Business

Where are the critical thinkers to navigate us through this rudderless Brexit process?

Priti Patel and Theresa May at a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Former Cabinet Minister Ms Patel has accused the Prime Minister and Chancellor Philip Hammond of "negativity" as they attempt to lead the country out of the EU

OH how we could do with an independent and critical thinker in the British cabinet just now. Even one would help.

With pressure intensifying on Theresa May's government to table written proposals on the Irish border ahead of the EU summit on June 28 & 29, we have the Brexit Secretary allegedly considering the option of a 10-mile EU/UK buffer zone around its 310-mile perimeter.

I suppose you could argue its independent thinking of sorts, as David Davis appeared to be the plan's only political advocate, with Theresa May's government very keen to distance itself and pro EU MPs deriding Davis for his ‘fantastical' idea. Sure, he's only had two years at it. In fairness to Davis, political parties and indeed ruling governments don't necessarily cultivate or solicit independent and critical thinkers due to the obligation of conformity and at times servility to an ascribed ideology.

That's not to say they don't exist, its just at a time of great political need in the UK none appear to be stepping forward. JFK said that conformity was ‘the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth'. Independent thinkers are courageous, have clarity of vision and can plot a route through the most challenging environments. They don't conform to conventional methods or follow a perceived axiom, creativity is at their core and their approach to solution solving reflects the unique set of circumstances they find themselves in. While operating in different worlds John Hume and Mahatma Ghandi encapsulated that spirit.

Without the abiding passion and vision of independent and critical thinkers across all facets of society, our world would be a very different place. Just think Newton, Edison and Jobs. Of course, not everyone can be a Sir Isaac Newton or a Steve Jobs. That would do a disservice to the varied forms that independence of thought and critical vision contribute to society.

Sometimes it's about acting on the courage of conviction on an informed and knowledgeable position. That's exactly what the revered economist and respected journalist David McWilliams did when he wrote his book ‘The Generation Game' in 2007. He portrayed Ireland as a country on the crest of a catastrophic downturn, warning that Irish banks were in danger of going bust with the then finance Minister Brian Lenihan, echoing the sentiment of many, when he accused the Belfast man of ‘dangerous talk'.

David McWilliams was right and the rest is history, or is it? Eight years ago Ireland was the butt of the economic joke across these islands and throughout the EU. But the remarkable recovery, Brexit aside, sees Ireland now being the economic envy of many of the EU 27.

I remember well a respected business journalist saying to me that the Irish economy was a basket case. It's not such a basket case now. However, there are still many consumer scars and reminders of the pain felt in the subsequent years. Indeed, ex-Anglo Irish Bank chief executive David Drumm's fraud and false accounting case is currently nearing its completion in the courts 10 years after the fact.

As for the UK, the historically low interest rates are a reminder that the post financial crisis recovery has been the slowest since the great depression of the 1930s. And of course the catalyst for that devastating global crash was the apparent boundless availability of consumer credit, a culture of irresponsible lending and here in Ireland an out of control property bubble. That was until the financial houses with no foundations came crashing down and loans were a thing of the past.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the UK, which regulates financial markets, is once again concerned about bad debt and is seeking to address the cost of high interest consumer borrowing. High cost credit is used by three million people in the UK and last week the FCA announced plans to clamp down on rent to own, doorstep lending and catalogue shopping.

Campaigners have for some time been calling for a cap on interest and charges by people using high cost credit, including overdrafts. Some 13 million people in the UK also use an unarranged overdraft which has been reported as being 10 times higher than the cost of the same value of pay day loans.

Also last week, the OECD in its latest economic outlook report said that while the Irish economy is strong there are signs that it is overheating. Approved mortgage lending is up by 20 per cent on the same time last year, with an increased prospect of the dreaded property bubble if annual house price growth continues at 13 per cent.

Interestingly the informed and independent thinking David McWilliams doesn't believe there is danger of an Irish property bubble, stating that it's a very small and wealthy sector that are dragging up prices, whereas last time it was a large and not particularly wealthy sector, ie most of society. Time will tell.

However, nobody knows better than David McWilliams that business cycles are driven by a myriad of economic and political factors. Some are controllable, most are not, and in the case of Brexit some can either be self-inflicted or self-imposed, depending on where you are standing.

One thing is sure, that while the UK and Ireland seek to navigate through what is a rudderless and improvident Brexit process, they cannot forget the mistakes that led to such tragic personal loss for so many people post the financial crisis of 2008.

‘Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,' George Santayana once said.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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