2017: The Year Of… Who Knows?

The blog below, written by Newgate CEO Gavin Devine, was originally published on HuffPost Politics.

And so another year ends and a new one begins. And the beginning of January has brought the usual crop of ‘forward looks’ for the year. So I thought I’d follow suit, although hopefully with a new twist: I am pretty much abandoning the predictions game.

As the recent rash of ‘what will 2017 bring’ articles, blogs, tweets and podcasts has shown, giving up soothsaying is hard for us comms advisers. After all, we spend significant portions of our lives sagely pontificating about what this political change or that market move might mean for our clients. At a micro level, where it really matters, we’re very good at this – well, some of us are anyway – because we have been around the block and we know how policy is decided and investment decisions made and how consumers choose. But at a macro level we are not so great, particularly lately. It is a mug’s game.

New Year 2015 was the last time I really indulged in macro-level predictions. I said that the next twelve months would be the year of living dangerously, as we flirted with Miliband’s Labour and the prospect of a Government committed to an EU referendum. Looking back, I was more than half right, but like most people I didn’t foresee the strength of the Tory victory nor the self-destruction of Labour soon after.

By January 2016 I was more cautious, focusing on the comms industry; on the micro, rather than the macro, and my accuracy was all the better for it. If I’d looked at the big picture I would probably have said that Trump had no chance, that the Brexit vote would be close but we’d stay in and that George Michael was on the cusp of a triumphant comeback. What happened instead was a succession of utterly bizarre and unforeseen political events, and celebrities dropping seemingly like flies. Personally it was a great year for me, with a fabulous new job. For many it was a grim period, one to move on from rapidly.

So what about 2017? To be honest I don’t really know at a macro level what 2017 will bring; this year I won’t shove a finger in the air and take a guess. Donald Trump might be the worst President ever, or he might be the best. He might cosy up to the Kremlin and start a war with the Chinese, but he and his new mate Rex might stand up to Putin better than the aloof Obama administration, and Beijing might just respect a pragmatic, real politicking, nationalistic new POTUS. Maybe he’ll make the war in Syria worse, maybe he’ll end it. No one really knows; not even The Donald knows. Why pretend otherwise?

Closer to home the same may be said about the Government’s overall approach to leaving the European Union. We are all sure that Brexit means Brexit, but for all the shouting about hard and soft Brexit and Red White and Blue Brexit the reality is that no one really knows what will come next. Theresa May will doubtless try to be as statesman-like as possible whilst doing as little economic damage as she can, and ultimately she will fail. Her dependence on the attitudes and manoeuvres of nations and institutions, the irreconcilable expectations of Brexiteers and Remoaners and her ludicrously controlling and flawed approach to government make that failure inevitable.

So will there be a General Election? Everything tells me that we won’t but again, who knows? This is a question which makes plain why the predictions game is such a waste of time. Right now I am utterly confident that this most risk averse Prime Minister absolutely does not want a new poll, but she could of course change her mind if the wheels start to come off and her poll lead widens. Either way she will make all of the oh-so-confident clairvoyants look foolish.

The outcomes of the other elections due to take place this year are also hard to divine. Populist anger with mainstream politicians will continue – but only up to a point. Geert Wilders may well end up in power in the Netherlands but my guess is François Fillon will just about beat Le Pen in the Presidential run off in France, and Mrs Merkel will stay in the Chancellery for a little while longer, although with a different and weaker coalition at her back. In the UK one group of insurgents, UKIP, will gain ground in local polls and by-elections at the expense of another, the Corbynistas. And the populist revolt in Greece and Spain already seems to have run its course. So the only safe prediction is unpredictability.

What all this means for the economy and for consumers is also anyone’s guess. In the UK we’ve been waiting for the post-Brexit downturn since 23 June and it hasn’t come: cheap credit, a devalued pound and over-inflated housing market has helped keep us afloat. In the US a Trump presidency might cause economic meltdown and recession but it might mean a self-confident boom. Shifting political sands in Europe might bring the collapse of the Eurozone closer might it might shore things up. Confidence in the Middle East may grow or fade. President Xi may consolidate his grip on power or may be weakened when he tries to do so. Who really knows? We are in uncharted waters.

So what is the right way to approach this uncertain world?  It is to be prepared for anything.  Be as nimble  as you can be.  And don’t expect your advisers to be soothsayers, able to anticipate every macro-level geopolitical shift, but do ask them to explain how they might impact on your organisation, and what can be done to mitigate and shape events at the micro-level.  Together you should be able to navigate through the squalls and the storms.  Happy New Year!

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