I’ve suggested before on these pages that the UK would never have voted for Brexit if the British were more linguistically able. Learning a foreign language opens the mind to the possibility that what other people have is just as good as what one has oneself – or even better. ‘Schadenfreunde’, for example, is snappier than ‘taking pleasure in other people’s misfortunes’.
In the context of membership of the European Union (EU), linguistic agility allows citizens of EU member states fully to enjoy the rights that EU membership confers. British citizens’ linguistic sluggishness prevented them from doing this, with the result that they focused not on their rights as EU citizens and the opportunities these brought, but on the number of Polish delicatessen on their high streets (forgetting, perhaps, that if you have these on your high street, you can buy smoked kielbasa sausage and cook bigos at home – yum).
The mantra ‘everyone speaks English’ turned the UK into a nation of monoglots. With Brexit, the country has become a nation of inward-looking monoglots.
It is ironic, then, that people in the UK are going to need language skills more than ever in the future. For – combined with the Brexit vote in the UK – the election to the US presidency of Donald Trump marks the beginning of the end of the English-speaking century.
The outpouring of global dissent that has greeted Donald Trump’s elevation to commander-in-chief is unprecedented in modern history. The new president had been in office but a few days, when it became clear that the trouble with him was not one of policy necessarily but of character. For that reason, there is no hope for the Trump presidency. As Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies Program at John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a counsellor to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice during the Bush administration, wrote recently in The Atlantic: “Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him.”
His character flaws mean President Trump cannot be the leader of the free world; as countless commentators have already noted, that mantle has now passed to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. The daughter of an East German pastor, she knows a thing or two about walls and life under an unpredictable leader with no respect for the rule of law and has been accordingly robust in her response to President Trump.
Neither can the US lead the world on economic issues under President Trump. According to Jan Dehn, head of research at Ashmore, that role now falls to China – a thesis we explore further in this issue.
This has consequences for the UK. In the EU, the UK has traditionally formed a bridgehead between the US and mainland Europe. Nowhere is this is more true than in the investment fund industry. How many US fund managers have opened operations in London or Edinburgh with a view to marketing their products across Europe?
For now, links to the US look like a bridge to nowhere. In any case, the UK can no longer fulfil its bridging role outside the EU. Much of that business – and much other business besides – will likely go elsewhere. Dublin. Paris. Frankfurt.
At the moment, the US and the UK look equally isolated. But the UK will be the long-term loser. The Trump presidency will pass. Brexit will not; Brexit is forever.
When we emerge from the tunnel of the Trump presidency, we shall find ourselves in a world where the English-speaking nations’ role is greatly reduced. President Trump will damage the US before he goes, and Brexit will put paid to any influence the UK enjoys.
The wise will start preparing for this now. It’s time to learn German. Sure, it’s a difficult language – but it’s easier than Chinese.
Fiona Rintoul is editorial director at Funds Europe
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