Opinion

Watch out world – the British are coming, again

11 min read

14 July 2016

Entrepreneur and influencer Barry James makes a visceral and calculated case for Britain now being at it's most exciting point in history – rather than languishing in post-Brexit doom and being dogged by never before seen political upheaval.

“Britain is no longer a surly lodger – we’re going to be a good neighbour,” opined one on the many commentators on the outlook as the new government was formed over the last 24 hours. He’s right, but this is not the half of it.

Around the world, not to mention at Boris Johnson’s own gaff, there was surprise as well as some wry smiles. Who’s have thought – apart of course from Theresa May. But despite the spite and rancour, now thankfully increasingly behind us, of the Brexit campaign, his appointment as foreign secretary indeed was an inspired choice. It’s one among many, from a prime minister who is showing an astonishing flair for wo/man management across the board.

Despite his faults, and he has plenty, Johnson is perhaps the greatest salesman our politics have ever seen. What’s more, he has a deep grounding in the UK’s history and a real vision of it’s place in the world, equalled by few except perhaps his hero Winston Churchill. Yes, he can be light-hearted and often just plain silly, but his engaging manner and bumbling creates room for manoeuvre – for as flexible and sharp an intellect as you’ll find anyplace.

Meanwhile, what emerges already, within hours, from the still developing picture is an the opening of a new door – an opening to the world. A realisation that, for all the handwringing we’ve seen Britain is not just “open for business” or “making the best of a bad job” as so many have said and written – through gritted teeth.

We are now fully open to the world. We are ready to take a position in it – not just a good neighbour but a leader. The UK is right at forefront of the real, rather than just EU-manufactured, opportunities and challenges that are before us. The fundamentals, not the petty (even at EU level) politics.

Because the world continues to not just turn, at the same rate as ever, but change at a rate faster than ever before. With or without the EU, Britain is at the forefront of that ongoing, accelerating, revolution, with some of the brightest and most creative in the world.

A new environment, opened up by technology on a global scale, is now just beginning to bite here – offering opportunities that never existed before.

We are at the forefront. Leaving the EU not only does not change or even dent that – it throws open new opportunities that the EU only ever obscured and sought to suppress or “own” – as politicians and bureaucrats almost always do.

There were all the costs from the friction and lost opportunities from an organisation that takes 44 months to make decisions (and never got around to creating the mythical single-market in financial services which was amongst it’s chief selling points).

But as the clouds of self-doubt and uncertainty, along with the largely self-inflicted “economic shock” cooked up to a perfect pitch in George Osbourne’s Treasury, dissipates, and the sun of a new vista appears, it’s gradually dawning that we are in charge of our own destiny – and more.

We can talk to, and trade with, the whole world again. One that’s opening up in new ways as change continues to accelerate, throwing up new opportunities as these things invariably do.

It’s real and visceral right now. We are out there already and planning the third in a series of major inward and cross-investment visits with China right now that will, we hope and believe, lead to an ongoing trade and investment relationship with the very heart of China. Not the old closed China, but the new, open and visionary China which has looked at the changes technology and financial openness and transparency are bringing to the world and are embracing them far more heartily and wholeheartedly than we have.

Read more from Barry James:

Two years after I first called for it (in an article entitled “Why the FCA should create an innovation unit“) in these very pages, he installed one in the heart of the regulator, which has proved a great success for the UK. So much so it is now envied, and being copied, around the globe in a world that, rightly, regards the UK and (until now, and it’s recent fit of the miseries) London as the world capital of financial technology. 

Credit where it’s due. While Osborne will never live down his mythical “emergency Budget” – part of his failed attempt at shock-and-awe on his own population – he did one thing for which he deserves and will get long-term credit. He reversed the government’s, and the FCA’s, position on financial innovation – declaring that henceforth regulation in the UK will adapt to nurture and support innovation. This overturned centuries worth of exclusion.

Ironically it is the denizens of Canary Wharf and Shoreditch who, having lived so long in the shadow of Brussels, have yet to realise that the closing of the EU door merely presages much greater vistas and opportunity for them, and us all.

Like victims of Stockholm syndrome our perceptions, and especially our media, have been (and for now continue to be) captive to those who’d take us where they wanted us to go, bound by “directives” and rules that leave us asking for permission and having little or no real voice on the things that matter to us. As we blink into the light it’s also now dawning, as we look at the Article 50 button, that it is we, not the EU, who are in charge of the timing – and so much else.

As Johnson and Theresa May clearly recognise, Britain is not a small country which needs to struggle for a place in the world. It is a big presence at the centre of the storm of opportunity that is blowing up and still building around a world now open to us.

The US may smile more or less wryly at the thought of Johnson being our point man but they’ll, inevitably, succumb, I predict, to the Johnson charm. Even if they don’t it hardly matters. The US is firstly and foremost pragmatic in it’s relations. We are it’s best and closest partner for good reasons – no matter what his friend David Cameron managed to induce Barack Obama to say for British consumption. Before he embarked on that he should have recalled that, while Americans do not take well to being “at the back of the line” the British have always had a way with a queue – and that he would not be believed.

Some say that China, not the US, is the new superpower – the one that really matters in a new world order. But this, along with much that will now be swept away, is old thinking through an obsolete lens. We are moving into a new phase, a new world where increasingly economies will be about people – not the other way around – and about their skills and abilities in a world where labour, both manual and administrative, will be cheap and provided by bots. People, and their creativity, will become the most important resource.

The change, and the opportunities and challenges at global scale, are already upon us. Such is the speed of change and the number and depth of opportunities, that neither China nor the US are the new super power. It is agility that will define the winners and losers as change accelerates.

Agility does not always go with size – but big is no longer necessarily better, and freedom of movement is crucial. “Freedom of movement” is what we have recovered, not really lost – whatever the suits from Brussels would have us believe. Not just because we are the EU’s best customers, but because of the way the world has changed and is changing.

In the past Britain provided the world an ongoing masterclass in creativity and independent thinking. Now, perhaps, we will find the freedom to do so again at perhaps the most exciting point in this island’s history – and the world’s.