12 december 2020, trousers optional

Whilst odd at the time, now I am back in the office full-time, those many months "working from home" have a rather romantic hue. Despite the vaccine-fuelled race back to normality, those blurry backgrounds look to be a permanent feature of our work lives. Neither generational shift nor temporary blip, but inevitably something in-between, covid has bequeathed the comforts of home, if we are lucky enough to have them, as a halfway house feature of the eternal work-life balance debate. Inequalities of course will out, not only fading wallpaper, but poor wifi and loose kids are all on show, and more personal discipline is needed. Less traffic and commuting is a big plus, but video conferences rob us of the many benefits of mixing, networking and being amongst others, especially for juniors that just see things happen and learn from them. It's also bad for city centre coffee shops, though better for local towns. What blackberries started with after-hours emails, working from home takes further. It's also easier to hide. Some employers have boldly embraced the change, like linklaters, salesforce and twitter, cutting costs drastically. Lighting and heating bills are in practice just shifted to the employee at home, though it is not beyond the wit of the tax system to recognise and mitigate this (as it does for the self-employed) if government wants to give the trend an encouraging nod. Offices certainly lack utility without a critical mass of people bouncing off each other. Homes cannot help but throw up breakfast, chores, family and other barricades to speeding effectively through the working day. At its best though, home can also be a calm oasis, removed from calls, meeting and people running in and out to pass the time of day or pick your brains on some minor matter of the latest initiative. Working from home offers many benefits, and the future is surely a better mix for those companies and people wise enough to explore and innovate with their time and productivity to find a new balance between tech and tedium.

25 november 2020, europe: taking stock, edging forward

As the dust clears on the american election, the standard holder of the free world is somewhat tarnished. The new president will adopt a different lexicon and approach to global matters, but a still divided and inward-looking nation will not reverse the general downward drift from its unipolar moment to merely primus inter pares in the global community. Russia will continue causing storms and china changing the climate, as it showed with the recent asean regional agreement for an integrated trading zone that now encompasses some 30% of global trade and population. Other blocs though do exist, with the eu still the world's largest single market. As washington wanes and beijing becomes bolder, more than ever it is time for europe. Yet, two decades after the birth of its common foreign policy, the bloc is still well-described as economic giant but political dwarf. On the surface, things look to be getting worse, with the loss of its most influential player and its reaction to covid stubbornly persistent regulation at member state level. Even in such an inherently interdependent area as aviation, the eu has not been able to coalesce around a single set of rules. Beneath the waves though, the duck is paddling hard. With america back on the world scene, europe is again its natural partner, and in macron and merkel, there is experienced leadership. Once over its current budget squabbles, a 7-year settlement is a solid foundation, and many hope trump's loss presages that of the eu's own populists, so helping an emergence from the current bout of eurosclerosis some have diagnosed. This is usually followed by strides forward in the european project. In fact, these can already be seen, largely building on the new machinery put in place after the financial crisis a decade ago, like the eba, esma and esm, which is now coming of age. The most notable eu legacy of the crisis is the €750 billion "next generation eu" recovery fund, a genuine gamechanger not only in its size but because it is the commission, not member states, that is borrowing, and much of the disbursement is grants not loans. The stabilising effects of the ecb's €1.3 trillion pandemic purchases also showed, again, europe's monetary heft. Externally too, in areas like north africa and the middle east, europe seeks to be more muscular, as it should be in containing russia and engaging with china to avoid a world split into two ultimately competing halves. Like everywhere on earth, now is challenging, but a progressive europe is on a continuing long-term upwards trajectory, which can only be a good thing for everyone.

10 October 2020, slowbalisation

The economic story of the last 50 years is globalisation, capped by china joining the world trade organisation, and, for europe, the single market and euro. That took a knock with the 2008 financial crisis, a downward trend sustained by the deepening bifurcation of global trade between the usa and china, which has seen tariffs pop up and a deep-rooted tech war, most recently with huawei, wechat and tiktok. Links are still strong, with american investment in china continuing to increase and the chinese still reliant on american infrastructure like payment systems. Despite being championed by trump though, economic hostility to china is a bipartisan consensus in washington and covid has brought trade flows crashing. Brexit can also be seen in this context, as populist protectionism has increasingly moved from aberration to norm in global governments. With cross-border trade down at least 20% this year, 2020 looks like the end of the globalisation era. Everywhere the response to the pandemic has been viscerally national, defined by hard borders and different rules and internal regulations, even in supposedly unified economic zones like the european union and united states. The world seems totally unable to coalesce around single rules even for such inherently international sectors as aviation. The trend is intensifying, with supply chains being redefined, trade barriers raised and normal diplomacy on semi-permanent hold. The end of globalisation is also being hastened by the inability of international institutions like the wto to operate, in that case symptomatically and severely wounded by american vandalism. Covid has accelerated to warp speed the national rush of short-term interventions to mitigate the tidal wave of economic slowdown unseen since the last world war. Then, energy, transport and heavy industry, a much larger slice of the economy than now, were effectively nationalised for the war effort, making today's subsidies look rather tame, even as they apply some brakes to every day's news of more job losses, bankruptcies and sectoral meltdowns. To fund its actions, governments are borrowing on a massive scale: the uk just hit 2 trillion pounds. The hangover of the last crisis, the lowest interest rates on record, makes this borrowing easier, but it all needs paying back eventually, meaning higher taxes and the whole range of negative multipliers further lessening economic growth for maybe the next decade. Offshoring was already moving to near-shoring, but now long supply chains and just-in-time production are top of the risk register of every business. This is accentuated by synchronised demand shocks in areas like healthcare and pharmaceuticals. Not all is doom and gloom. Services, increasingly online, are about a third of global trade and rising, and are inherently more resilient, which is good news for global leaders the us and uk (though china is catching up quickly). And whatever washington wants, omelettes cannot be easily unscrambled. Europe might helpfully assert itself a little more in the bridge-building role it aspires to. 2021 at least cannot be worse than 2020, though of course that was the mantra in 2016...

2 july 2020, of mice and, you know

It's a tough time for events people that work in the (jargon alert) meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions space, and isn't going to get easier any time soon. Fueling over 1 in 5 international trips, mice is a serious beast. Every industry has its annual shindig, networking, awards, agm or whatever descriptor for movers and shakers getting together and getting things done on the margins (end of jargon). It's going to be rather smaller now though, indeed positively virus dead at the moment, but trying to restart. Falling into the lethal mass gathering category, this is tail-end stuff for most countries' planning, though some, like switzerland, with its solid tracing scheme and 'clean & safe' labelling (expect versions of the same across the planet), are waking. As in every other walk of life, the virtual has filled the vacuum of the viral-ridden physical. Though utterly unsatisfying (it is now traditional to start work conversations with "if I have to sit through one more webinar..."), virtual meetings are evidently better than nothing. Many major events facilities, like in london and new york have been repurposed into hospitals; all, including oman's splendid icon, risk extreme underutilisation. The calculus of high-risk travel physical-meeting costs versus anytime-anywhere screen interaction benefits have changed seismically. Even when planes are flying again with some regularity, the hangover will be long-lasting, with fewer routes, greater costs and higher unpredictability, even as to whether you will be let in at the border or return home without quarantine. Zoom is worth more than the world's top 7 airlines combined. Events companies will close and accelerate diversification. The contact that is the lifeblood of events is now an inherent risk your spouse doesn't want you to take. The pleasure of the journey, the meeting's add-on bleisure opportunities, the warm body-language of greeting have all evaporated. Drinks at a distance. We are all more transactional, and all very quickly learning to be better at doing it virtually. With headline 2021 events as diverse as the oscars, expo and the geneva motor show already postponed and cancelled, it's clear this is long-term impact, more likely permanent. Virtual eventing will innovate and roar forward. The new normal for in-person events will inevitably be safer and sullen, not so much for the older and more vulnerable, lacking in key people, less worth harder travelling large distances for. For all that, it will always be better, and so while it may take a long time, a new, new normal, and some cheese (pronounced vaccine), the mice will return.

15 may 2020, air travel reboots, but not quite as we know it

Air travel will bounce back from its current 95% global drop, but it will never be the same. The last decades saw relentless growth, from 310 thousand air travellers in 1970 to over 4 billion in 2019. More planes, travelling further and faster, holding more people with less space but cheaper, partly as the industry made its mass market money turning journeys into experiences with ever more touchpoints to be savoured by trading up. At a stroke, air travel has again become about essentials, getting from a to b, with as few touchpoints as possible, less people on planes, each needing more space, with less moments to make money and fearful travellers not in the mood for it. All as new health and safety costs get loaded on. The shape of those are becoming clear: masks and gloves throughout the journey, lots of temperature and other health tests and checks, using airport space instead of friends and family, semi-permanent ad hoc quarantine or tracking (app or bracelet) arrangements on entry, health/travel not nationality-based, so 21st century-equivalent of when you needed an address before getting an entry visa. Airport arrivals may become more burdensome than departures. Current wait time in hong kong is 8 hours. This will no doubt reduce as test tech improves, but like security after 9/11, expect this to be permanent not temporary, like longer queues, the acceleration of contactless airport processes (self-check in, bag drop, face recognition etc) and lots more cleaning and disinfectant, probably by booths and robots. Whilst empty middle seats look unlikely to embed, seats with visors might, as may eating only wrapped food, one of many first-class frills to disappear as an era of minimising contact makes inflated prices harder to sustain. As business and economy cabins converge, after a possible short-term drop as demand outstrips supply, prices will be much higher, making air travel head back towards being a product for the few of the seventies not the many of the noughties. Don't write off the low-cost carriers though, who with much lower operating costs than legacies which can't get subsidies forever are likely to emerge with an even higher market share. Expect savage fleet downsizing, insolvencies and consolidation. We learned to love flying these last years, the journey becoming part of the adventure. Not any longer.

18 april 2020, xi trumps absent america

Commentators pointing to putin as the trump years' beneficiary don't have their eye on the ball. Since america's unipolar moment in 1999, china is easing its way to becoming the new indispensable nation. In his excellent article, Kishore Mahbubani cites the pandemic as the start of the asian century. Obama's pulling back on active american leadership set the stage for trump's outright america-first isolationism, with its unilateral sanctions (like iran), wholesale vandalism of the post-war international architecture (latest, the who) and its bullying unilateralist trade policy. Until corona, this held his domestic coalition and support, but caused irreparable damage to america's global influence, "the ruination of america's reputation as a safe, trustworthy, competent international leader and partner". Trump has "insulted america's friends, undermined multilateral alliances and chosen confrontation over cooperation". Corona moved this from ineptitude and dishonesty to hostile, reckless actions, such as the "hijacking" of protective masks bought by germany and the attempt to buy monopoly rights to a german coronavirus vaccine. America is now an active opponent of multilateralism. As washington has stepped back, so in mirror image has beijing stepped forward. Despite suspect casualty numbers and an initially negligent reaction symptomatic of such a prickly authoritarian regime, the narrative is now of a strong organised state reacting with purpose to eradicate corona. Its advice is being freely shared through a global charm offensive, together with all sorts of masks, ventilators and other protective kit it is keen to be seen gifting globally. This builds on years of projecting china's model of strong economic growth and civic stability, an increasingly attractive counterpoint to increasingly sclerotic and divided western liberal free market capitalism. It has invested heavily in global infrastructure, through belt and road. Corona is strengthening the state and reinforcing nationalism everywhere with mandatory emergency measures that ultimately rely on force for implementation: china's normal modus operandi. China is playing its part in debt forgiveness, but this may have a price. The dollar faces its first serious threat as the global reserve currency since 1945. China is not there yet. When it was a soft power rising, the world was willing to play, such as joining its tilt at american imf-hegemony, the aiib. Today, the eu commission warns against the depressed price of strategic firms risking chinese acquisition. China's domestic policy has a harder nationalistic edge, and its internal troubles, from crass intolerance to outright violent suppression are more on show. As a trade behemoth built on just in time supply lines, china will suffer from post-virus reshoring and a broader reverse in globalisation, as well as from trump's relentless trade war against it. This is though a moment. China is risen, america withdrawn; the stakes are high, the world distracted. China's goal is not global domination but influence enough to stop anyone constraining it. It is succeeding. A fluid multipolar world results, to no-one's advantage. Chatham house's rob niblett sees corona as the straw that may break globalisation, replacing global economic governance with a retreat into overt geopolitical competition. Or worse, protectionist division into new great power blocs with their own supply chains. The 1930s were not a happy place.

16 december 2019, from empire to england

As the dust settles on friday the 13th, a ruthlessly-executed strategy gives boris a strong working majority to 2024. Most likely 2029: he is already showing savvy ability (nhs, education, transport...) to lock in enough of "the north" for another term. Whoever takes over labour, if it gets through transition without too much of a civil war, has a long hard march back, though all things equal there ought to be a strong enough not-boris platform to compete on. The big first of a majority of mps being women is a good foundation. More than likely though, once media interest in the divisions of the leadership contest are done, they will be just noises off. The next years will be the boris show. Policy on the european union will be de-escalation: with brexit "done" at the end of january, it will be in no-one's political interest to get stuck in too much to the details of trade talks, hugely important though they actually are. Pushing back the ludicrous end-of-year deadline won't be much of a big deal. In its place though comes the british union as the big issue of the coming years. It is telling that the government grid led on its very first day with trying to put power-sharing together again in northern ireland. Also little-noticed, is that for the first time ever, the 2019 election returned more nationalists (their goal, a united ireland) than unionists, at exactly the same time as the boris version of brexit draws a stark dividing line across the irish sea. Whilst that avoided destroying the good friday agreement, that dividing line comes at exactly the same time as the demographic alarm clock set in the agreement to allow a referendum once nationalists are a majority starts ticking. The safety valve of the uk and ireland being jointly mediated as fellow eu members has also been removed. The pressure will start now to translate "the consent of a majority of the people of northern ireland" into the poll allowed for. Some years beyond that of course is scotland. The snp will likely use their strengthened mandate to hammer away at the legitimacy of another vote, making the 2021 holyrood elections a straight conservative unionist against snp battle for independence. After that, we may begin to see parliamentary obstructionism and civil disobedience. Both these movements seem on an irrepressible path to secession. Wales may at some point create its own echo. The biggest legacy of brexit is likely to be the transformation of great britain to little england.

7 november 2019, yes wa kan

This longest space ever between blogs is in part due to rather too much activity both at work and, with family now here, at home, but also perhaps because rather too many topics are too hot to write about, several I care about I am rather too remote from, and in the organised chaos of our big move, I may have put my creative mojo somewhat into abeyance. To get going again then, I give you wakan: not the fictional country in black panther, but the very real village in oman, which we visited last weekend. At the cost of sounding like a tourism advert (which is, after all, part of my job), it was delightful. The drive was a fitting hors d'oevres, with shades of brown multiplying as you leave behind muscat, entering clouds with the foothills of the mountains as you start winding your way up through barren but somehow picturesque landscape, which might be described as chocolate box if it wouldn't all melt. Approaching the village, you realise why you were told you need a 4-wheel drive; by the end you think rally-driving may well be a vocation you didn't give enough consideration to. After a not-too-long, not-too-short walk up the 700 steps, you look down on the meandering path you've taken past houses, mosques, pomegranates, vineyards and the famous falaj irrigation system and gaze on a breathtaking valley set against the soaring peaks in the distance and majestic palm trees in the foreground. Wakan is just the right mix of subtle tourist infrastructure and unspoilt environment. Tuck into whatever food and drink you've brought and languish. Beats brexit.

5 may 2019, glocal

Like the wonderful 7up, distance gives insight, so even if I don't have geography (being these days as connected in muscat as if still in manchester), the last time I looked at the city's politics was 2011 (3 entries no less, before 11 may, the luck of the draw). Back then, greater manchester was colourful, with 4 labour councils, 2 conservative, 2 libdems and 2 of those local election-night favourites, no overall control (see also 10 june 2012, manchester as europe). With central government blue since, manchester moved steadily red, last night taking the final fortress of tory trafford, with altrincham adding a splash of green, as they won all 3 seats there and notched up several other wins, including in tameside. Remarkably, labour lost bolton, to noc. Independents gained everywhere, no stranger to stockport, where our very own heald green independent ratepayers maintained it's 100% record of decades and holds the balance of power. In the citadel of manchester itself, the libdems scored a significant win and several near misses. Overall, greater manchester seems to have swung more to its own regional rhythm, blunting the national tides more than some other areas. Beneath the surface though, the big battle is for the heart and soul of the dominant labour party, most intensely in its manchester heartland, where throughout the last years it has similarly kept its own counsel amidst the radical sweeps of history transforming the party. How that national battle plays locally in the wake of these elections will now be interesting to see.

26 april 2019, chaos, calamity, catastrophe: things can only get…

It's one of those periods where anyone who thinks they understand what's going on doesn't understand what's going on. Like an itch that must be scratched, brexit is the boil that can't be lanced and british politics remains entrancing as it gets even worse. May's local then european elections are likely to shake foundations further, with the new brexit party of jack-in-the-box nigel farage ("the most successful politician of our era", see 22 december 2017, ever-shrinking england goes back to black) set to win an online election (it's worth watching carole cadwalladr's ted talk), precipitating more splintering of the main parties, probably a new prime minister and probably the general election no-one wants. At some point, the emergency trap door of revoking article 50 will look a tempting option. I fear. Britain's collapse into self-induced self-obsession comes at a terrible time, as a tide of populism swells across europe, egged on by a manical american leadership that normalises aggressive ignorance (see 23 august 2018, little amber man) and the supposed stability of the strongman model, in russia, turkey and china, just to mention a fifth of the world's population, exerts an ever stronger pull in the world's consciousness. Defenders of the post-war international architecture built on a common vision have deserted their posts and nativism is sweeping the world, even as mass media technology opens ever more of it up to ever greater numbers of poor but increasingly ambitious and discontented people. The world is in a funk, entirely complacent about economic progress and global peace. All momentum is with the forces of regression and sentiment; imprudence and exaggeration pay, consensus and reason do not. Global conflict is no longer unthinkable, the hopefulness of the baby boomers weaned on prosperity rapidly becoming history. The future looks an increasingly dark place and incredibly, tragically, rather than playing its part in renewing the global bonds of international consensus, the uk looks to be amongst the first heading into the pit.

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