Calculating the Politics of our Time

We need to understand the underlying mathematics of our politics.

I was recently reminded that an essential rule of any good politician is their ability to calculate voting numbers. But this means arithmetic, often confused with mathematics, of which it is only a branch. It can be simply defined as the calculation of numbers. Mathematics, however, is the pure or applied science of numbers, quantity and space, expressed in theorems which can, and often do, generate a greater understanding of our universe, or in this case, our political or economic environments.


When our American cousins say, “do the math,” this is incorrect. They mean, “do the arithmetic”. That is the work of a good Chief Whip. But our politics is closely linked to economics. So after over 30 months of debating EU Exit, what mathematics have we learned ? The arithmetic is clear that the EU comprises a significant part of our trade, in decline as a component of our growing and larger global trade certainly, but nevertheless, the largest single regional component of it, standing at 44% of all UK exports and 53% of all UK imports. Often confused as a single entity, the EU is not our largest single national market, which is the USA, at 17% of UK trade, and the USA is also our largest investment partner. All of these figures are driven by the simple calculation of imports and exports and comparing them to the UK’s total trade. Thus is generated each individual percentage, in the UK’s capacity as the 5th largest global economy, a figure which in itself is generated normally by a US Dollar equivalent of all economic activity. Another simple calculation. Arithmetic does not tell us the full picture. It is but an elementary branch of number theory which in itself is one of the branches of the far greater field of understanding that is mathematics.


An equation can be defined as a statement that the values of two mathematical expressions are equal (indicated by the “=” sign). In mathematical terms, there exists no consensus as to any equation that generates the percentage impact on the UK’s GDP of leaving or remaining in the EU. The best that can be expressed is a “tolerance”, which we might state as: the impact of leaving or remaining in the EU on the UK’s GDP = +/-1%. If that is true it is not the trade or economics that should drive the debate on either side. It is the politics of our nation’s future. In regard to its EU question.


So much for the economics, but what of the politics? There exist great moments in politics. Some political leaders touch us greatly. That is why we elect them. It is in our hope that they might that lies the reason for their election. We remember Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher for instance, as they did, for some time, effect great political, economic, diplomatic, financial and reputational change upon our country, and the world too. Despite their deep and good intent most politicians effect modest rather than great change. Just as in wider life. It is their ability to lead, however, which marks them out and why Ministers are drawn from their Parliamentary ranks. Substantial rather than momentary change is how national progress is measured, and that is delivered by the convening authority of good political leaders. We calculate their electoral success by arithmetic. But no-one calculates the delivery success of each of their electoral pledges for instance, nor combines that to a figure by which they can be objectively judged. So might we say, therefore, that the most we should expect of most political leaders is to affect our political course by a proportion of the collective national endeavour, given the relative security and stability that our Parliamentary inheritance has provided for us ? And might this not be in the region of +/-5% of our political direction overall ?  


Today some leading UK business figures claim that our Government’s EU Exit negotiations are damaging prosperity. That cannot be mathematically true as Government action plays an important but relatively small role in trading and investment decisions. We know that political decisions shape economic and financial “confidence” and whilst we can accept some impact, it is probable that up to 95% of economic decision-making will be influenced by00 empirical ie non-governmental factors. The decision to proceed will be influenced by “confidence”. So those business leaders who blame Government might like to look at their own business decisions first since they will determine the vast majority of their business outcomes. We have become accustomed to expecting our politicians to act like business leaders and for our business leaders to talk the “common sense” our politicians do not. Both are mistaken. Our objective should be that both work together in a mutually-supporting manner. Government can set policy, establish strategy, convene, influence, legislate and regulate. But it is for business to learn how to work with Government to combine in the national interest. In this way we may deliver our nation’s prosperity which must surely be the great imperative for both.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines confidence as “a feeling of self-assurance or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something”.  We look to our politicians to improve our national economy and influence greater global and national prosperity; confidence is key to that. For them to be able to stimulate, say, “market confidence” then we should look at our politicians and establish which of them can contribute to that. For they can only contribute to, but not create, it. As our American cousins might say, we might  “give them a break” too.


Politicians who truly change our lives for the better are, in our country, “good” people. They “steer our ship of state”. The best of them, therefore, are our “statesmen and women”. Like all great leaders, they are uniquely equipped amongst their peers to deliver the political component of overall change. A definition of the role of our better politicians and our relationship with them might then become:

“To educate and lead us in the national and global condition we find ourselves in, and deliver the faith and hope we need in a future that is ours to make with them.”


This definition recognises that each of us have our part to play in the national endeavour too, and that the election of our politicians does not delegate to them our own individual and societal responsibilities.  It would enable us to develop a fuller definition:

“We elect our Parliamentarians to educate and lead the nation as to the national condition in a complex global world, to uphold our political institutions, define the vision by which our society will be lawfully arranged under our Parliament and from which are drawn its Ministers for our Government to deliver the faith and hope for a prosperous and secure national future that is ours to make with them and to act together to influence global affairs to ensure a lawful international order that enables its global stability and prosperity which is in our national interest.”


Recognising that it is unfashionable, I offer the following “few” who are doing this: the Prime Minister who gave us “Global Britain”, “the British Dream” and the resolution that our future will be assured by staying faithful to the referendum; the Foreign Secretary who sees one role for our country as being the “invisible thread joining the democracies of the world”, the Defence Secretary who on Monday said, “Brexit has brought us to… a great moment in our history... for UK defence in a... global age... an unparalleled opportunity to consider how we can project and maximise our influence around the world… It is up to all of us from here on in to make sure that our great nation seizes and grasps the opportunity... with both hands;” and our International Trade Secretary who repeatedly reminds us of the “prosperity continuum” by which our prosperity generates our social cohesion and stability, but that it is dependent on our creating global security and global stability so that both reinforce our own.


At a time of great import, we need to calculate the risks and imperatives. The numbers are exceptionally clear and bright in “risk-analysis” terms. No-one is dying because of EU Exit. No-one is being physically harmed. No-one is being imperilled at all. Our Parliamentary institutions are managing the “risk” against social failure. Our stability is high. Throughout our 900 years, we have faced far greater perils than in this moment, and each has shed light upon our future path. The adverse condition that some describe our current position to be is being contained within the institions we have.  Our institutions are capable of dealing with the current issues. They are delivering stability. Even enabling the Governor of the Bank of England to now speak of EU Exit being a UK opportunity towards a “new global order of international co-operation and cross-border commerce”.  The politics of EU Exit will be clear within the next 30 days. We should be patient. Our future is utterly bright. If mathematics is the language of our universe and an equation comprises two parts joined by the equals sign, then this moment of concern over EU Exit, for it is only a moment, whichever way any of us voted, equals light.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author.


About the Author

Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter is a former British military officer and Chairman of a UK manufacturer whose company exports 89% of its output to 108 countries. He is active in Westminster and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Royal United Services Institute and Chatham House. He is Professor-in-Practice to Durham Business School, an Honorary Doctor of Science from Durham University, a Commonwealth Business Mentor and an Export Champion for the Department for International Trade.