten in their hubris is simple: to buy into an idea without understanding it is not courageous, it’s fanaticism.

People all over Europe are really scared. Real term wages have barely grown for most UK citizens in over 15 years, home ownership rates are at their lowest in the UK for over 30 years, domestic companies in the UK are now 88% owned by overseas investors and crime, terrorism and the threat of conflict is higher than they have been since 1992. But it’s not just the UK whose people are scared, its all of Europe too.

Many friends have said that the UK isn’t alone in being unhappy with the EU. That other countries also dislike many things that happen at the EU level, but that the UK should work with them to fix it. What they have missed though is the basic question: fix it to what? What should Europe be? How should it look? And, most importantly, why is that good for me, my family, my friends and my community?

The fact is that elites in Europe and the UK that lead their communities in business, media, academia and politics have failed to deliver an answer. And now they are reaping the consequences. From Austrian presidential elections, to Victor Orban in Hungary, the FN’s rise in France, the 5-star movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece and PiS in Poland, parties are trying to do exactly that. Give people an image of a future. A future where things appear better, appear more certain and more secure. They may all be wrong. They may all be a disaster. But they are an idea, they are a point of reference and increasingly, they are popular.

A vote to leave the EU will hurt in the short term economically. Maybe even the longer term too. But just maybe, it will also help the country to look deep at itself, at its society, and to search for a new system and a new vision of what its future should be. Many Brexiters are doing that now. From free-market liberals like Daniel Hannan, to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and yes, Nigel Farage, people are suggesting ideas of a new Britain. Maybe they might all be worse than they are now. But maybe they might be better. Maybe a weaker pound, lower house prices and a migration policy that gives skilled workers from the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong the same rights as a worker from Poland, Austria or Estonia, might in fact make for a more equal and stable society. Maybe.

I said earlier that blind believe is fanaticism. That is how I see the vote to Remain today. A belief that your faith in a system, person or ideology must somehow work out, with no idea of how or why. Is BREXIT a risk? Of that I am sure. But I am also sure that with every decision in my life I’d rather know that I took a chance to make something better and shape my world for the better.

For what it’s worth, I am sure we will vote to stay in Europe on June 23rd. My guess would be by about 5%. And afterwards I am sure many of those reading this will be celebrating. But during your celebrations you should pause to consider, if only for a moment, if this referendum is not in fact Europe’s Pyrrhic victory. A win that has cost Europe so much, that you have already lost the argument for the future. The idea of a life without the European Union has been born and is growing every day across Europe and despite facing one of the biggest existential crises to its existence, Europe’s answer has been to beg, to scare and to threaten people to stay.

In the war of ideas, a future of a better and united Europe is dead. For those of you voting to remain, I am left to ask you two final questions before you vote on Thursday: Europe will have to change again in our life times, do you know what that change will be, and are you really sure that Europe’s next phase is better?

Whatever your answer, make sure you vote. Either way, our votes may never be so important as they will be on June 23rd.