Joe Biden is good for the UK

GUEST POST: Patrick Adams is a political consultant. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

Last Saturday, Boris Johnson was the first European leader to receive a call from the 46th US President Joseph R. Biden Jr (Joe Biden for short). According to the transcripts and tweets – driving “a green and sustainable recovery from Covid-19” are top of the agenda for these two gentlemen.

What I have set out below – regardless of who you thought would or wanted to win the election – is that – despite the choreographed blonde hair and populist tendencies – New York-born Mr Johnson has more in common with Mr Biden than his predecessor and fellow New Yorker Donald J. Trump. That is because, at heart, he’s a liberal conservative.

This year, the UK will host both the G7 Summit in Cornwall and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow and that presents No10 and the White House with a golden opportunity to ‘build back better’, together, and thus strengthen the longstanding alliance between these nations.

As highlighted, Mr Biden and Mr Johnson are keen on driving the ‘green agenda’. With COP26 taking place in November, now is the time for bold initiatives and nothing screams bold than Mr Biden signing an executive order to re-join the Paris Climate Accord the day after his inauguration. The British Government has already made several commitments related to greener energy (and is bound by the accord in the EU-UK trade agreement) and is making steady progress across several areas.  

For example, the UK has prioritised investment in wind energy in its attempt to become the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind power’. Further to this, the UK is committed to banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035 – actions the new US administration will likely support.

It appears the President’s first foreign trip will be to the UK rather than an EU27 member state. Whether that’s due to the pandemic or a deliberate move, reports suggest Mr Biden wants to move past any disagreements and start afresh with Mr Johnson and Mr Johnson is no doubt only too happy to hear that.

On China, the US and UK seek to curtail its growing influence and to highlight human rights abuses. Specifically, the UK has imposed harsh sanctions on China as opposed to the mixed response from the EU. The recent China-EU investment agreement, approved by the Council, may be an issue for EU-US relations. Similarly, the Nord Stream Gas pipeline between Russia and Germany will increase divisions for the alliance. As such, the EU risks alienating the US by the company that it keeps.

Defence is another area where the Biden administration will have differences of opinion with some Europeans. President Trump insisted that all NATO member states meet their two per cent defence spending requirements. This issue will not disappear with another president and Mr Biden will likely lobby for an increase in spending, albeit in a much more diplomatic way.

The UK, on the other hand, has already taken the lead on this issue and will be an ally to the US. Firstly, it is one of the few NATO members that meet its spending requirements. Secondly, the UK has increased defence spending by a further £16.5 billion.

There is rarely such a thing as friendly nations, but generally only nations with mutual interests. The UK and US have many mutual interests other than the above topics, and it will be for the President and the Prime Minister to build on them. I’m optimistic.

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The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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