Programme Updates

COVID and Brexit: Values and fault lines: which virtues should the UK now signal to the world? 

by .

The 2012 London Olympics now feel like a lifetime ago. Many – not least quite a few Brits themselves – were slightly baffled by the opening ceremony, master-minded by the film director Danny Boyle. Trampolining NHS nurses, Kenneth Branagh reading Caliban from The Tempest (“Be not afear’d; the isle is full of noises”), a James Bond Skydiving Queen Elizabeth, a flock of sheep and geese and some Sex Pistols. It was quite a show but what did it signify? Were we dark and satanic or green and pleasant? What was all this representing?  Caught up in the theatrical whirl of it all, nobody minded that much. It was madcap, touching, surreal and slightly eccentric. Many foreign observers were the least surprised. The Brits have minds of their own. 

The group gathered for the latest roundtable discussion supported by Eithne O’Leary, the President of Stifel Europe agreed on one thing, though…2012 seemed like the last time members of the UK felt a sort of collective positivity and cohesive togetherness.

Quite where we are at, post-Brexit and now perhaps with the end of the pandemic in sight is very unclear. What does the UK stand for? What are the values that bind, that we hold dear and self-evident? And, more importantly, how do we agree and make active use of them to bring us back to a new normal following the twin shocks of COVID and Brexit? The event also brought together a number of activity strands that Jericho and Stifel have been investigating over the last couple of years: purpose, regulation, the role of business post-pandemic. 

Opening the latest webinar conversation Eithne O’Leary wondered whether two examples of the way in which a pair of large organisations – KPMG in the UK and McKinsey globally – have dealt with recent reputational dilemmas did them many favours. KPMG in the UK lost its chairman Bill Michaels over some remarks made on a Zoom call to his staff in which he was judged to have lacked sensitivity to the trials of the last year. “The current troubles facing McKinsey, over opioids,” said Eithne, “Is an example of where nobody stepped back and questioned the values and purpose of the organisation. It’s strange that the ethics of selling more opioids was never examined. There are, and have always been, reasons to believe that corporate values have very practical applications and surely this was one.”

To understand where we are now in 2021 can be helped if we  look back into our history. After all a nation with no sense of its past can struggle finding a route to a healthy future. Sathnam Sanghera’s widely lauded new book Empireland suggests we need to come to terms with a sometimes unsavoury imperial past before we can understand our present and then negotiate a new future. “We’re dysfunctional when it comes to the subject of empire,” he said. “Our national historical identity is now largely framed around defeating racist Nazism, but ignores our own racist imperialism. Colonialism was a 400-year long project filled with complexity. Our citizens went abroad for a variety of reasons including material gain, boredom and frustration with home, a moral ‘civilising’ imperative.” Sathnam said a relationship – including his own – with a country is like a marriage. While feeling pride in our music, literature, multiculturalism without it descending into a jingoistic enthusiasm: – “if you understand someone’s flaws and history it can make you love them more, not less.” Returning to a “global Britain” post-Brexit should not involve a conquering mindset.  

“Returning to a “global Britain” post-Brexit should not involve a conquering mindset”

Sathnam Sanghera

Looking at value in a different, micro and personal, rather than macro political perspective Stephen Bayley also has a new book out Values – What money can’t buy. It’s a reflection on what is worth valuing and suggests The Great Isolation of COVID, as he calls it, will have given many an opportunity for reflection. He wants us to ditch the economic and global political and think small. God’s in the detail for him. His book is dedicated to Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s original castaway hero who – “looked upon the world as a thing remote. A place I had lived in but was come out of it.” The book contains thirty arguments about how to do basic things. “I can’t stand that expression of McKinsey’s “If you can measure it, you can manage it,” Bayley protested. “Really? So many important elements of human existence – love, for example, cannot be measured.” Bayley is deeply suspicious of the data and measurements of Big Tech despite its stellar share price performance during COVID. 

In referencing the way to build a post-COVID nation, Bayley cited the old Blairite idea of ‘Cool Britannia’ and his belief that it was misconceived. He stated that mature nations don’t need to reinvent themselves and stressed the importance of making things to a nation. Bayley stated that it’s “economically and spiritually scary” to be in a country unable to manufacture what it needs, and that there’s nothing more satisfying than making things. (This was his line of the vulnerability of supply chains as shown by COVID.) Bayley believes that civilized societies manufacture the things they make, and seeing a relation between input and output is satisfying and important. Consequently, he doesn’t like what the likes of Amazon and Facebook supposedly create. He did however acknowledge that the Roman empire had excellent “branding” with engineering and laws established centrally but said that the British empire was a series of accidents.

Denise Kingsmill – who was born in New Zealand and came to the UK as a young girl – admitted that she “felt more of a Londoner than a Brit” and certainly still felt very European. The refusal of a patrilineal passport didn’t help. There is a need, she said, to establish what it means to be British that goes beyond the flag, and is more than being English.

There is a need to establish what it means to be British that goes beyond the flag, and is more than being English

Denise Kingsmill

Madison Kominski, an investment banking analyst at Stifel in London, has been in the UK for less than two years and is an interested maybe more objective observer of the schism that has been created by Brexit. During the course of studying for her Masters degree at the LSE, she found the hub-like nature of London and its attraction of many nationalities very attractive. It felt effortless and natural compared to the United States, she said and she felt privileged to have experienced something that is hard to replicate without experiencing it. Hers was one of the more optimistic views of the UK’s and specifically London’s future. 

What precisely does country exceptionalism mean in a global economy asked Sanjay Patnaik from Brookings in Washington? He is doubtful that a country can supposedly be exceptional for all its citizens. He also wondered whether the US currently has a similar experience to the UK in the years immediately after World War 2 – “grappling with your role in the world while struggling with new geopolitical reality.” He believed that younger people experience community more strongly at a global level and hoped that older generational thinking about nationalism is becoming outdated.

Several participants felt that the UK’s vaccination programme was something to be proud of. The problem is when doing things well becomes an exceptionalism. The European row over the speed of COVID vaccination is a case in point. The schadenfreude felt by many British at the EU making a mess of rollout risks becoming triumphalist. 

Simon McDougall of the Information Commissioner’s Office made an important point that most national values are myth-building on convenient historical facts – a sort of pick and mix to advance your preferred narrative. Thus a whole variety of values can be extracted. He did think that technology can foment more of as sense of global community but acknowledged that echo chambers and disinformation were also unwelcome by-products of some social media, for example. 

Mikael Down questioned the extent to which we need a single national narrative. What’s wrong with a diversity/plurality of stories, and a meaningful discourse that draws commonalities and differences between these perspectives? Black Lives Matter and other important movements have highlighted the need to understand different accounts of history, in particular those that challenge predominant narratives. Institutions, both public and private, have a vital role to play in giving voice to communities and groups whose lived experiences are under-represented in our prevailing narratives.

“Individual institutions have a duty to step up, and not wait to be told to do so.”

Mikael Down

“There’s now a genuine recognition across many organisations,” he said “that they have a responsibility to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in all its forms; not just passively but actively. This matters, whether we are talking about mitigating climate change, understanding how technology is shaping society, or addressing inequality. Individual institutions have a duty to step up, and not wait to be told to do so.”

Jane McCormick warned against a sort of reverse exceptionalism, a donning of the hair shirt where Britons talk themselves down. On her many travels abroad, she said our professional services sector remains widely admired and apologising for being British wasn’t ultimately going to help anybody.“But we must stick to the values we have been admired for like the rule of law and the freedom of the press,” she noted.

It’s certainly true that many other nations – as we’ve seen in previous podcast and roundtable discussions – do not have the UK’s domestic divisions at the top of its list of interests. Brexit has been a family affair and others do not wish to interfere in or lack interest in our grief. 

Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and originally a classicist by training spoke about how philosophy is growing in popularity and how it involves a desirable cultivation of certain virtues. “Teaching philosophy to even young children can produce outcomes such as an improved ability to listen and think critically, and increased self-confidence,” she said. She also spoke about how we should not be embarrassed by the language of cultivating the virtues or dismiss it all as ‘virtue-signalling’. “Most of the time it’s a genuine attempt to try and cultivate kindness and empathy and respect and that’s laudable.” Hobbs stated that we shouldn’t shy away from these things and it requires leadership from the top. This is a cross-partisan view and many people are dismayed by the mendacity and corruption present in this country today. She expressed surprise that our prime minister received a good classical education – and has the Pericles bust in his office – yet seemed to have picked up little when it comes to behaviour and ethics from his illustrious ancient teachers. “The only recognisable element of his classical education is his use of rhetoric,” she said.

“Teaching philosophy to even young children can produce outcomes such as an improved ability to listen and think critically, and increased self-confidence.”  

Angie Hobbs

The official UK government line on British values is that they consist of a belief in “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. However, British and most nation’s values are necessarily a work in progress. Defining them is in fact about setting out how we want to be now, or what we could achieve if we put our minds to it. They’re up for grabs, subject to change, very much part of politics. And they do change. 

Think of how differently our great-grandparents, if they lived in Britain, looked at the world. An imperial view. Think of how a Victorian gentleman would have thought about morality and Britain’s role as a global power. Go back another 300 years. What was more important, freedom or virtue? Obedience before God or the right of individuals to fulfil their potential? Equality or hierarchy? And think, for example, if you’d said to someone as recently as 1990 that in less than two decades time people of the same sex would be able to marry each other… Things change and in a number of ways 2021 feels like a watershed moment for deeper thought and reflection about what we hold dear. 

Participants in the Roundtable included:

1. Stephen Bayley, Author & Broadcaster
2. Mikael Down Executive Director for Assessment, Banking Standards Board
3. Matthew Gwyther, Partner, Jericho Chambers
4. Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, University of Sheffield
5. Wendy Jephson, Head of Behavioral Science, Market Technology Nasdaq
6. Denise Kingsmill, Former Chair, Monzo
7. Madison Kominski, Investment Banking Analyst, Stifel
8. Jane McCormick, Former Head of Global Tax, KPMG
9. Simon McDougall, Deputy Commissioner, Regulatory Innovation and Technology ICO
10. Eithne O’Leary, CEO, Stifel Europe
11. Sanjay Patnaik, Director Center on Regulation and Markets, Brookings Institution
12. Vicky Pryce, Economist and Business Consultant, Board Member Cebr
13. Sathnam Sanghera, Journalist & Author, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain
14. Lesley Smith, Vice President of Corporate Communications & Public Affairs, Revolut
15. Baroness Wheatcroft, Member House of Lords

Sign up to be kept up to date