It’s a paradox, but 2019 could be the best and worst of times
We live in a paradoxical age. UK politics remains in a state of constant turmoil, and even the most hopeful commentators recognise that the first quarter of this year will be challenging. The Foreign Secretary said this week that the “rules-based international system is under greater strain than for many decades”. President Trump continues to confound. And yet there has never been a better time to be alive: the world literacy rate is 85%, the number of girls in primary school is now 90%, people are healthier and wealthier than ever.
This was the observation made by Philip Collins last week in the Times and, like most observable truths, it has been made before. In December 2012 the Spectator editorial said: “To listen to politicians is to be given the impression of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse.” The same article goes on to note that “advances in medicine and technology mean that people across the world are living longer.” Indeed, so compellingly was the argument for cheeriness made in 2012 that in December 2013 the Spectator said more or less the same things: “A cold, dispassionate look at the facts reveals that we are living in a golden era, and that, if you see objective measures, 2013 has been the best year in human history.”
So how can those of us engaged in public affairs look beyond the Brexit horizon and refocus our energies on the things that really matter: housing, social care, mobility, loneliness, public health? Here are some thoughts:
- You can’t wish Brexit away – and it matters too.
Between now and the 29th of March Brexit will continue to dominate public discourse. And probably for a good while thereafter. When Matt Chorley says “This. Is. Not. Normal.” it is because it has become the new normal. And the debate is important, even if it’s painful. For lobbyists it matters to our clients too, so we need to stick with it. Good, impartial, insightful and timely counsel has always been at a premium. In 2019 it has become an invaluable product and we should be confident that we are adding value with our advice. Connect has a number of clients who hired us specifically to help them steer the course through Brexit. We have demonstrated an ability to get properly stuck into the detail of the legislation and to provide rapid-fire advice on fast-changing events. So we lobbyists need to brace ourselves and own the opportunities.
- Understand what’s making people tick
When I joined Connect in 2014 there were three serious political parties, all with a claim to government; lobbying felt more straightforward. Of course, the reality in 2014 was that the coalitions holding the main parties together were very fragile – not that we can claim we saw it all coming. The ebb and flow of politics at the moment is confusing and that makes it all the more important to understand where people are coming from. Old labels don’t hold anymore and the old rules of collective responsibility are breaking down. Liz Truss uses her Twitter feed to accuse Michael Gove of being nannying, while Michael Gove argues that banning foie gras could be a potential Brexit bonus. “This. Is. Not. Normal”. Our clients need to understand the culture wars that are happening just below the surface. It’s not enough to say that the Tories are against developing the Green Belt or that Labour wants to nationalise the railways: it’s our job to explain why and what the implications are. And we need to advise our clients to start pushing and probing to see where the opportunities might be: who are the Tories who would build on Green Belt, what are the Labour Mayors really doing with urban transport?
- Don’t think it’ll keep
Since 2014 there have been two (important) national referendums, two general elections and the usual round of local and regional elections. All of these could have been (and were) used as an excuse to delay engaging with politics. Brexit is the biggest excuse of all. However, to carry on waiting and seeing in 2019 would be a huge mistake. Underneath all the froth there is lots happening. We are now, at last, building more houses. The NHS is getting a significant cash boost. Defra is beginning to get a grip on the impact of plastic. When high politics dominates it doesn’t mean complete paralysis: remember that Beveridge worked up his blueprint for a welfare state in 1944 as the war raged. And at the same time that bits of government are doing things that matter, the Labour Party is preparing for office. Underestimate Jeremy Corbyn at your peril.
Tempting as it is to hunker down and pray for daylight this January, it’s time to get busy. Beyond Brexit lies a likely Conservative leadership contest and beyond that a general election that could usher in a radical left-of-centre government. Now is the time to sit up, pay attention and get to grips with the political landscape. Do that now and you might just be ready to make a real difference this year, however daunting it looks. And in the meantime, chin up. As Philip Collins observed last week: “At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, just one person in a hundred lived in a democracy. Now half the world’s population has the privilege…and Mary Poppins is back.”