Letters & Opinion

Earthquakes Come And Go – Not All Are Seismic

IN politics, once, or perhaps twice in a lifetime, there are seismic events. Happenings like a great earthquake shifting the plates and reorganising the landscape forever in one shocking and ground shaking moment. These are the occasions we read about in our history books at school, things that fascinate and astonish, but that belonged to times past. They are like fiction to our own normal and ordered lives, they mesmerize rather than shock, partly because we know what happened next and we know how the story ended.

Popular uprisings, the torching of parliaments and palaces, invasions, the fall of kings and the severing of heads before a braying and blood-thirsty mob are things that only an unfortunate few will ever have to experience. Then there are the events that start with small cracks, sending out shock-waves which crumble foundations and bring with them a slow and uncontrollable destruction.

On Tuesday, 29 October 1929, Black Tuesday, something in America snapped, it began suddenly that day with what they called the Wall Street Crash and it endured – leading to the full force of the great depression which came to define a whole of the 1930’s.

Overnight men in fine suits and smart cars and with lifestyles to match were reduced to the ranks of penniless beggars. Expensive cars were being offered for sale on the sidewalks for little more than the price of a lunch enjoyed by the newly dispossessed just a few months earlier. Many, crushed by their new reality hurled themselves from the tops of buildings which had risen as monuments to the very system that once gave them wings. The ordinary American, away from Wall Street, was worse affected. They starved.

A young Winston Churchill was staying at the Savoy Plaza Hotel in New York City on the evening of that day in 1929. As he was not an economist he had assumed that a cruel day on Wall Street was unkind only for shareholders, but the next morning he was greeted by the sight of a body, a jumper from the 15th floor of his building and he realised thigs were bad. What he had thought was just a passing episode turned out to be an underestimate. American investors had lost over US$30billion, the same amount that the United States had spent on the First World War and Churchill had lost out too. It was a seismic event.

The son of an American mother, he was invested in the broking houses of New York’s financial district and for the next 10 years Churchill was forced to survive by writing newspaper articles for anyone that would commission them. “When Wall Street sneezes Europe catches cold”.

79 years later, on the evening of Sunday 14th September 2008, I found myself driving from Long Island back to mid-town in New York City with nothing particular on my mind. As I turned on the car radio a barking presenter interrupted my day-dream with a shocking announcement; financial services firm Lehman Brothers will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection tomorrow, September 15, he said, with an air of alarm and without punctuation.

So it was that the next day, a Monday, I found myself with nothing to do. Private equity was my business and no one was doing business. That is, no one other than the suit store manager on Wall Street who had slashed his prices by 75%. I bought two single-breasted garments out of eternal optimism. I reasoned that every day that I wore them in the future would be a better day than Monday 8th September 2008 and that had to be a good deal.

Down on Wall Street for lunch with a couple of friends who suddenly found their schedules wiped, we were the only table occupied, except, bizarrely for one other seating all of the waiting staff who seemed to be eating as many of the provision as they could before they became rotten.

Up the road bankruptcy-filing was in full swing while the hapless staff of Lehman’s were being filmed by TV crews from around the world as they carried their scant belongings out of the building. Each one of them had no more than a single cardboard box to his or her name, into which every remnant of a career had been forced. They had salvaged what they could on the day. That day saw the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, with Lehman holding over $600 billion in assets at the time. That was seismic.

So we come back to all things being relative. We are told that recent shocking events infecting the normally predictable UK political scene over the past year were seismic.

There were the predictions of a rapid descent into a post-Brexit economic death-spiral, made by Chancellor Osbourne. This never came to pass and he was sacked. Yes, the mighty fell. Prime Ministers Cameron was swept away and swiftly replaced. But the history and events of 2016 are not by any experience seismic, they are simply unprecedented and that is not the same thing.

So it is that that this week’s agenda in the UK has shifted to the fate of the British Labour Party. On paper at least they are the Official Opposition. Children are still taught this as a fact in schools, or so I am told.

But for the past year the Opposition has channelled all of its energy and resources into a brutal civil war. It is has become a dab-hand at self-destruction with a fervour and discipline worthy of a martial art. Labour-on-Labour carnage has been the order of the day, leading to a second leadership election within just twelve months, but ending with the same result.

These we are told are seismic events, but they are not. Jeremy Corbin remains Leader of the Labour Party, increasing his vote this week to 61.8% among the supporters allowed to vote, but without any support amongst his Parliamentary colleagues. He cannot win power at the next General Election, or probably the one after that. New constituency boundaries will reduce the size of Parliament by 50 of the current 650 members presently elected, making his job even more difficult.

None of this is good for democracy and it’s certainly a disaster for the UK Labour Party, who ended their Party Conference this week committed to a long and venomous civil-war.

However bad and however unusual these events may be, none of this is seismic. This is all just something that is happening, something that will have little effect on the rest of us.

When Labour fail to beat the Conservatives at a future General Election, Theresa May will go the way she came, by the gift of Conservative MPs. An electorate of a couple of hundred will decide who is to be first among equals and for how long they will hold the title Prime Minister.

But it terms of stability, particularly in terms of UK Caribbean relations, all this means is business as usual; post Brexit realignment in favour of Commonwealth partners will continue, there will be no big policy shifts while power in the UK remains the captive of one party. That looks likely to be the case for a long time to come.

(John Kennedy is President of the British Caribbean Chamber of Commerce Saint Lucia and CEO of Boka Group. The views expressed in this Column are his personal views.)

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