Are we too polite to leave the EU?

08/06/2016 § 7 Comments

I consider myself a European citizen. I’m married to a German, I’ve lived in France, I have visited 19 of the 28 EU countries and have good friends in many of them. I love French style, German engineering, Italian passion, Finnish coolness, Polish hospitality and all the diversity of this collection of people that I share so much with. So why am I contemplating voting in favour of the UK leaving the EU later this month?

Logic and reason tells me that of course we have to stay. I’m not sold on the simplistic notion that if we leave we can have the best of both worlds – free to do our own thing and yet still able to closely collaborate. The UK has always been a trading nation and we can’t disrupt our relationship with our main trading partners without consequences. Nor am I at all attracted by the idea of a British government led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. And I do wonder how a vote to leave may be taken by our European friends. The English are known for being polite – leaving the EU would not be a polite thing to do.

Yet we shouldn’t make such decisions based on a misguided sense of what is polite, to compensate perhaps for the likes of Nigel Farage. We can love our friends and still leave the institution that binds us together. Screenshot 2016-06-08 10.27.51Nor should we rely only on pure logic and reason. The heart has its reasons too. I refuse to fall into the trap of dismissing all those who vote for leaving as ignorant or selfish. There’s something deeper going on.

When I look inside my heart, I find I am troubled about the direction in which we are all headed, as peoples of Europe. What do we actually want from life? Is it all about improving our material existence, perpetually? Is there nothing more we can aspire to? We’ve already achieved remarkable material wealth. What we are bad at is distributing it fairly. We are also almost oblivious to the impact of what we do on the world around us, for all the worthy initiatives that keep being launched. The temperature of the planet has been soaring these last few months and we react as if we have all the time in the world to deal with it. Our priorities are all wrong. Radical times need radical action – if now is not the time, when is?

The institutions that hold our society together – the EU, the courts, parliament and media, the large corporations, the universities and so on – have all played a vital role in creating our civilisation. But they’re reaching their design limits and the consequence is our civilisation is behaving in a very uncivil manner. To blame these institutions for our current predicament is unfair and unproductive. That doesn’t mean we need to actively support their continued hegemony.

In the short term, I think leaving will cause a considerable amount of uncertainty and even chaos. Our GDP might, I mean almost certainly will, fall. This may be the least of it. We may end up with a right-wing government that, unconstrained by the moderating influence of the EU, dispenses with “inconvenient” environmental or social laws in order to pursue its own neo-liberal goals of economic growth for the rich and breadcrumbs for the poor. I may not love the undemocratic EU system but I think the British system has become, if anything, even more undemocratic (witness the clumsy way in which the whole referendum debate is handled, with two sides setting themselves against each other). I fear the short term consequences of Brexit.

However, whenever in life there is a movement towards an extreme, eventually there is a push back. I’m quietly hopeful that, once enough of us have seen the dire consequences of our excessive focus on economic growth, we will change our behaviour and start prioritising other things – compassion, collaboration, peace. This will need a completely different type of institution – ones that are far more adaptable, participatory, distributed and sensitive to their environment. Such institutions are unlikely to be born calmly and reasonably out of conversations in Brussels or Strasbourg. They are far more likely to arise in the fire of chaos and disorder.

Having said all this, I’m not convinced that it really matters which way the vote goes on 23 June. Chaos and disorder is coming anyway. Climate change is not going away in a hurry. Neither is the health care crisis, the education crisis, the rising inequality, the migration problem, the Euro crisis… Our institutions have shown they are not up to meeting these challenges and sooner or later there will be a crash. I doubt very much the EU will survive, and new institutions will emerge from the rubble.

It is easy to write about chaos and disorder while sitting in my comfortable home in a national park, surrounded by trees and open forest. Even though I haven’t experienced real economic hardship in my lifetime, unlike our parents in the second world war, I know that economic turmoil can cause real hardship and suffering, and that could affect me and my family. Yet the forest reminds me that change is a constant in life. The 150 year old tree next door is dying and has to come down, before it crashes and causes real harm. Perhaps the same is true of the EU. Maybe it’s time to call the tree surgeons in?


Can’t we find a better way of making decisions?

17/05/2016 § Leave a comment

In the UK we will soon be having a referendum on our membership of the EU.

Personally, I am not sure which way I will vote. It’s a complex question as to whether it’s in the interest of the UK, and indeed of Europe, for the UK to stay in or leave the EU. There are economic, political, social, military, cultural and other aspects to consider. My family will be affected by it – my wife is German and doesn’t have an English passport, and my son is half German.

Screenshot 2016-05-17 14.50.50To help me make up my mind, I would love to see an informed debate on television or the Internet, so that all the issues can be teased out. But that’s not what is happening. In our democracy, the way we deal with such matters is prominent individuals take positions that they then defend and promote. They seek to belittle the arguments of their “opponents” and exaggerate their own case.

This is all so artificial. Things are not black and white. Almost certainly these people recognise that there are arguments to be made on both sides. Even the most ardent supporter of leaving the EU, if they’re honest, should be able to admit, firstly, that they can’t be sure what will happen if we leave and that secondly, there are likely to be advantages to staying. Equally, those who support staying in should be able to admit that leaving has some potential benefits. However they can’t bring themselves to do this. Instead the question of whether we leave the EU or not becomes a question of party politics. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer want to ”win” – predictably, they support remaining, because it is almost always in the interests of those in power to promote stability. Ambitious characters such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson seek to defeat them. They lob arguments and insults at each other.

Is not this a lousy way to run a country? Wouldn’t it be better if our political leaders could admit that there are arguments on both sides? How might it be if we could bring in experts with no particular axe to grind to offer different perspectives? Then we could have a proper, balanced debate and a lot of people, including me, would be clearer about what their vote means.

If you look at how traditional committees looked at such questions, they had a very different approach. Nelson Mandela tells an interesting story early on in his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom”. The regent (the chief of the region) who brought Mandela up after his father died, would every now and then call open meetings, when there were matters of import to the community to discuss. It was, Mandela says, “democracy in its purest form”.  Everyone who wanted to speak did so, all men were free to voice their opinions and were equal in their value as citizens. Many of them would criticise the regent, who would not react. He simply sat quietly and listened.  Only at the end of the meeting, after some kind of consensus had been reached, would the regent speak, to sum up what had been said.  Mandela said: “My later notions of leadership were profoundly influenced by observing the regent and his court. … I have always endeavoured to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion.”

This requires a very different style of leadership. A leader becomes someone who helps provide the space in which a community can make sensible decisions. Our entire democratic system, which is based upon (usually) divisive party politics, would have to be changed to allow such a different way of thinking and behaving. The closest we come to this type of dialogue is the House of Lords, where the members are not subject to elections and thus are more free to take a neutral and objective position. Funnily enough, pretty much all the political parties want to change the make up of the House of Lords. If you’re in power, anything that reduces your ability to control matters is something to be feared and then attacked.

So where does this leave me, and my choice in one month’s time? To help me make my mind up, I read newspapers (equally one -sided, for the most part) and articles that people share on Facebook (a bit better). Best of all, I talk to friends, and pick up all sorts of useful insights.

Ultimately, we all have to muddle through. Will we make the “right” decision on the EU? Who knows? What I do know is that proper dialogue not only makes for better informed decision-making, it is also healing. It bring people together so that, whatever decision is made, they understand and appreciate each other more, leading to stronger relationships in the long term. Something we can only dream of in our democracy.

Coming back to life…

17/05/2016 § Leave a comment

Dear reader,

I have taken a break from this blog for a few months. I have been writing a book (due to be published in October – to reserve a copy email me at patrick [at] and that has absorbed all my writing energy.

But I haven’t forgotten this blog – I am very fond of it and several of you have said nice things about it over the years.  So I am picking it up again, probably a bit sporadically. I will shortly publish my latest musings, prompted by the upcoming EU referendum.

Thanks for following ….


The joy of constraints

27/10/2015 § Leave a comment

The basis of self-government and freedom requires the development of character and self-restraint.” John F Kennedy

I was talking to a friend recently who is setting up a new company. I suggested she include a clause in the company’s articles of association obliging the director’s to pursue a purpose beyond profit (typically in a company, there is no purpose stated, which means that by default company law says the director should place shareholders’ interests first). She questionned this, suggesting that people running a business are best left free to operate “unencumbered”, in other words to focus on efficiency and growth without having to worry about things like their impact on society or the planet.

This reminded me of something and later on I realised what it was. It was Adam Smith in one of the most often-quoted sections of the Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest….he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

I’ve spent most of my career in business and know how exhilarating it can be to feel free to pursue an idea and not worry too much about the consequences. It’s like being a teenager again. I am also aware that there are plenty of spoilsports in the world who like nothing better than to create rules and constraints that block other people’s activities. There are plenty of good ideas that never get off the ground because they are held back by bureaucracy and excessive caution. So why not let our businesses run free?

In my view it comes down to a question of scale. In the sort of micro-businesses that Adam Smith was talking about, it is generally healthy for the business to pursue “self-interest” i.e. maximising profit. If the local butcher seeks to maximise his profits and fails to care for those around him, he will quickly get negative feedback – he will lose customers, his staff will get upset, his neighbours will complain. He will soon find it is in his self-interest to balance pursuit of profit with caring for those around him. Having minimal restraints allows him to learn rapidly.

With large, modern corporations, on the other hand, it’s quite a different story. These are very powerful creatures. As they grow, they accumulate power and are able to influence the market in ways that favour their interests. They learn how to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the law, they manipulate others through advertising and slick communications, they have friends in high places who can sort things out for them if they go too far. Their scale makes them insensitive, and allows them to disable the checks and balances that operate in all healthy markets. The “invisible hand” stops working.

We are all living with the consequences of this. The environmental destruction, social inequality and financial instability we are experiencing these days is a direct result of insufficient constraints on large corporations. It is not difficult to think of examples of excesses by large businesses across industry sectors, including the media, banking, retailing, pharmaceuticals, auto industry or energy.

Government does little or nothing to stop these excesses. Indeed all shades of government we’ve had over the last 30 years have bought into the ideology that business is at its best when “unencumbered”. That’s why successive governments have shied away from any real reform of the banking industry post-2008. That’s why when directors’ duties were reviewed in the Companies Act 2006, shareholder value remained top of the priorities of a director, with welfare of staff, the community and the planet a distant second.

It’s become clear that governments lack both the will and the ability to effectively to regulate these behemoths. The way forward is for these complex human systems to become self-regulating. This means that they have to adopt internal governance mechanisms that regulate the managers, obliging them to consider the consequences of their actions.

This may sound idealistic but in fact it’s already happening. For example, many large corporations in the mining sector have set up stakeholder councils, so that the board have direct understanding of the major social and environmental issues affecting their decisions. The retailer B&Q established a youth board to dialogue with the main board of directors. Companies are increasingly monitoring social media, seeking to listen more closely to what customers and the community want. Increasingly sophisticated ESG (environmental, social and governance) measures are being developed, pushed by demand from businesses who are seeking new, more holistic measures of success.

More radically, an increasing number of businesses are becoming employee owned or signing up to become B Corps, where they commit to a purpose beyond profit.

To me, this is a matter of maturity. As adolescents, we can kid ourselves that we have no need to take into account the needs or wishes of others. As we grow older, a more mature view takes hold. We realise that joy in life comes not from absolute freedom (an impossibility) but rather from freedom within restraints that are accepted willingly.

It is not wrong to be an adolescent – it’s just an immature phase we go through. Likewise, it’s not wrong to be a company focused primarily on profit. But it’s an immature phase and one that, for all our sakes, we need our large corporations to grow out of.

Human nature, oak tree nature

06/05/2015 § 2 Comments

We see a group of oaks in a wood, tall and elongated,
reaching up with their branches to the sky,
and we say “It’s in the nature of oaks to be tall and to compete for light.”

Others see a solitary oak in a field, solid and rotund,
and say “It’s in the nature of oaks to grow broad and strong,
and to offer shade”.

Yet others see an oak,
lost in a forest of pine trees,
spindly and frail from lack of light and nutrients.
They say “It is in the nature of oaks to be weak and needy.”

Who can say what is in the nature of oaks or humans
except that, like the oaks, we respond to our surroundings
and that nobility can always be found in us,
for those with eyes to see.

On leadership

23/04/2015 § 4 Comments

I am trying out my poetry on an unsuspecting world! This comes out of reflecting on the whole cult of “leadership” in business and organisations.



“Can you be a leader,
if you have no followers?look up2

Strangely, desiring followers
diminishes you as a leader.

Since leadership is about knowing yourself,
tapping into the wellspring of life deep inside you,
and being true to that.

It’s about trusting that if you cleave to your truth,
followers, if followers are needed, will appear,
as may critics, false friends and true opponents.

If you desire followers,
it’s a distraction from your inner inquiry,
it stokes the ego, not the truth.

True leadership is not something you can do.
It’s something you surrender to.”

Living in a material world

10/03/2015 § 1 Comment

This morning, Madonna’s song “Material girl” kept replaying in my head: “Cos we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.”

What does it mean, to live in a material world? To me, it means a world where we pay a disproportionate attention to what we can touch, feel and see, and downgrade things like feelings, love and other subtle energies that we can’t see. It means we value possessions and external beauty and discount things like creativity, courage, compassion and connection.

One of the ways in which this manifests is in our drive to create artificial versions of everything. Artificial flowers over the years have become steadily more life-like – I’m frequently fooled into thinking a flower is real only to find when I try to smell it or touch it that it lacks the essential vibrancy of a living thing. In films cartoons are becoming more MadonnaMaterialGirlDoll2life-like and films with people in them are becoming more cartoon-like, with computer generated images becoming more and more clever and common. Dolls too are becoming more and more life-like.

On the face of it, much of this is relatively innocuous – what’s wrong with having an artificial flower that brightens up the home? If someone is fooled by it, does it really matter? Yet there are other areas of life where this move to mimicry is far more unsettling. I think particularly of our food. There are reports that food companies are becoming more sophisticated in mimicking the texture, taste and feel of naturally occurring foods. As the Guardian reported last year, “Since the end of the second world war, a vast industry has arisen to make processed food taste good. During the past two decades the flavour industry’s role in food production has become so influential that many children now like man-made flavours more than the real thing.” This is in effect an experiment at massive scale. When I was young in the 1970s it was common to hear talk of the food of the future being simply pills. Most of us dismissed such stories as fantasy – eating just pills would be too boring. So instead we are being presented, on our supermarkets shelves, with “food” every bit as artificial as a pill, but designed to fool us into thinking it is natural. Can we live and thrive on it? Who knows.

Of course the industry won’t admit that there is anything wrong with fooling people. Apparently “consumers” (that horrible, demeaning label for people who buy things) would prefer not to know what really goes into their food. Hence there is lots of resistance to proper labelling – there have been huge battles in the US over labelling genetically modified (GM) products, and this will come here to Europe if we bend and allow them in to our supermarkets shelves.

The most unsettling thing about this is what drives the industry to do this. It’s always bold to make assumptions about people’s motives – people are complex and rarely have just one motive for anything. However it seems pretty plain that the prime motivation for companies like Monsanto and the food manufacturers is to maximise profits. It’s one thing when this applies to artificial flowers. But when it comes to the food we put in our bodies, it is quite another thing. And if you think that there is nothing wrong with the food “industry” being motivated primarily by profit, just think how you would feel if you went into doctor’s surgery and saw a sign saying “Our prime purpose is to maximise our profits.” Would you be willing to trust those doctors with your health? Would you not wonder, when they sent you for tests, whether the tests were necessary or useful? So how is it that we are trusting profit-motivated large companies with our food? So much of our food systems are controlled by large multinationals – up to 90% of world trade in grains is in the hands of just 4 companies, 66% of food and drink sold in the UK in 2011 was sold by 4 supermarket chains, filling the shelves with branded products produced by yet more large companies. We have no real choice.

Yet that’s not true. We always have a choice – it is just not always visible to us. Not only can we choose to shop in smaller retailers, and to buy organic and fair trade goods (much of which is run by social enterprises, for whom profit is merely a means to an end, like any good doctor). At a deeper level, we can remind ourselves of what the mystics tell us, that all we see and touch is maya – an illusory material world. The only true reality is the one that we cannot see and touch. Superficially we can be fooled, for a while. It is part of our journey, to let ourselves be fooled, taken in by maya. But eventually we wake up and realise that we have all been kidding ourselves – that an artificial flower no more meets our need to marvel at nature’s beauty than a blow-up doll can take the place of a human companion. That man cannot live on bread (or amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate – all milk shake ingredients!) alone. That love is more real and more powerful than all the combined forces of the largest companies in the world. And that if enough of us wake up, no power on earth can stop us.  🙂