Robin Niblett: "The More Coherent the World is, the Less Influential Britain will be." Interview.
Robin Niblett (Director of Chatham House, London): The More Coherent the World is, the Less Influential Britain will be.
Original Interview with Fernando Gómez Herrero (23 April 2020).
Spanish version in La Vanguardia, from Barcelona, Spain.
“April is the Cruellest Month / breeding lilacs out of the beds / stirring memory and desire” T.S. Eliot may have anticipated some of our predicaments: the superlative adjective resonates with us at this moment in Britain and elsewhere. In shocking contrast with the gorgeous weather outside, I talked via Zoom with Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London during the month-long national lockdown.
It is peak number of deaths by covid-19, bypassing the 20,000 by the time of the transcription of this interview, and with Brexit talks slowly re-starting. The conversation includes some aspects of the London institution of the Chatham House in its 100-anniversary year interrupted about a month ago (23 March was the official government kick-off date for the lockdown) and how these events have migrated to the virtual domain. There are pressing challenges mentioned, also key moments in the history of the 100-year-old institution are highlighted (1920s-30s, the 1941-2 collaboration with the Americans in WWII, decolonization and Détente with the Russians in the Cold War, the 1973 pro-European Union stance, etc.). The director includes two of his favourite moments during his tenure. Are we dealing with the double "eclipse" of the privileged position of the United Kingdom inside Europe and of the North-Atlantic configuration of the West cut down to size by the close relationship between the U.K. and the U.S.? Yet, the very idea of the West and the pre-eminence of Enlightenment values are brought into the equation, how could they not?
It is no secret that this is not good moment for the Europeanism and the Atlanticism that has defined Chatham House, think tank that has not always walked in tandem gait with the British government at least since the Margaret Thatcher years mentioned here, and certainly not now with the Boris Johnson government pushing for Brexit. If the U.K. becomes a “free agent,” the question is whether it will do well in a more or less coherent world that is pivoting East-bound towards Asia and most concretely China. The interview concludes with what I would describe a Carl-Schmittian focus of the crucial dimension of myths and lies, or usable symbols, capturing something of the desire and the drive, the memory, anguish and fear of identities and nations, particularly in light of the “irrationality” of the complex Brexit phenomenon. We are travelling through Brexit and learning to live –and die—with covid-19: interesting times for Britain as the subtle Chinese dictum has it, and you can bet your money that these are challenging moments for Britain and the rest of the world with no exceptions.
COVID-19 ACCELERATIONS OF THE CORE BUSINESS OF CHATHAM HOUSE.
Fernando Gómez Herrero: How are you coping and how is Chatham House coping with covid-19? What is the plan for the rest of the year?
Robin Nilblett: We are copying well in the sense that there is huge demand for global analysis right now, of the covid crisis and its implications for all sorts of things. It has accelerated tensions between US and China, concerns about the fragility of states in Africa and about the coherence of the EU, it has even raised questions as to whether Brexit should happen at the end of the year. So, whatever way you look at it, the core business of Chatham House and other think tanks like us is accelerated and increased in terms of its value by the nature of the environment. So, that’s good.
On the other hand, we are an institution that has worked physically as well as virtually. We host normally close to 25-30 meetings a week, mostly of 15-30 people, [and] a couple of meetings a week, [of] 100 to 230 people and so that is the physical aspect of bringing people together, which is the culture and the value added of Chatham House. We are bringing diverse constituencies into the room, at the human level, and hearing each other. Because of the Chatham House rule and its history, people feel they are physically coming into a building and a trusted space. So, recreating that sense of intimacy and specialness that came about coming into that 18th Century building at St. James Square, with all of its history, that you cannot replicate by a Zoom. But we are doing just about everything else, whether it is meetings, big-scale. So, we had meetings of more than 400 people. We could not have more than 250 at any one time at Chatham House. Our meetings that are normally private meetings might have 25-30 people, now seem to have 60-80 people and we are more able to get people in from Africa, the United States, China or whatever, for a dialogue, people who could not fly over, could not get a visa, we can now have their voices with us intimately on the screen. A large part of the work at Chatham House is big projects, multi-year projects, working on climate change, circular economy, geopolitics. We are truly an institution of international affairs. We cover all aspects. So, luckily what we are able to do is to continue doing the type of work we do from home. All of our staff are set up at home, and writing the papers, hosting the meetings, interacting with governments and with the stakeholders in different ways [goes on]. And at the moment, it is o.k.
I think our worry is, to be frank, is that if this continues and we are not able to return to something approximate to what has been, then the foundation that has found us will have less money , the companies that found us may have less cash flow, the governments that found us may have to put their money in survival and debt, social equity and social programmes, and have less money for us. We are o.k. for now. But if this becomes the new normal, which I think there is a big chance it will do, we will have to do some clever adaptation in about six months’ time.
FGH: Has the Director been to the physical building [since the lockdown]?
RN: Yes. We follow the government’s advice. We felt especially, as an Institute, we did not want to go ahead of the advice because that would be implying that we knew something that the government did not know, that we were making a statement. So, although we started winding down our big meetings and so on, prior to the government lockdown, we stayed in synch with the scientific advice provided by the British government. Which means therefore that we closed the building whenever we locked down, 3, nearly 4 weeks ago now, I think it was. What we do now is simply make sure that we have some security personnel that goes into the building to make sure it is o.k. once a day or so. We had to think because Britain has a different social distancing policy to France or Spain. You are encouraged to work from home. If it is essential, the only way you can do your work is in your office, then you go in. But we have to think about the security personnel who have to go in and open he building, they had to take public transport, and what if they have a medical condition, so we decided that solidarity was what counted and what applied to one applied to all. I have gone in once in the last few weeks to pick up some papers I left behind. I was in the building for 15 minutes and I left.
MOST SIGNIFICANT MOMENTS OF THE HISTORY OF THE ROYAL INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS.
FGH: In its 100-year history, could you highlight 2 or 3 most significant moments of the institution?
RN: The interwar years [would the first moment]. The late 1920s-early 1930s, as Europe was grappling with the entry into Depression, the role of Gold, the question whether reparation should continue to be paid by Germany… John Maynard Keynes was based at Chatham House. He ran a number of study groups out of Chatham House, that may be a better way of putting it. In those days we did not have formal research programmes. But he ran his study group from and with the Institute.
And that was a pretty critical period, which you might say sadly was not able to avert what happened, but it was a very important time of intellectual creativity, and importantly it probably set the seeds for the second most important period of Chatham House in its 100-year history, which was been involved with American counterparts and with the British government in the committee for reconstruction post-war, which started in 1941-2, literally, after Britain thought it could survive the Blitz, and moved into that phase when it was starting to bring America into the war, which it was British policy at that point, but even before that point, Chatham House was involved with the Foreign Office and with other government officials in starting to design the Bretton Woods institutions, the U.N., what became the IMF, and again John Maynard Keynes, if I remember rightly, was still involved at that point, it was later on in his life. So, this is the second very important period in Chatham House.
A third important period would be the decolonisation. We did a lot of work at Chatham House from the British perspective, and this was something that was uniquely British, how do you carry out effective decolonisation politically, financially. We have a very strong Africa programme at Chatham House that draws a lot of its history from that period.
The fourth big period would have been the period of Détente. You can choose later on which ones are the most important. They are in my mind because we did some of that for our centenary. We were strong proponents of trying to find a way to open up dialogue in the weaning years of the Cold War. We run some track to dialogues with the Soviet Delegations. It was considered to be on the edge, should we say, because of British government, certainly when Margaret Thatcher came into power, was all about winning the cold war, not about détente. When we started it, it was popular, but by the time Thatcher came into power, it was less popular.
RN: I could go back a little further. Chatham House was actively involved in getting Britain into the European Union. It wrote a big paper in 1973 around the referendum in 1975 being strongly in favour of being in the EU. Obviously with Britain leaving the EU, that has been a pretty critical moment for Chatham House, time to rethink, what is our role is, not so much that we follow British policy, because I would say there have been shifts in the Institute in the mid-1990s to the 2000s, certainly ever since I have been a director [in 2007], we have already worked, being an institute based in London working on global problems. I think our work on climate change started in the early 1990s, and we were one of the earliest institutions involved in trying to developed a dialogue around climate, getting politicians and businesses and so on to get involved. The big move for Chatham House is to realize that the globalization agenda, which was so actively involved in the last 20 years, since the 1990s, collapsed (climate, non-proliferation, financial regulation), that in way it was running in parallel, the parallel to the emergence or re-emergence of the more nationalist, the emotional populist form of politics, which was the flip side if you wish, the underbelly of globalization. And we did not see it coming, I don’t think. We did some studies on the rise of the rise of the Far Right back in 2012-3. Some parts of the institute felt it, but not as an organization, if you know what I am saying.
So, a big thing for us now is having to decide where we stand. We are not like a reed in the wind, which brings us to today. Some people say that we should be more nationalists and we should think more about local politics. Chatham House is not a tree that bends with the wind. We need to know what we believe is important. For our centenary we have put this into three buckets. We believe it is our goals helping the world to sustain a more equitable growth, in building peaceful and thriving societies, we believe the rule of force is a disaster, and the rule of law is the future. And this brings the third [belief in], accountable and inclusive governance. We have learned over a hundred years that an institute we need to be bolder than just analysing, we need to stand for something that we have learned for a hundred years. We spent the last year and a half talking and discussing with our Board, and we have put these three ideas out there: accountable government, we can decide what we mean by that, you know, we did not use the word democracy for deliberate reasons, because some countries may think that democracy is just elections, and democracy is not just elections. Accountable government is about the separation of powers, rule of law, free press, strong civil society, and elections are one small part. So, we talk about accountable governments. This would be the final thing, after the shocks of Brexit and Trump, and what it tells us, we have really committed ourselves to these three goals and it has been quite an intellectually creative period for us.
CHALLENGES FOR CHATHAM HOUSE AND OTHER WESTERN THINK TANKS IN THE IMMEDIATE PRESENT.
FGH: What are 2/3 salient challenges of Chatham House and other Western think in the immediate present and near future (against the background of your own piece in International Affairs (2018)?
RN: The thing about think tanks [is that] we all reflect the environment in which we live and grew up and exist. American institutions exist in Washington. They focus principally on US policy, because US policy is globally important. It affects the world. And the whole nature of the revolving door, how you go in and out of government and into think tanks, also creates a pressure for that. We are creatures of London. There is no revolving door into the British government. We have a civil service that is professional. We have very few political advisers and they tend to be very political and they come in and out with ministers and there is a very small number of them. And being in London, and because British policy does not influence the world, we use London as our base, to try to be an institute that can really have and curate a global conversation and come up with an international perspective on issues. So, the big challenge for us right now is, number one, we are in a world where that view is contested.
We are in a world where the former champion of globalisation, or the champion of international cooperation, the US, is currently one of the most sceptical institutions: might is right. If not the rule of force, certainly the rule of power. And that is the antithesis of what we believe in at Chatham House and what we believe is good for the world. Back to what I said a minute ago about these three principles. So, it is a challenge for us because in our opinion being analytical and objective is seen by some people as being political. You hit this amazing period where evidence and facts are contested as being political opinion, even when they are not. Climate change is happening and a large part of the climate change that is happening is man-made. The science is incontrovertible. But for certain people to make that statement, or to believe that, to accept that statement, is to then accept, that you cannot be a sovereign country because if climate change is real, then you have to cooperate with other countries, you have to change what your domestic politics might be, what your energy policy, obviously your environmental or industrial policy, taxation, all of these would be influenced by that fact, and if you do not believe in that, if you believe that [the] nation should be sovereign and independent, that you should have control over your politics, then, it is a very simple thing, climate change must not be true or climate change must not be man- made. It Is not that you change your policy. Your reject the fact. And you organize your voters, or your citizens, depending whether you are a democracy or an autocracy, and both types of country play with the facts. This is a big challenge for fact-based institutions.
Now, it means some people love coming to us because fortunately there are many governments, policy makers and decision-makers who champion what we champion. But, there are some governments who see us as not providing fact-based analysis, but as being on the side of the debate. I will give you another challenge. It is a much more competitive environment. Everyone can zoom. Everyone can convene. Everyone can blog, write or [create] websites. It is a cacophonous world. So, how do you fit? How do you sit in there? How do you make sure you are heard? And so, as an institution we need to engage with our stakeholders in very different ways. We can’t just write good reports and even communicate them to decision-makers. We need to make sure we have resonance amongst the bigger community, young people, and the interested public, otherwise, politicians don’t listen to you and decision-makers feel you are not relevant. So, these are two big challenges.
THE MORE COHERENT THE WORLD IS, THE LESS INFLUENTIAL BRITAIN WILL BE.
FGH: This is not a good moment for the Atlanticism and the Europeanism defended historically by a UK institution such as Chatham House. Or in other words, we are probably looking at a double eclipse, that of the privileged position of the UK in the Western-led world order since the Suez-Canal crisis, and that of institutions such as Chatham House at least as currently configured: what’s next?
RN: There’s two separate [aspects]. As for Chatham House, whether Britain is influential or not, Chatham House can be influential. You might expect me to say that. But that has been my experience so far because to be frank Britain has not been that influential, not even in the EU, and part of the reason that Britain ended up leaving the EU is, I think, many Brits concluded that Britain wasn’t that influential in the EU. Now, some of that is not true. Britain was more influential than the Brexiteers wanted to admit. But Britain was not as influential as it should have been on many issues of foreign policy (the Balkans, Ukraine, relations with Russia, trade policy). Britain had become a bit of a passenger in the EU, rather than an actor. That did not change Chatham House’s capacity to work with the EU or work with various partners.
So, I put that point: it is possible for think tanks to create or work in their own eco-system which is not connected to their government, especially if you are in a capital like London or in a capital like Brussels where you can be quite an influential think tank irrespective of your government. Think tanks and national governments can be more powerful in Brussels than [their respective] national capitals. So, think tanks can create their own environments, I would say.
Now, for Britain, I’ll say something provocative: the more coherent the world is, the less influential Britain will be. So, the more coherent the EU is, the tougher the voice for Britain. If Joe Biden becomes President, his administration will work much more closely with the EU, it will tougher for Britain. Weirdly, although it is not easy for Britain with Donald Trump out there, at least the European Union in America at least will fight to have Britain in their corner. I say slightly. They are not out there offering us bouquets of roses. But in a more multi-polar, or even fragmented, because I do not think we have a multipolar world, in a more free-for-all world, Britain’s seat in multiple organizations, even if they are weak, becomes relevant. Even being outside the European Union, a fractured EU, who cares?, you know, Britain can be useful to the EU, by then be a partner to three or four key countries in the EU and not in others.
THE RELATIVE CALL OF THE U.K. AS A FREE AGENT IN THE ASIA-PIVOTING WORLD.
FGH: Would the UK have to be a “free agent” in this Asia-pivoting world? In 2005, you wrote about the UK’s circles of influence (Europe / US / the West). Would this “free agent” benefit, following on what you have just said, from a more fragmented or chaotic environment?
RN: It is a relative call. If Britain has left the EU, which it has, and I was arguing Britain should not leave the EU, but if Britain leaves the EU, then it is going to struggle for a while, in a world that is coherent, when it is outside that coherence, if you see what I am saying. It’ll take a good three or four years for it to find its balance again, and it will probably find its balance, it is a big enough country, it has got one strong diplomatic corps. Britain will be a player under any circumstances, but it is going to be a tough line.
BRITAIN IN THE CIRCLES OF THE BULL'S EYE, UNLIKE CHURCHILL'S VISION.
RN: What I argued in that circles-of-influence [piece], was that Britain should not think of itself like Churchill did as being at the intersection of the United States, Europe and, let us call it, the rest of the world. That is how Churchill thought of Britain at the end of World War II. He loved the idea of European integration as long as Britain was not part of it, because Britain wanted to have a bit of Empire, a bit of America and a bit of Europe. What I argued was Britain could only be influential globally if it thinks of those circles as bull’s eye, and your first circle needs to be Europe, if you are influential in Europe, then you can be more influential with the transatlantic relationship, and if you are part of a strong America and Europe then you will be more influential globally. That was my argument in 2015, which was a set-up for what I knew I was going to say in 2016 because I knew it was going to be tough year. And my second paper was called “Britain, the EU and the Sovereignty Myth.” So you can imagine what I was going to say in 2016.
THE EXPOSURE OF THE MYTH OF BRITISH SOVEREIGNTY: THE PLACE OF BRITAIN IN THE NEAR FUTURE.
FGH: In essence, that 2015 piece has been blown up to smithereens…
RN: Exactly. So, the myth of British sovereignty is now exposed in my opinion. And now what I would say simply to that is that, for Britain and its place, it’ll take time, but I believe Britain will have to find a way to establish close relationships with the EU first, because only otherwise it will only be a junior partner to the US. It is more likely to be a quasi-equal or important partner to Europe, and it will be a more natural partner to the EU, than it would be to the US. Attitudes to Russia are more similar to Europe than they are to America. Attitudes to China are more similar to Europe than they are to America. Our concerns towards Africa are more important to us than they are to America. So, Britain will have to find a way to do my bull’s eye but from the outside the EU rather than inside it.
AMONG THE FAVOURITE MOMENTS AT CHATHAM HOUSE: THE QUEEN AND DAVID ATTENBOROUGH.
FGH: In your 13 years at the helm of Chatham House, 2/3 favourite and awkward moments.
RN: One favourite moment was hosting David Attenborough and Queen Elizabeth at Chatham House 20th of November last year, I think it was. David Attenborough won the Chatham House prize and the BBC history unit for the impact plastic had on the awareness of the climate, the planet and so on. The Chatham House prize is voted by the members. They have the choice of three or four candidates. It is the only prize that is democratically elected, I would argue. Maybe [also] the Oscars, I don’t know. It is democratically elected. It is their choice. The Queen is our patron. So, when Chatham House, as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, we have a Charter of 52 years, and she had done the first Chatham House prize back in 2005. We were struggling to get a member of the Royal family. She normally sends a representative of the Royal Family to give the prize on her behalf. But something very good happened, which is that Boris Johnson called a general election in a very short time, and normally on a Wednesday evening, the Prime Minister would be meeting with the Queen at 6 o’clock to have his audience with the Queen, but of course it was cancelled, and our meeting was on the Wednesday evening at 6 o’clock, so we got a call from Buckingham Palace saying, “you know we have been thinking, how about if the Queen comes and gives the prize to David Attenborough, would you like that?,” you can imagine what the answer was. There was something incredible about these two people and the Queen said it herself, just to show that people from our generation can still make a difference. And with all of this sort of emphasis on young people at the moment, having the Queen and David Attenborough, it was a magic moment. So, that was one magic moment.
THE LONDON CONFERENCE OF 2015 AND THE VOICE OF THE NEXT GENERATION IN THINK TANKS.
RN: Another magic moment. Our London conference, which we kicked off in 2015. When we realized we managed to bring together in London something we have always wanted to do as an Institute, young people from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, China, Europe, UK, we had this idea that London is a global capital but we have no global conference. I can tell you why, principally because the British government does not pay for it. So, these big conferences that happen around the world run by think tanks are normally paid by their respective governments. The British government is, how could I put it?, very careful with its money. It funds research. But it does not fund big conferences. It was a struggle. I was struck that there was no global conference in London. I felt it was so important to have a conference where no government was dominating the agenda. The best ideas that came out were from young people around the world. You really felt that the next generation will not be consumers of think-tank outputs. They want to have a voice in it. And our first London conference in 2015 was a magic moment for me. I will put those two out there for the moment.
BRITS DO GET EMOTIONAL ABOUT THE EU: THEY DON'T LIKE IT!
FGH: Brexit is obviously a complex phenomenon, what two or three key features or aspects foreigners looking at it from the outside should not miss?
RN: Two crucial ones and they are linked. Somebody once said to me in Ireland where I was giving a talk about Britain in Europe before Referendum Day, 2012-3, “Robin, why can’t the Brits get emotional about Europe like we do? Why can’t they get the same emotion that we do?” And I said, “You don’t understand. Brits, let me say English, get emotional about Europe: They don’t like it!” [And they will go on saying something like] “European integration is the antithesis of being English. We are an island nation. We are fighting off the invaders. We have over a 1000-year constitutional history. We are a bit messy, all right. Magna Carta onwards, we have been distilling, you can argue, our parliamentary system over a thousand years. The idea of sharing it with a group of countries that only had to do it because they keep fighting each other and destroying their nations. Most nations are only about a 150-years-old and so on.” There was a real visceral feeling [against the EU].
ABOUT THE VITAL IMPORTANCE OF TRIBAL MYTHS AND EVEN LIES IN THE VICINITY OF BREXIT.
RN: The point I want to make about Brexit is, “we are all members of tribes.” Politics can only stretch so far. If you read the [Yuval Noah] Harari, my favourite book is the first one, Sapiens: the Brief History of Humankind. It is a reminder of how humanity managed to get organised in groups of more than 150 people, because for thousands of years, we existed in groups of 50-to-150, and his argument is that it is the same as Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” in the 1980s: you have to imagine your community, but Harari was more brutal, he said, we invented lies and myths. You can’t organise people politically without allowing them to feel a sense of belonging to some myth, to something that maybe it is not real, it is an invention. And the European Union is not being able to become that invention. It is too detached. It is too far. Maybe it is too big. It is hard enough to go for 150 people to 50-million English. But we are finding it hard enough to keep the Scots and the Welsh and the Cornish and others together. Look at Spain: I do not have to tell you.
THE ILL-TIMED ACCIDENT THAT DELIVERED BREXIT AND THE MYTH: IGNORE IT AT YOUR PERIL.
RN: Myth and emotional connection are vitally important. What British governments did not do is get the balance right. French Presidents try to do this. They are awkwardly French. And they have a mythical French president who talks about De Gaulle and people say, “oh, bloody hell, why do the French do that?” They are doing that because the only way they can commit to Europe is by occasionally giving them the myth. Germany has a different myth that came out of the WWII. They had such a brutal time, but their myth is that “we must belong.” So, the big lesson about Brexit is that this was not rational, but that does not mean it was not real. And Britain will have now to rediscover its myth outside the EU, because the accident of the referendum happened. It was never necessary. It was an accident. But the accident brought out the myth. And the timing was terrible and we do not have to talk about that. But that would be my one take-away and my advice to every other country: “do not ignore the myths because you do so at your peril and what happened to us can happen to any of you.”
AGAINST THE VIRUS, IT IS NOT ABOUT THE EAST V. THE WEST, OR EVEN DEMOCRACIES V. AUTOCRACIES.
FGH: Covid-19: Is the East doing it better than the West?
RN: The East benefits from having had Sars, Mers, H1N1. They are already socially attuned to adapt quickly to these crises. In China’s case, they can do it brutally. I mean you have got democracies that were recently autocracies like South Korea, a democracy that is very corporatist in Japan, a non-democracy democracy in Singapore, an autocracy in China.
So, you combine the capacity that the country is ready to adapt and you have got governments that are ready to be quite brutal in their policies and it is no surprise that Europe and America are hit hard. We will learn. We will not be hit as hard by the next one of these because we will ready next time.
So, I do not blame the British government because they did not buy enough ventilators. They should have thought about it. It was cocky about testing. I can give you tactical stuff. But it is not about democracies versus autocracies. That’s not what it is about. And it is not even about the East – West. It’s “they were ready and we were more ready to be ready than we were.” And Germany was accidentally ready, because it had austerity back 2003 and we had it in 2010-3, so the NHS was not ready.
IT IS NOT ABOUT THE WEST: ANYONE CAN HAVE THE PRINCIPLES OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT.
FGH: Is the “reviving of the West” the fundamental space Chatham House defending until the end of time? But this “West” is in truth the English-speaking North Atlantic mostly for the Americans with slight touches of NATO Europe and France and Germany and little else…
RN: We have not finished this article yet. It will hopefully be in Foreign Affairs in June. The fundamental purpose of Chatham House is to stand for the principles of the Enlightenment. I do not want to use the West. Anyone can have them. They happen to be curated more actively in Europe, originally, protected and championed by the U.S., taken up by many governments around the world, partially through Empire, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, but also taken up in part by South Korea, Japan, Latin America… Accountable government is the root of peace, of human rights. The English school of international relations theory is about intentional society: the governments will come together, and develop rules to coordinate with each other, but you can only have an intentional society if each of the component countries is stable and, in the long term, I believe, that accountable governments that have elections, that are liberally democratic, not illiberally democratic, taking in the urban sense, are the root of law and therefore peace and progress.
BRITAIN IS LEAVING THE EU TO DO THE THINGS THAT IT DID NOT NEED TO LEAVE THE EU TO DO.
FGH: Your thoughts on the Johnson government in relation to the handling of covid-19 so far and how it may combine / interfere, etc. with Johnson’s [Brexit] plan which you wrote that it “just might work” (26 July 2019). You also wrote about a “sensible Brexit” which is not a “soft Brexit.” What would that be?
RN: What I would say about covid: this government has something [of an issue]. To believe in Brexit, you have to suspend rationality in my opinion to a certain extent. You have to believe in the myth. You have to believe that the myth is important for your politics. And there is some truth in that. Britain outside the EU will have more agency, the government will have more drive to do the things [it wants to do]. This is the phrase: Britain is leaving the EU to do the things that it did not need to leave the EU to do. But because it is leaving the EU, it will do them. So, Britain did not need to leave the EU to do them, to build up its infrastructure, to invest in its education, to improve its finances… But because it is leaving the EU, it has a sense of agency. The myth is created. And Boris Johnson brought the myth to Brexit, which means he is a little casual about some things, it will be fine, we will do trade deals, he has not really thought through if those trade deals can be done, they will be much harder than he thinks, but Britain will probably muddle its way through.
Covid was the same. We have got a great NHS. We are Britain. We will all sort it out. We will get testing going and guess what. I do not blame them for doing the lockdown late. I think the lockdown was done at the right time, given that we were later in the crisis. And you have to have political acceptance to do something like a lockdown. But on testing, ventilators, the entire Johnson government and the agencies failed.
NERVOUSNESS ABOUT A FUTURE THAT IS NOT PRETTY: THOSE WHO WILL (NOT) COPE WITH COVID.
FGH: What are your predominant feelings about the uncertain future of the state of the world in general? Are you feeling optimistic, calm, a sense of trepidation etc.?
RN: I am nervous. I think that we in America and Europe will cope with covid. I think China will cope with covid, Japan, too. We have the means to survive this. It will be painful. It will last. It won’t be a V-shaped or even U-shaped, more like a swoosh or a tick in terms of growth, but we can do it. I am deeply worried about parts of sub-Sahara Africa, the vulnerable South, let us call it, parts of Latin America, parts of Middle East and parts of North Africa. Because it is not just whether covid hits them or not is not the point, their debt costs more, their remittances are disappeared, the investment that might have been coming from us will decline, they would not be able to get on the bandwagon of globalization and reach a level of wealth where at least they could have survived, because globalization will not be as it was after covid. We will be more autarkic, more self-sufficient, we will narrow the supply chains, so I am worried we will move to a more separated dystopian future where those who have it hold on to it and those who do not have it are left to fend for themselves. And that is not a pretty future.
Many thanks again for your time and interest, Dr. Niblett.
Dr. Fernando Gómez Herrero, fernandogherrero.com
La Vanguardia: https://www.lavanguardia.com/autores/fernando-gomez.html
29 April 2020 / Warwick, England