At the Open Future Festival, Lord Jim O’Neill from Stockport, a celebrated economist and former Treasury Minister, discussed Britain’s place in a changing world insisting the country should not give in to pressure to take sides between America and China.
Thinkers from across the ideological and political spectrum passionately debated vital questions of free speech, free trade, identity, community, economic inequality and political rights at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Manchester.
The day-long festival, hosted by the international newsweekly The Economist, was a forum for fresh ideas at a time when these values are under attack from rising populism and authoritarianism around the world.
The annual “ideas summit” at Emirates Old Trafford—with parallel events taking place in Hong Kong and Chicago—saw discussions on topics ranging from Brexit and Britain’s economic future to climate change, the Hong Kong protests, regulating the tech platforms and better inclusion in business and society for people with disabilities.
Lord Jim O’Neill, said the country should not give in to pressure to take sides between America and China, arguing: “If we’re going to be an outward-looking place…we have got to stand up to doing what we think is right for our standards and not those of the US or anybody else.
“I’m in the camp that think the US is nuts. It’s very politically popular to blame China for issues in the US… and the idea that the US will do whatever it takes to stop China becoming bigger than it is basically stupid.”
He also suggested that had the “Northern Powerhouse”, a plan to revitalise the north of England, been started ten years earlier, it might have changed Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
“The day after the referendum, I emailed the then-Chancellor to say…that if someone started the Northern Powerhouse idea a decade earlier and been really serious about it, maybe we would have had a different [referendum] result.”
Lord O’Neill is currently the vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and a member of Shelter Social Housing Commission.
Since leaving government in September 2015, having been Commercial Secretary to the Treasury, Jim moved to the crossbenches of the House of Lords.
Britain at home
The MPs Sam Gyimah, Lisa Nandy and Tom Tugendhat debated the state of British politics. Lisa Nandy expressed concern over the rise of populism in political life.
“Into this vacuum of leadership have stepped populists on the left and the right and that is the battle that people like me are fighting every single day in my own community, quite simply people don’t feel that representative democracy is legitimate any longer,” she said.
On Brexit, Sam Gyimah explained why he believes the Brexit process was flawed at the outset:
“The biggest problem is the referendum talked about leaving but not where we are going—leaving somewhere and going somewhere are not the same thing.”
Tom Tugendhat was critical of the current Brexit deal on the table, adding:
“I think Theresa May’s deal wasn’t great…I think Boris Johnson’s deal is a bit worse in the sense that it sets up not one border in Ireland but two…that’s a remarkable achievement.”
Activism shaping the political agenda
The Somali-British social activist Nimco Ali, and Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian charity-worker arbitrarily imprisoned in Iran, spoke over a live video connection to activists in Hong Kong to discuss how their activities can shape the political agenda.
The Open Future initiative
Created in 2018, Open Future uses digital journalism, social media and live events to foster a global conversation on the challenges of the 21st century. It is focused on promoting a dialogue across the ideological spectrum and is aimed at a younger audience in particular.
Those who missed Open Future can watch the events in all three cities via the following link: www.economist.com/openfuturelive
Image: courtesy of Chatham House