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Get ready: New normal of unthinkables not a blip

by Nik Gowing

Global leaders face unprecedented challenges in 2019 from disruption. Can they rise to them? In this end-of-year essay for the Thinking the Unthinkable project we assess the current realities.

Recent days this December have confirmed the absence of anchors for normality.

Unthinkables have abounded in jaw dropping ways that few, if any, leaders will ever have expected.

The direction of travel is the next stage in a dark trend marking the end of predictability and conformity.

For leaders, the sat-nav coordinates for the kind of stability and normality they are accustomed to has been well and truly hacked by forces they can neither influence nor control. But our Thinking the Unthinkable research confirms that many remain in denial, despite the starkness of the unthinkable trends.

To describe this ‘new normal’ and its seismic implications is not alarmist. Potentially they are both existential for credible governance, corporate survival and national stability around the world.

The conformity which qualified many leaders for the top has disqualified them from understanding then gripping the scale of disruption to the relative stability they assumed they could command.

Just look at the deep domestic tensions in the UK and France, plus a huge mobile phone outage, a tame compromise at the Climate Change negotiations, and top-level warnings about deepening Russian and Chinese efforts to destabilise and exploit weakness.

Two gillet jaunes protesters holding the French Tricolour on the main avenue in Paris
Gillet jaune protestors in Paris

The speed and severity of the public backlash against President Macron in France contains dark lessons for every leader. The president’s political disconnectedness and self-confidence born of a landslide election victory 18 months earlier was exposed by a social fury he was apparently unaware of in the Elysee Palace. His approval rating has plunged to 23%. Up to 80% of the French despise what they view as his jupiterian conceit.

The president himself unleashed it with his new tax on diesel fuel, part of his ambitious strategy to ban diesel and petrol cars by 2040. In November he said: “I would rather tax fuel than tax work.” In December the mass anger of the ‘gilets jaunes’ forced him into a handbrake U-turn.

After rushing back from the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires he had to make a humbling admission on national TV. He accepted the spontaneous rage was “deep and in many ways legitimate”.

He had reduced taxes for the wealthy. But in doing so he had shown how out of touch he was with the many millions of French people struggling on low incomes, especially the rural poor. His belated promise to those on low pay suggested a reluctant acceptance that using the tax on diesel to plug the gap in public finances was political dynamite.

Macron came to power with not a party but a new ‘movement,’ La République en Marche. Having destroyed traditional political parties, for 18 months he was feted internationally. Meanwhile, his ratings at home plummeted.

Until the street protests, that imperative to change policies had been unthinkable. Macron’s arrogance as a leader meant he had rejected the unpalatable signals of what loomed. Why did he not realise that before? The signs were there. By the Spring of 2018 his public satisfaction scores matched those of his much-criticised predecessors.

It took the ‘gilets jaunes’ organising themselves in a matter of days by social media to ram home the bitter message of national resentment. Politics and politicians were out of touch with so many who are desperate for something – anything - that benefits them.

Composite image of Union Flag and EU Flag

It has been the same in the febrile, breathtaking, dysfunctionality of the UK’s Brexit politics. Prime Minister Theresa May described them as “corrosive”. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn expressed the obvious which reflected a universal mood. Mrs May had “lost control of events”.

The clatter of the cans she kept kicking down the Brexit road became deafening. Huge parliamentary opposition forced her into the humiliating U-turn she said she would not do. Having survived – at least numerically – a confidence vote in her own Conservative party, she then headed to Brussels to appeal for greater clarity on the exit deal which she told parliament was the only one available. All she got from EU leaders was ‘No’, ‘Nein’, ‘Non’ or ‘Nie’. There had been no straws available to clutch!

The hollowing out of politics, societal patience and economic prospects became sharper than ever. A few days earlier her loyal Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (a Brexit-leaning ex-Remainer) had dared express in a podcast interview (with the Times Red Box) what others silently fear: a national insurrection and civil disorder, whichever outcome the parliamentary Brexit drama finally produces.

Brexit is unhinging stability. Government planners are already drawing up draconian plans to keep food, energy, lorries and people flowing, with troops “held at readiness” to ensure the necessary controls would be orderly.

Sir Ivan Rogers, who resigned in January 2017 as British Ambassador to the EU, put it starkly: “The stakes could not be higher now. We face the biggest political crisis for at least a generation. The risks are both a democratic crisis and an economic one.”

A close May loyalist and Remainer told Thinking the Unthinkable that a new poll would change nothing. The Brexit vote is as strong, determined and even as bloody-minded as ever. For them Brexit just means “Out”. Advocates of a second referendum strongly contest this. But few deny it could be deeply divisive.

The CBI warned that the UK “risks sliding towards a national crisis”. There were predictions of a worsening in 2019 of an “uncivil war”. Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable described the ongoing self-destruction of UK political life, wealth and social civility over Brexit as “like bombing your own country”. This as the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK can cancel Brexit if it chooses.

With fears of major damage developing for the UK economy – reinforced by the worst-ever pre-Christmas retail sales in shops – officials were even reportedly preparing for how to handle a costly spike in suicide, poverty, homelessness and the bill for job seekers allowance and universal credit. Worst case scenarios would have to be war gamed, and billions of pounds set aside for social support for the fast-growing numbers expected to enter poverty.

Thoughtful politicians declared shock and astonishment at the demeaning of so much on which the UK prides itself. But “let’s not give up on sanity” declared Rory Stewart, the prisons minister. He has personal experience of managing war and unrest. He had once run a post Saddam province in Iraq, and an NGO focussed on reconciliation in Afghanistan.

This is all unreal and existential. By the hour and day unpalatables keep mounting up.

While most attention is on the literally unthinkable uncertainties created by the Brexit psychodrama in the UK, there are parallel threats to the stability of society from outside. But will a discredited British political leadership dare issue warnings to the public that reflect the chilling anxieties being confronted daily by security chiefs?

A year ago, the then Chief of Defence, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach had given a first, frank but very limited glimpse. He warned of a “new risk to our life” from determined intrusions and surveillance by Russia, including the UK’s incoming gas supplies under the North Sea.

A year later his successor was compelled to go much further. “It is hard to remember a time when the strategic and political context was more complex, more uncertain and more dynamic,” warned General Sir Nick Carter on December 11. “Instability, it seems to me, is the defining condition.” Powers led by Russia, China and Iran “are asserting themselves… in ways that challenge our security, stability and prosperity”.

There is much more that government officials could reveal publicly. But in the UK, can they dare to further scare a nation already both transfixed and increasingly traumatised by Brexit? Will the political elite dare to address these sinister issues clearly in public?

O2 shop sign

A harbinger of the impact from an attack on the British infrastructure came with the collapse of the UK’s O2 network in mid-December. It was not caused by hackers but a ‘failed software update’ by Nordic IT giant Ericsson. It was much more than a 24-hour digital inconvenience for tens of millions.

The suspension of O2 functionality for more than a day confirmed societal vulnerabilities. An IT platform that is as vital to the new 24/7 digital economy as a heart pumping blood had collapsed.

For tens of millions in the UK, normal life was upended by the severing of connectivity. Email, data and voice communications were impossible. Market stall holders could not do business. Bus stop updates froze. That was irritating. But more significantly, the core operating ability of several IP platforms which contract bandwidth and signal from O2 crashed.

We all know that crashes happen during software updates. Commercially it was hugely negative moment for Ericsson. The O2 crash was a narrow escape. But the next outage of a mobile phone network or the gas, water and utility grids could be by foreign, state-sponsored hackers.

Just before the O2 outage, in a rare public appearance, the head of MI6, Alex Younger, had warned that “we and our allies face a battle to make sure technology works to our advantage, not to that of our opponents”.

He highlighted “damage [that] new technologies can do in the hands of a skilled opponent unrestrained by any notion of law or morality, as well as the potentially existential challenge the data age poses”.

That “skilled opponent” could impose O2-style outages again and again at times of its choosing, for reasons like state subversion or revenge.

Who might do that? Alex Younger described them as “adversaries who regard themselves as being in a state of perpetual confrontation” with the UK. But urged “Russia or any other state intent on subverting our way of life not to underestimate our determination and our capabilities, or those of our allies”.

China was conspicuously absent from that naming. But the threat from Beijing or one of Shanghai’s troll factories is equally sinister.

The UK’s security alert in November over the 5G next generation phones and switching systems from the Chinese IT manufacturer Huawei highlighted that deep concern about China’s overarching, long term capabilities and strategic intentions.

There are voices that complain about excessive doom, gloom and pessimism. But those at the top, with responsibility for a nation’s security and stability, do not issue such warnings without good reason.

Here is General Sir Nick Carter making a comparison to the kind of war and adversity that most - especially from the Next Generation - have never experienced: “We need to recognise that this is a strategic challenge that requires a strategic response. It is not a crisis, or series of crises, that we face. And if we don’t define the problem clearly, and act accordingly, rather like a chronic contagious disease, it will creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained if not defeated.”

The general also warned: “Change at this pace and scale inevitably brings instability which requires a different approach to the traditional peace time mentality. We need to recreate the innovation and ingenuity seen in wartime if we are to succeed in this environment.”

The challenges to stable societies that demand political leadership are not just about security.

Drawing on the latest climate report by the IPCC in October, the Astronomer Royal Lord Rees warned in Brussels that “under ‘business as usual’ scenarios we cannot rule out later in the century really catastrophic warming and tipping points triggering long term trends like the melting of Greenland’s icecap”.

His biggest concern is that the action that the science demands is still not being taken: “Politicians won’t gain much resonance by advocating unwelcome lifestyle changes now, or a high carbon tax.”

Campus of Conference of the Parties COP24 Katowice

The French public anger against the new diesel tax proved that point. Lord Rees’ foreboding was then confirmed by the growing gap between governments and the governed at the COP24 climate change conference in Katowice, Poland.

Ministers from many nations feared that the dramatic public backlash to President Macron’s diesel fuel tax had badly set back the imperative to sell unpopular measures for sustainability to those who vote them into power.

What held them back? “One word: elections,” said Yvo de Boer, the former UN climate change supremo who burst into tears at the chaotic Copenhagen summit in 2009. We heard the eminent climate change campaigner, Rachel Kyte, say in Katowice that she was “angrier than I have ever been”.

Why? France, Brexit and many other issues have shown that governments are out of touch with their citizens. “The public has recalibrated expectations. We are in danger of misunderstanding what they are saying,” said Dr Kyte. On tackling climate change, the eventual Katowice agreement was viewed as a tame compromise given the scale of climate change threat confirmed by the IPCC.

But the “populist” backlash in many countries against politicians and systems that have failed to deliver on their promises confirms that the public’s “recalibrated expectations” are far broader. And together, all of these are societal disconnects in times of intense domestic tension that Russia and China in particular are determined to exploit using all innovative and subversive means to weaken those they regard as adversaries.


No. Unpalatable. The dark evidence is there and continues to build fast, as Thinking the Unthinkable has chronicled. In 2019, ignore the sombre direction of travel at your peril.

So, in the year ahead Thinking the Unthinkable will continue to focus on these questions. We will work to surface the causes and examine how leaders can be emboldened to thrive on these changes.

Our research and analysis confirms that conventional notions of leadership are demonstrably failing. So many leaders have volunteered to us that they are “scared”, “overwhelmed” and troubled by “fear”. What is needed is for them to realise that solutions can emerge by creating a networks of networks where leaders, employees, the Next Gen and many more engage collaboratively and frankly on all these profound questions.

We will track the trends in what we label “push-backism”. We will highlight the security challenges as they emerge. We will examine options for the social impact of new technologies including Artificial Intelligence. We will ask: what are the options for making sure the social schisms and hollowing out of society do not get ever-wider?

Please stay with us for what we expect will be the next stage of this helter-skelter, switch-back ride.

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Caio Koch-Weser commented on 12 Jan 2019

Great project. Would like to keep in touch.

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