Freedom? What freedom?

Published on April 8, 2016


At the beginning of the Enlightenment, when free thinking was allowed if not actually encouraged, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that “man is free but everywhere in chains”. While continuing to ponder which way I shall vote on June 23rd this phrase came to me, because it seems to encapsulate the essence of the debate: if we exit we can be free, but then what? No man/country is, er, an island. More precisely we are not completely independent, and never have been.

The slightly euphoric (is that an oxymoron?) feeling of releasing these chains is similar to the feeling in the strategic away days of some new or early stage businesses – those that think strategy is about dreams and almost invariably stay small, or get considerably smaller. Blue Sky thinking and inspiring Visions have their place but they are NOT panaceas because on their own they don’t relate to reality. The root of the word strategy is strategos, the Greek word for general. Soldiers follow generals who win battles and they do so by working out how to win. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, for example, was achieved by changing the angles of attack.

So when we are promised a land of milk and honey away from 40,000 European directives and with £12bn to spend, we need to disregard the dreaming and ask competent generals – strategic planners – what is realistic and achievable? Whereas recent general election campaigns have been characterised by costed and even independently verified spending pledges, the EU referendum is almost bereft of sensible assumptions from which the alternative futures can be projected. I hear that leaders of corporations are variously for and against Brexit but I haven’t seen anything to justify their views. If it’s simply corporate profit (and that is the primary fiduciary duty of all directors) then this should be acknowledged. But sharing their assumptions on which those views are based needn’t compromise commercial competitive advantage and is in keeping with corporate social responsibility. And if BMW, for example, doesn’t have a good idea of the costs of making Minis in an independent UK and selling them in the EU and elsewhere then it’s time to sell its shares because it’s not managing its risks properly.

Like all decisions on the future, there are facts on both sides showing where we are but no answers as to where we should go. It requires a step of belief (but not a leap of faith) to decide whether to leave or to stay – it depends what assumptions you believe. But at the moment the assumptions are very unclear. If we knew, for example, what tariffs/regulations are likely to be imposed, and which would be removed, we could make an informed decision. I know this is boring stuff, like finance, but it’s no less important for that.

Do you want to challenge Dave and Boris to tell us what their chains are made of – the assumptions which will tie us closely to the EU or loosely to the world ? Or will you instead decide based upon their locks?!

  • Nick Radcliffe

    Yes I share your frustration with our idiot politicians. Not one of them can come up with a logical rationale for being in or out; it’s all based on mud slinging and shouting louder than the other side. So much for degrees from Oxford, their output barely scrapes a GCSE pass. Our economic future deserves better debate.

    I like boiling things down into something simple. An analogy would be as follows. We have a factory which makes biscuits. An opportunity has arisen to make cakes. We can’t do both. To make cakes we have to temporarily slow down production and alter our plant. Is the future increased income (if there is any!!) worth the cost and loss of revenue in making the change, plus the risk of doing so?

    … sounds awfully like a business case to me….