I’ve not done a big blog for a while, so as I penned this speech for a conference in France today, and I saw it was getting close to the 5,000 word mark, I thought ‘why not? Get it up there.’
The conference is in Montpellier in southern France and they asked me to reflect on the changes in the challenges politics faced when I set out with Tony Blair, and the challenges for world leaders 20 years on. Some of the themes will be familiar to you; others I have enjoyed thinking about.
The speech, to a multinational audience hosted by Altrad, a global construction firm, starts in French (with apologies for my computer’s occasional inability to do accents) so scroll down to the non italic bits if you want to go straight to English (though you will miss a couple of funny stories en route). Hope you enjoy it and have a good Christmas.
Bonjour et merci de m’avoir invite. Je dois d’abord dire aux interprètes que pour le contenu politique de mon discours je vais parler en anglais mais pour commencer, et peut être aussi quand on me pose des questions, je me sers de ma langue préférée, la langue de Zola, Voltaire et de mon chanteur favori de tous les temps et toutes les langues, Jacques Brel.
Et être ici me rappelle des souvenirs très intéressants. La dernière fois que j’étais à Montpellier, j’étais étudiant et assistant d’anglais dans une école a Nice et je venais la un week-end pour m’amuser avec un ami.
J’étais aussi un musicien de rue, avec ma cornemuse. Normalement quand on dit qu’on joue de la cornemuse on te dit ‘ah bon et ils ont payé pour que tu arrêtes de jouer?’ Mais non — je gagnais beaucoup et je trouvais aussi que ça attirait des jeunes femmes. Et ce weekend à Montpellier, ayant trop bu et étant avec trop de jeunes femmes dans ma chambre avec mon ami, on faisait tant de bruit que l’hôtelier nous a demandé de partir. Ça nous a fait tant rire qu’il est devenu fou de colère et est revenu avec un pistolet en annoncant qu’il avait appelle la police. Alors là on est parti. C’est pour ca qu’en arrivant a Montpellier ce matin j’ai visité la gare pour voir si le banc en bois ou j’ai dormi est toujours la. Hélas non. C’était en plastique. Huh. Et on parle du progrès.
C’est un grand plaisir d’être la. J’ai fait mes recherches et ça me plait beaucoup d’être la avec une société qui partage ma passion pour le sport, et qui comprend l’importance du sport. J’ai vu sur votre site qu’en étant sponsor de l’équipe de rugby de Montpellier, vous parlez de ce que le business peut apprendre du sport et vice versa. Et moi qui suis maintenant aussi écrivain et conseiller en stratégie, mon livre le plus récent – Winners and How They Succeed – c’est à dire les gagnants et comment ils réussissent – examine les grands dans le sport, le business et la politique pour analyser ce qu’ils peuvent apprendre l’un de l’autre.
Et M Altrad, je ne sais pas si vous le savez, et cela intéressera Jake White qui est la; mais quand j’ai quitté Downing Street en 2003 un des premiers projets que j’ai accepte était avec the British and Irish Lions pour leur série de test match contre les All Blacks en Nouvelle Zélande. Quand l’entraîneur celebre, gangeur du championnat du monde avec l’Anglettere, Clive Woodward, m’a téléphoné et m’a dit ´est-ce que vous voulez venir en Nouvelle Zélande avec the Lions?’ j’ai répondu ‘mais Clive, mon dernier match, j’avais dix-sept ans!’ Mais non il me dit, ‘c’est pour faire la communication et pour m’aider avec la préparation. Vous qui avez créé des équipes politiques gagnantes – est ce que cela peut m’aider dans le sport ?’ Pour moi c’est un reve. Le sport c’est la passion toute ma vie.
A l’epoque j’étais toujours conseilleur de Tony Blair mais pas full-time. Je faisais les deux boulots au meme temps. Et quand j’ai regardé vos films, les movies d’Altrad, et les messages de vos valeurs, de l’importance de l’individu mais dans le contexte de l’équipe, cela m’a fait penser au travail que j’ai fait avec the Lions
Surtout je me rappelle quand on avait un ‘leadership and teamship coach’ qui avant le depart pour la Nouvelle Zelande nous a rassemblé, les joueurs, l’administration, tout le monde, presque une centaine, et il nous a dit de mettre des costumes blancs comme portent des policiers scientifiques quand ils font des enquêtes apres un meurtre. Et puis il nous a posé des questions de quiz générales très difficiles. Et tout de suite tout le monde s’est rendu compte que pour avoir toutes les réponses il fallait partager ce qu’on savait. On commençait donc à former des petites groupes, min-equipes.
Et puis quand on avait les réponses cela nous a donné le droit d’avoir des pots de peinture et des brosses et pinceaux; ensuite il nous donne des grandes toiles avec des instructions où il fallait peindre avec des couleurs qu’on avait gagne. Et tout le monde, surtout ces joueurs qui n’avaient envie que de jouer et se battre, on commençait à se plaindre. ‘Mais qu’est ce que c’est chiant. À quoi ça sert? On va pas battre les All Blacks avec l’art.’ Mais bon, on continue. On finit. Il nous dit d’aller dans la salle à cote pour boire un the, un café, et revenir après une heure. Et quand on revient on est stupéfait par ce qu’on a fait. Sans le savoir on avait créé une peinture énorme de l’insigne, l’embleme de l’équipe, unifiant les quatres symboles, toutes les couleurs des quatre pays qui representent the Lions. Tout le monde adore. On signe tous. On se met devant pour une photo. C’était vraiment la formation d’une equipe.
Le lendemain j’étais a Downing Street pour un meeting avec Tony Blair pour discuter les preparations pour sa troisième élection générale. Je lui ai raconté cette histoire. Je lui ai dit qu’avec tous les problèmes de personnalité qu’on avait entre lui et Gordon Brown, entre d’autres dans le gouvernement, on devrait faire une chose pareille avec notre equipe. Il me regarde comme si je suis fou. ‘Tu imagines ce qu’ils vont dire nos collègues. Et la presse. N’en parlons pas.’
Mais à mon avis le business et la politique ne comprennent pas suffisament que les grandes équipes sportives ne sont pas des accidents. Ce sont des constructions. On les crée.
Et j’ai l’impression que vous comprenez cela. Ca se voit sur vos sites, et dans vos films. Vous comprenez ce qu’on peut apprendre du sport. Mieux, helas, que le monde politique.
Donc, c’est un grand plaisir d’être parmi vous et maintenant, puisque je sais que vous venez de beaucoup de pays différents, et que l’anglais, malgré tous les efforts de l’Académie Francaise, est la langue do monde, je change de langue mais pas trop de thème.
I want to talk about politics and the nature of political challenges in the modern era.
Politics has always been tough. But I wonder if it is today a lot tougher than when I started out with TB.
Thinking back to 1994 when he became leader of the Opposition, we wanted to win and we knew we had to make changes to our party. We drew on the insight best summed up by a famous athletics coach Colm O’Connell. ‘The winner is the loser who evaluates defeat properly.’ We learned lessons of previous defeats for Labour. Changed some policies. Changed positioning. Campaigned hard and won.
So as TB settled in to his new job: – We had to deal with the biggest negative that had seen us lose so often. Trust on the economy. We gave the Bank of England independence to set interest rates – a big bold move. It assured the markets. Showed the public we were serious about major change. It defined the politics of the economy for one, two, even three parliaments right up to the global financial crisis.
We were bold on jobs too. What we called the New deal – a tax on excess profits of privatised utility companies to fund a jobs programme for young people – was similarly defining in showing we were changing the way the state thinks about job creation. And a minimum wage for the first time ever was a way of showing we did not see the UK’s future as a low wage, low skill economy.
Likewise having won with the argument that the Health Service was in decline we had to rescue and rebuild it. Education was a big priority so we wanted to sort public finances to be able to do more for schools. Crime was on the agenda, tough on crime and tough on causes of crime the message. Social cohesion a growing issue after years of Thatcherism.
Power had to be devolved. Scotland in particular wanted a new settlement and we were determined to bring it about. We did. Though not with the consequences that followed more recently with the campaign for independence ever stronger.
We also wanted to shape a new approach on Europe after the years of negativity and half heartedness under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
So – economy, jobs, education, health, crime, devolution and Europe, modernization across all fronts, and if we got the basics right then we would go also for peace in Ireland.
These were all difficult problems. But all expectable for a progressive left of centre party. I think today’s leaders are confronted by more and bigger problems. And I wonder if we give them the support and space and the slack they need. Indeed one of the points I want to make today is that democracies operate at something of a disadvantage to non-democracies and even to terrorist organisations.
So what is in the in-tray of today’s leaders?
Always the economy, stupid. Still picking up the pieces of the global financial crisis. Inequality within and between nations is growing. So is the anger about it. Though unemployment is falling in some parts of some countries, in many others it rises and governments seem less and less able to address it in a world defined by technological change and global corporate power which slips seemingly effortlessly across borders.
Globalisation. There have been huge benefits, but also a feeling that the elites benefited disproportionately. As the good times rolled we didn’t do enough to explain that alongside the upsides of globalisation – more and cheaper travel and goods, more jobs in different places, capital swilling round the planet in a vast free for all – there would be downsides too. We see them now in that inequality. And in the waves of immigration that are here to stay as some parts of the world are defined by war and poverty and others by growth and prosperity.
Then post-crash a feeling that those who caused it carry on much the same; whereas those paying the price have been the poor and people on middle incomes who for the first time feel we are facing a world in which the next generation may be worse off than the last; in which the concept of a job for life has gone and that is seen as a massive threat rather than an opportunity for lifelong learning and career development to mean something defining and important.
And of course it is this which is helping to fuel the popularity of previously fringe parties and candidates and causes. An economically challenged and struggling population is one open either to rising to the challenge or – history suggests – to the appeal of simple and simplistic arguments that say ‘If Only…’ If only there were no immigrants. If only we could protect our borders. If only we could come out of Europe we wouldn’t have these problems.
The same sort of forces in America are fuelling the remarkable and frankly terrifying rise of Donald Trump who most non Americans view as an international joke. He makes me at least thank God for Hillary Clinton. The same forces fuelled too the rise of someone on the fringe of the Labour Party in Britain for most of my life to become our leader.
So strange things are happening. Spain today trying to make sense of an election which has thrown their politics into a period of uncertainty despite the government thinking it had a good economic story to tell. Here in France, one of the great drivers of the EU, and a fiercely out of Europe party at the first round of regional elections did better than ever and it took a big response by the main parties and the tactical votes of the people to halt them; but the FN is not going away, and now there are the developments of the nationalist surge in Corsica to attend to. Did anyone see that one coming? Any more than we saw the surge of the SNP in Scotland?
Meanwhile in the UK we have a referendum due in which though I think we will vote to stay in the EU I cannot be sure, and I am a lot less confident than I was. One thing I am sure of is that if we do vote to come out Scotland will have another referendum and will leave the UK this time for sure. So Britain risks becoming hugely diminished in so many ways.
Now even when we left office let alone when we arrived in 1997 I would have said none of those prospects were realistic. Anti Europeans were on the fringe. There was a feel good feeling about Europe. Nations were clamouring to get in not out. If you had said to me then we might be out within twenty years I would have said no way. An EU which has helped ensure a Europe defined historically by war has been at relative peace for all our lifetime. An EU which has seen a Europe defined historically often by poverty now defined by rising prosperity. How could this happen?
Well it has. Conventional wisdoms are challenged everywhere. Even in the north, Scandinavian Europe, where welfare has been taken for granted and immigration seen as a force for good these are being challenged as never before. Even Angela Merkel, as impressive a leader as exists today, has to make speeches warning Germans of the danger of a rise in anti Semitism, as she also fights to persuade her party of the rightness of bringing in big numbers of Syrian refugees, and I for one worry about what happens when she goes.
So leadership is tough. Big issues. And I have not even mentioned climate change. Or the impact of the changing prices of raw materials, especially oil, down from 115 to 35 dollars a barrel in 18 months, with huge implications for some of the emerging economies as well as our own. Or of Russia’s new found confidence and geostrategic aggression through old style methods Putin learned in the KGB. ‘Nothing is true and anything is possible,’as Peter Pomerantesev’s book puts it. Ukraine. Syria. Cybersecurity. Or of China’s slowing economy which, its rise having contributed to growth elsewhere, has implications for all of us. Or terrorism. Or the cauldron of the Middle East and its ability to export its problems to all parts of the world.
On climate change, there was an argument when we were in power about whether the environment even was really a top order issue like the economy or security. No such doubts now – indeed it is both an economic and a security issue – and yet because of the GFC it slipped down the agenda again. The Paris talks showed how hard this issue is. Actually it was a remarkable achievement to get the agreement they did. One man’s existential threat is another man’s threat to perceived growth and prosperity. We look at pictures of Chinese smog and we say why can’t they deal with it? And they say why should we when we have been catching up with economic growth you lot have taken for granted through modern history. Or, they are meeting our demand for cheap goods which have to be made in their factories and exported on their boats and planes so that we can continue with our consumer obsession and, let’s be honest, as we watch our kids unwrap Christmas presents people don’t really care if it says ‘made in China’ or ‘made in Taiwan’ on the side; and feel even less concerned when it says that it was assembled in China but it has a French, British or American logo.
So Paris made the deal. Great. One of those issues where one Government alone, even the most powerful, could achieve little. It had to be done by the world. And the world is a mass of competing priorities and national interest. How often do we hear people say, as wars rage and crises grow, ‘why can’t the United Nations sort it out?’ But he United Nations is just a collection of the countries of the world with all our differences and our competing values and passions and priorities and ways of doing things. So do not underestimate how hard it was to get that Paris deal. But all around the world now governments and businesses and individuals are having to make real through action the words that were signed and sealed in the capital. Words set direction. Actions have to steer the world in that direction. And that really is the hard bit.
Technology – another issue that is not all upside. We want the speed and convenience and connection it gives us. We want the access to information and choices. But cyber security is a massive issue and again be honest – few have adapted to meet the threat.
We want jobs for our people. But what if the technology destroys them? I could get from London to here with little help from human beings. Book my flights. Pay for them. Change the booking. Change the seat. Book a hotel. Have algorithms bombarding me with adverts for things I might decide I need on arrival. No people. Ok I met someone going through security. But their job was to look at pictures recorded by machines without needing to look me in the eye. A pilot flew the plane. But he could spend most of the flight coming out for a chat and flirting with the stewardesses, while he let technology lift most of the load. And one day we won’t even need him, like we won’t need our own skills to drive. We won’t need the people at all until the machines decide we do. I was talking the other day to a Premier League football manager who was already foreseeing a time when sport becomes a battle between approaches to the use of artificial intelligence. Wow! I hope not.
Technology leads me to another of the massive challenges facing leaders. Terrorism. Ideological and religious hatred fuelling it. Humans with an agenda who know that sometimes violence can deliver change; know that when a bomb goes off and leaders go out to say ‘this will not change our way of life,’ in fact it does, or else why do we have so much security at airports now?’ September 11. I was there with TB. That event shaped the Bush presidency and the Blair premiership. They are still defined by it. Could be the same for President Hollande arising from the terrorist attacks a few weeks ago.
We thought we were up against a tough enemy in the IRA. They twice tried to kill the Cabinet, and almost succeeded. They killed our soldiers. They killed innocent civilians in Northern Ireland and in a bombing campaign on the British mainland. But there were big differences. They usually gave warnings about attacks. They had fairly clear political demands. There was someone for government to talk to even when we said we wouldn’t. ISIS, or Boko Haram, others among the new terrorist organisations, are of a different order entirely. The BBC last week ran a remarkable film on the survivors of the Bataclan attack. What happened there was beyond anything the IRA would have done, in my view. So how do you deal with a bunch of psychopathic fascists using religion as the justification for their pscychopathic fascism ?
And mixed up in this the waves of emigration as people flee the consequences of war and instability, emigration which is going to be with us for years.
Oh – and despite it all we are living longer so that – prepare to hear a troubling fact – for the first time in Japan, where people have longer life expectancy than most, last year more nappies were sold for use by adults than for children. Add demographic change, and the implications for health, welfare, social care, infrastructure, family policy, to the bulging in-tray of A Grade Problems for our leaders today and in the years ahead.
Now I am talking here mainly about democracies. It is harder running a democracy than running a dictatorship or running a pseudo democracy like Russia. Let alone terror organisations.
I saw this a lot in the Blair years whenever we were engaged in military conflict. Kosovo. Afghanistan. Iraq. Now Syria. So during the Kosovo crisis the Milosevic news agency announce NATO have dropped napalm on a primary school. We know we haven’t and say so. The media story is not that we haven’t. It is that they say we have and we say we haven’t, a sense of moral equivalence between democracies where leaders are scrutinised and held to high standards, and non democracies where they control media and institutions, conceal, intimidate. ‘Nothing is true and anything is possible.’
Bin Laden in a cave puts out a video. Dominates the agenda for days. Imagine if a western leader said he would only communicate through video but you cannot know where he is. Or he puts violent murderous videos online and instead of being challenged has commentators saying how well he uses social media. So while ISIS et al exploit all this the comms of democratic leaders are micro analysed and subject to intense scrutiny 24/7.
This truly is a media and technological age. It took the telephone 75 years to reach 50 million users.
It took radio 38 years.
It took TV 13 years.
It took the web 4 years.
It took the angry birds space app 35 days.
YouTube has more video content uploaded every month than the three main American networks broadcast in their first 60 years of existence.
150m tweets were sent during the London 2012 Olympics. Four trillion messages on WhatsApp last year – around a thousand for every person on the planet.
Facebook with a population of over a billion. FC Barcelona with over 100 million followers between Facebook and Twitter with Real Madrid close behind at 99 million. Apple with a capital market valuation twice as big as the second biggest firm in the world.
Indian PM Narendra Modi in the Guinness book of records for speaking live ‘face to face’ to the biggest audience ever reached in a single day in a campaign – 1.5million – through lifelike holograms at simultaneous rallies around his vast country.
Now, a friend of mine works in film and showbiz PR. I had no idea until he told me that The Oscars were so, dare I say it, spin-driven. Campaigns with all the money and sophistication of elections or product launches. And because the media loves a bit of glamour, even in these days of negativity, they go along with it, because how else do they get the A listers on? So anyone who tells you spin is dead, take a trip to Hollywood.
But, there is something else at work here. Because my friend said that in the old days, a few years ago, a film with a big promotion budget, and a couple of mega-names doing the chat shows, would be guaranteed three big pay days, first Friday, first Saturday, first Sunday. But now … the film lives or dies on the first Friday, on the social media reaction as people leave the cinemas, get on their phones, and tell their friends.’
To me, the genius of Facebook is the concept of the friend. In an era where deference has gone, where trust in institutions has diminished, be that international bodies, governments and parties, banks and brands, the church, the media; where we cannot even trust the people who run our favourite sports, especially not football, and not even the great Michel Platini mesdames et messieurs, let alone the awful Sepp Blatter; people still need to have someone or something to trust. So who? For most, it is friends and family. Think how many conversations we have had throughout our lives, about films and books or places or restaurants we liked or disliked. But whereas once we might tell a handful of friends at a dinner party or the school gates, now we can tell hundreds, thousands, between us we tell millions.
Like Modi’s, the Obama’s campaigns, 2008 in particular, were brilliant in the use of social media. A lot of the focus related to fundraising. But for me the real success was the ability to take topline performance and message and develop around them an ever growing team of support, not just passive but active. So Obama does a speech. People ‘like’ it. Great. But even greater when they then get a contact from a human being who says ‘do you fancy getting involved? Would you consider hosting a meeting for your friends? Do you think they might donate? Here are some campaign materials that might help…’ This is using technological networks to build human networks which, if big enough and strong enough, can overcome a mainstream hegemony set by small numbers of media owners.
But the changing media landscape has changed the world for all of us, but perhaps especially leaders.
Listen to this quote, then guess who said it. A clue. He is French. ‘We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the internet straight away. Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader now is massive resistance to stress. Under stress you become smaller and smaller until you cannot give out a message any more and that, of course, is something that is vital. Many people underestimate this challenge.’ Pat yourself on the back if you said Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal.
Or hear this from Bill Clinton: ‘Too many decision makers define their reality according to that day’s media. It is almost always a mistake.’
Yet so many make that mistake.
So how to deal with this new landscape? First, you ignore the noise and focus on the two things you can actually control: what you do and what you say? Second, you understand that Strategy is God.
In so far as my book on Winners has a central theory, it is that winning organisations must have the holy trinity of strategy, leadership and teamship working in harmony. Teams without strategy fail. Teams without good leaders fail. Leaders without strategy fail. Leaders without teamship operating at every level of the organisation fail. You can see why I like sport.
It is hard. The desire may be to be strategic. But the pressures are to be tactical. That is the nature of the speed of events and the horizontal world.
President Hollande goes to a football match, thinks he might get a few hours off – then he is immediately plunged into leading a country through a sense of global shock and crisis. He did it well. But then his party got hammered in regional elections. His instant but also strategic problems became someone else’s tactical opportunity. That is the reality of modern democracy, and we cannot always control the events which define us, and the events unfold so much faster, and so much more horizontally, with so much more intense scrutiny, than they did when Churchill and de Gaulle were our dominant figures.
I like Hollande. I like his resilience and his empathy. But France is one tough country to govern. Election after election, people say they want change and then when they elect change they rebel.
I think the UK is in a way easier. I was amazed how much scope the public gave our first Tory-Lib Dem Coalition in 2010. They kind of said ‘ok, we didn’t give any of you a majority, just get on with it.’ Germany of course is more used to coalition government, and Merkel the master of it (or should that be mistress? – somehow the word doesn’t feel right for Merkel).
Merkel and David Cameron offer two very contrasting styles and approaches. Merkel takes her time, really focuses on detail, focuses on big things, puts steadfastness and seriousness above all. She is strategic to Cameron’s tactical, he is very engergetic, always on the move, always, every night, on the news, usually talking about something different to the day before, and with the same passion, so we end up not really knowing what drives him at all.
It is tactics not strategy that have driven us to the mess we are in on Europe, and in Scotland, where winning the referendum to keep Scotland in the UK has somehow fuelled demands for independence, not least because of Cameron’s highly tactical response to the outcome in the immediate aftermath.
A foreign leader I do some work with asked me: ‘how do I do the right thing but stay popular?’ My answer was that ‘you do the right thing. But you do it within a clear strategic framework, you engage the public in a much more sustained way, so that OVER TIME your messages get through, OVER TIME your changes are understood and they deliver, and OVER TIME people become much more reasonable in their analysis. What you do is more important than what you say, but what you say about what you do will help you if you are doing the right thing. Every time you do or you say, you land a dot.’
In Wenger’s horizontal world, leaders must not just devise a strategy but execute it and narrate it too.
Too many people are learning the wrong lessons about the media age. Responding with tactics when strategy is needed more than ever.
So will the UK hold together? Will France? Will Europe? I don’t know.
Can governments actually control the destiny of their own countries? Yes, but less than they could, and they don’t like to admit it.
Are global corporations a force for good or bad? Both.
Are we more or less safe? We have more security but it may not be the same thing.
Is the planet going to be around forever? I hope so but who knows?
All we can say for sure is that the world is being defined by the pace of change. Some of it we can influence. Some we can’t.
Scary times. No easy answers. But we all of us have a responsibility to think things through. To understand that a tweet or a like or signing a petition may make us feel better. It may make us think that we are getting involved in important debates. But it is not the same as getting involved.
As Churchill said ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’
So we should defend it and fight for it, but understand that it is under attack from all sorts of obvious and less obvious forces, not least, often, ourselves without realizing it.
I hope that has got you thinking as we head into what could be a very scary year indeed, one that is certainly replete with challenge, perhaps the biggest set of challenges a single era has produced at the same time. Let’s hope we find the global leadership and the global teamship to meet them. Thank you for listening, happy new year, and I now look forward to your questions, en anglais ou en franca is, comme vous voulez.