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We the people need to find a way to dispel the Brexit Blues

This piece by Michael Hayman originally appeared in City A.M, see here

The year is 1989. Ronald Reagan on his last day at the White House makes his farewell address.

His message is one of the recovery of morale and national pride during his presidency.

He puts it down to three words: “we the people”. In so doing, his message is this: “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise – and freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile.”

Fast-forward to today to our United Kingdom, and the idea of “we the British people” feels fragile indeed. The freedoms of speech, religion and enterprise are a trinity under great threat.

Last week, the Yorkshire food firm Heck took the decision to invite Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the two candidates to lead the nation, to visit their business.

Debbie Keeble, co-founder of the family firm, said that they wanted to know how Brexit would affect their business as an exporter to the EU and one that has recruited 80 of its 140 workers from eastern Europe.

The response? A Twitter lynch mob baying under the banner of #BoycottHeck took to social media in an attempt to drive the firm bust.

Heck no. It’s a sad day indeed if hosting the next Prime Minister of a nation is deemed a severe enough offence to cost you your job or your business.

This sad episode provides added urgency for us to change the broken record of the Brexit Blues. The national narrative seems incapable of moving beyond fixed positions of woe. The country has become world-class at defining what it is against and threadbare at defining what it is for.

There is an apocryphal 1930s newspaper headline “Fog in Channel; Continent cut off”. The danger today is that the UK cuts itself off in its own red mist.

“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Thus goes the fictional but very real advice of Don Draper, the advertising supremo in HBO’s hit show Mad Men.

That Britain needs a new conversation to address its current rut cannot be in doubt. The “hamster wheel of doom” was how Boris Johnson described the predicament in which we find ourselves perpetually mired.

But the situation is far worse than cross words and being stuck in a conversational Groundhog Day. This could be Britain’s lost decade if it can’t find the will to move on. So beware the cuddly, comfortable hamster. It is, as the joke goes, a rat without a PR problem.

All the while, the world moves decisively on with or without us. And in it, the people of each nation have a question to answer: how ambitious are we?

How ambitious are we to prosper through change? And do we learn to surf that wave of change, or are we drowned by it? If we are to have a national obsession, it should be about getting ready to face and embrace this future.

LinkedIn chief executive Jeff Weiner puts it like this: “There is a widening skills gap where the existing workforce has been educated and trained to obtain the jobs of yesterday and not the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

And it’s not just here. The world over there is full of workforces that were perfectly trained – but for the last century, not this one.

As Sherry Coutu, the chair of the ScaleUp Institute and Founders4Schools, told me:

“The industry configuration driving our economy is changing at exponential speed, as is our need to adapt. Young people today, over the course of their lives, can expect to undertake some 25 different jobs between graduation and retirement and seven different career tracks.

“The opportunity for the UK being ready to embrace that change could be a game-changer. Similarly the costs of not being match fit could be grave.”

Forget gold watches for lifetimes of consecutive service. This is a phenomenal disruption to the world of work, and it speaks to a completely different relationship between business and society.

Nor is this disruption some temporary suspension of normality; it is the new normal. Those that get ready for it fastest will win out.

It’s against this backdrop that Britain needs to rediscover its self-confidence, and that means a new ambition to excel. Brexit cannot be a retrospective, it has to be our most forward-looking, open-minded moment as a people.

Because there is a bigger challenge at play here than our relationship with the European Union. It is one that speaks to ever more people finding economic productivity, prosperity, and personal freedom from the changes that are happening around the world.

It is why the idea of “we the people” has to become a driving ideal, not of US Presidents of the past, but of the Britain of the future.

 

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