Tuesday, 4 March 2014

"Events, dear boy, events."

Asked when he was Prime Minister what he most feared, Harold Macmillan responded with the now-famous quote: “Events, dear boy, events.”

The circumstances in which, about what and to whom ‘Super Mac’ was referring have never been established once and for all as the Profumo Affair (there’s one for the under 50s to google) but it’s a sentiment with which we can all sympathise.

No matter how much or to what level of detail we undertake research and prepare for or forward plan – even for an anticipated crisis scenario - events have a nasty habit of taking over.

Just ask the current Prime Minister. For all the expert advice from policy wonks and spin doctors in order to control the political messaging and the news agenda to the nth degree – it rained. And it rained. And it rained again. And it’s still raining.

Eighteen months out from David Cameron’s first General Election in-residence, the rain began. From where we are now, coming towards the end of the winter, an administration whose first term in office looked all set to be defined by austerity and, latterly, recovery, risks being overtaken and characterised – even caricatured – by a lack of both sandbags and ministers and state officials in wellington boots in the early days of the flood event.

Events are a great leveller for those in public life. Tony Blair’s premiership became characterised by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was defined by the terrible milestones of the 9/11 and 7/7. Not at all what New Labour had in mind on assuming power in May 1997 - no amount of political planning and message control freakery could have anticipated those terrorist events or their lasting impact.

The Bank of England policy, ‘Forward Guidance’ – whose feel-better factor I welcomed in these pages at the end of last summer – has also succumbed to events.

As the unemployment rate in January and early February looked like it was edging forward to that magic 7 per cent figure (as it turned out, it’s currently 7.2 per cent) which would mean that, under Forward Guidance, the Bank would have to take a view on increasing interest rates, Governor Carney announced that other variables were part of the interest rate policy too.

To be fair, Mark Carney was at pains to point out last August that 7 per cent was not a target at which point interest rates would definitely rise.

The direction of travel of interest rates is far easier to anticipate and prepare for a change of course than the unpredictable precipitations of Atlantic storms and the direction of the pesky Gulf Stream in winter 2013/14.

Yet not all big events are surprises. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011, for the first time we’ve known exactly when the next General Election will be – 07 May 2015 – and plans will have been well underway for at least four years by the time it comes round.

This year sees another big constitutional event - some might argue the biggest since 1801 – the Scottish Independence referendum.

If, in line with a quote attributed to the US’s longest serving First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people’, the debate about Scotland’s independence and the accompanying political and cultural stushie has got the lot.

September 18 is bound to rain on someone’s parade.

Will Mooney MRICS

Commercial, Cambridge

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