OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — “Fear will breed more fear.” That was the defining message from activist, reformed jihadist and think-tank founder Maajid Nawaz during a powerful address on Friday, December 2, at VOICES, BoF’s first annual gathering for big thinkers in the fashion industry and beyond.
Nawaz commenced the first chapter of the day — a segment focused on the rise of terrorism, populism and a post-Trump, post-Brexit world — by detailing his own harrowing journey. His story began in Essex, just outside of London, where he was a victim of a violent neo-Nazi hate crime at the age of 15. It then moved on to Egypt, where he was a 24-year-old prisoner of conscience in a torture dungeon. As a grown man, Nawaz found himself sitting down to discuss his experiences with President George W. Bush. “The question I’m here to ask and answer: How does a boy born and raised in Essex end up in those three scenarios?”
It was a provocative start for the audience of top fashion professionals, who joined BoF at Soho Farmhouse in the English countryside for a weekend of engaging conversation, but also a powerful spark for a wider discussion on the geopolitical currents that are impacting all industries, including fashion.
Nawaz posited that fear linked to globalisation was at the heart of a deeply uncertain and troubling “new normal” marked by the rise of both radical Islamic terrorism and the nativist, populist movements gaining ground across the Western world, resulting in the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US.
“We’re undergoing a structural transformation in which politics is being redefined as a fault line for globalisation,” said Alexander Betts, Leopold Muller Professor in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, Oxford University, who followed Nawaz’s talk. “Those who embrace globalisation and those who are being left behind by globalisation.”
“When we look at these [Brexit] voting maps, there is an almost-perfect correlation between the voting patterns of those who wanted to leave, and the hollowing out of labour-intensive manufacturing,” added Betts. “Those who wanted to stay live in areas where the dominant sectors are professional, financial, technological and innovative.”
If you want to build a supply chain that involves the Far East, you’re typically a larger company. We might find that the hit is going to be greater to smaller companies.
Richard Davies — an economist at the Council of Economic Advisers at HM Treasury in the UK who had a front-row seat inside Number 10 Downing Street on the eve of Brexit — insisted that the UK government had made the right arguments, rooted in rational economic analysis, in its campaign to convince voters to ‘Remain’ in the EU. But it suffered from poor execution of the messaging offensive.
Nawaz, however, disagreed, saying that strong emotions rooted in culture and identity ultimately trumped the rational economic argument. “Those of us in the ‘Remain’ camp really underestimated the power of culture,” he said. “I think the Trump presidency and the Brexit vote and everything that is playing across Europe at the moment is a cultural phenomenon as much as it is an economic one,” he added.
While the government of British Prime Minister Theresa May has faced recent setbacks in its drive to invoke Article 50, triggering the country’s actual departure from the EU, Betts suggested that Brexit would not only happen but the resulting agreement between the UK and the rest of Europe would resemble the free-trade pact between Canada and the EU more than the agreements in place with Norway or Switzerland.
But Davies made clear that the implications for business would differ widely by sector and size of enterprise, with some companies feeling the effects of a "soft" Brexit, while others suffering the impact of a "hard" break. “A lot of companies making clothes source things from Italy. If you want to build a supply chain that involves the Far East, you’re typically a larger company. What we might find is that the hit is going to be greater to smaller companies that have less flexibility to flip their production to other parts of the world.”
So, how to return to the values of democratic liberalism that many in the fashion industry and wider business community support? At the end of the session, Nawaz paraphrased former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: "The glass house of globalisation must take everyone with it if it is to remain stable," he said. Both Nawaz and Betts also made clear that liberal politicians needed a more compelling narrative to communicate their vision for the future.
“Is this the new normal? Unfortunately, unless we break that cycle of fear. The reaction to all of these extremes has to be to blunt their sharp edges,” Nawaz said. “That’s going to require a reassertion of our universalist, liberal, human rights values that apply for and against us, and that’s the only way that we can break what is a generation’s struggle to challenge all forms of extremism.”
VOICES is BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, taking place from 1-3 December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate. To follow all the discussions, interviews and stories on the VOICES stage, watch our live stream, brought to you by Topshop, or read our live blog.;