A growing sense that we are no longer in control...

01 June 2014, at 1:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around.

WHICH icon would you choose to symbolise something quintessentially English? A bulldog perhaps, although maybe not in veterinary circles, Yorkshire pudding or maybe the cross of St George?

In France, the recent closure of the Gauloises cigarette factory in Carquefou and its relocation to Poland, as a result of falling sales, has sent shock-waves through the nation with the potential loss of such an iconic name being described as “a severe blow to the French ego”.

Of course the French government is torn as, on the one hand, this signals some success in its fight to stress the health risks involved in smoking but, on the other, even to non-smokers in France, the brand “exudes heroism, class and charm” and quality control of the product had, for much of the last century, been entrusted to the state.

The Flemish daily newspaper De Morgen recognises that this is not one of France’s gravest problems – and it has many – but the loss is “a bitter pill and a sign of a country stumbling and groping for a new identity”. A touch of schadenfreude, perhaps, but our world is full of change and they are a lot closer to France than we are.


All around the world, people are struggling to nd or maintain their national identity and the seemingly catastrophic events in the Ukraine show that this can often be a highly complex issue with neighbours and even families divided in their support of the two main factions.

Throughout Europe, people are watching the events leading up to the referendum on independence in Scotland and nowhere with more interest than in Catalunya or in the Basque region where the struggle for recognition and independence is old enough for many people outside their regions to have forgotten what sparked off the movement in the first instance. Here, at home, the apparently

inexorable rise of UKIP signals the likelihood of significant change in British politics and, while The Sunday Times has suggested that “by the normal rules of politics, UKIP should be in trouble”, none of the party’s gaffes and problems seem to have caused it a problem and, at the time of writing this, it seems likely that it will cause major upset in the European elections. 

From afar, observers might note that this course of events might not necessarily be because UKIP is so good at tapping into the electorate’s concerns on immigration and the inexorable surrender of sovereignty to Brussels but perhaps the other parties appear to be rather poor at doing so.

Is this very different from other areas of discontent around Europe where there is a growing sense that people are no longer in control of their lives and are being controlled by rules made elsewhere?

The one common factor here is the natural fear of the human race of being controlled by a foreigner or someone with an unfamiliar culture.

Below the veneer of multi-cultural tolerance, we all remain essentially tribal and deeply suspicious of previous adversaries.

It would appear that this growing demand to be listened to by the electorate is not just a UK phenomenon and UKIP is not the only protest party likely to succeed in these European elections.


One Europe-wide study reported in The Guardian suggests that anti-EU parties across Europe could win up to 30% of the collective vote and that their popularity amongst disenchanted European voters stems from grievances which need more than just tacit acknowledgement and some positive engagement.

While that represents a warning for politicians everywhere, it also signals a growing disquiet which could lead to more profound change if not addressed.

Fooling ourselves

Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, and we fool ourselves if we think this is simply an issue concerning a few dissident Scots, the UK is in a strange and transient position with a growing question about what makes us declare ourselves to be British or English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Indian or any of a host of other ethnic backgrounds which have been absorbed into our multi-cultural nation.

Our concerns are being played out across cultural, religious and generational divides but many of us find ourselves to be torn or at best confused on many of these issues.

A recent Mori poll showed that 70% of people interviewed think that there are too many immigrants in Britain but only 43% wanted to live in an area where most people are from the same ethnic background. However, less than half of those surveyed mix with people from different generations on a daily basis and under a third regularly mix with different ethnic backgrounds and sexualities.

Of that same group, around 25% felt that being born outside the UK or not mixing with other groups was a barrier to being British.

It would be interesting to survey minority groups across the generations to see if there is any difference between young people and their parents or grandparents in their concept of being British. Perhaps the results would surprise us.


In everyday life, we seem incapable of deciding whether we are British or English when we describe living in England, something that is rarely found among those living in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland and nothing in ames the Celtic psyche more than having Britain described as England.

Where being European comes in any description of ourselves is a moot point and one which might inform the forthcoming European elections. In real terms, how many of us can name our own MEP?

Historically, the turnout for European elections has continued to fall while the escalation of European powers has progressed. If we choose to remain in Europe, surely the first thing would be to overhaul the way in which we choose our representatives long before we renegotiate the terms of membership.

If we fail to take an active interest in the process which governs what happens to us on the larger stage, we can have little cause for redress in the event of something going wrong later and that applies as much to our own professional governance as it does to the election of governments or our choice of membership of the UK or of Europe.

We have a duty to turn out in force to exercise our vote and it may be that a growing number of dissidents will enforce change in our forthcoming political elections.

Whatever the outcome, or our view of it, we should recognise that any signi cant change in the balance of values spells danger to businesses, corporations and institutions – as well as governments – which continue to employ an historically proven series of best practice to today’s changing cultural and economic situation.

Evidence-based medicine is one thing but the same rules simply don’t apply in the business context or with consumers who have already moved on.