24 January 2020

Is the Establishment having an optimism reshuffle?

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For me, there have been two notable cultural trends of the last three years in the West. First, a howling negativity emanating from what one might describe as the bourgeois intelligentsia; and second, the traditional Establishment being stuck like rabbits in the headlights, panicking and not knowing what to do.

One can blame this on Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or Greta Thunberg. But it goes much deeper than individuals and traces its roots to the financial crisis, the rise of social media and too many highly indebted people at university, to name a few.

Is all this suddenly changing?

Daniel Hannan, the retiring Conservative MEP and Telegraph columnist, quoted the historian Lord Macaulay the other day at his leaving do. “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” Pessimism is not new, but progress is the way to bet.

I was struck also by an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning with Professor Sophie Scott, director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London and Professor Julia Lohmann, a Finnish academic who also runs a design practice called the Department of Seaweed, which develops emissions and toxin absorbing seaweed products.

Professor Scott reminded us all that humankind are social primates, and, “People change more frequently if you engage them in a positive way. Our social interactions matter.”

This should not be a surprise to followers of Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments is built upon exactly that insight. Man is essentially a collaborative animal and “we shudder and tremble” at what “our brother feels upon the rack”. Negativity and hysteria are usually overdone and unhelpful, if not psychologically damaging, and certainly harm relationships and the ability to co-operate.

Democratic societies, which are necessarily discursive, do not usually run off cliffs. Occasionally, one has a calamitous 1914 cliff-running situation, but even those just serve to reinforce social dynamics of positive behaviour and spontaneous organisation. Usually, in a dynamic society, if we see a threat or challenge, we collectively organise to do something about it, after first making a mess and fuss over things.

Which leads us to my next observation. After three years of stasis, the Establishment is having a major reshuffle. In the space of a few days we have a new editor of the Financial Times (Roula Khalaf); a new editor of the Sunday Times (Emma Tucker); and searches announced for a new BBC Director General, a new director at the Office of Budget Responsibility and a new CEO of Sainsbury’s; and an interim head of the Financial Conduct Authority (Christopher Woolard). Expect this to gain further momentum with the imminent Cabinet reshuffle and a new Labour leader.

What will be the collective ethos of these new leaders? Will they wag their fingers disapprovingly at us and teach us that we are all doomed due to the climate emergency and a plague from China? Or embrace a more optimistic, practical style and philosophy? Optimism vs Pessimism currently is a great dividing line in society, but empirical observation shows that, in the long term, sensible people should be cautiously optimistic.

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George Trefgarne is founder and CEO of Boscobel & Partners consultancy