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Blog Brexit

Robert Peston talks popular protest and growing political engagement

19 Dec 2017

IoD members were treated to a lively discussion on politics and populism, as renowned journalist and author Robert Peston was interviewed by IoD Director General Stephen Martin. The event – at which Stephen and business leaders were also able to quiz the journalist – took place in early December, at 116 Pall Mall.

Peston rose to fame following his reports for the BBC in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis. He is currently political editor at ITV, and has won over 30 awards for journalism over the course of an illustrious career.

The event was centred around his recently published book. Entitled ‘WTF’, the book attempts to make sense of the upsurge in popular protest against the political status quo that has culminated in a sequence of electoral upsets – including Brexit, Trump, and a hung parliament. As well as offering political analysis, the book is in many ways deeply personal to Peston, who dedicates the work to his father.

This personal element was evident at the event, as the presenter spoke in impassioned tones on a range of topics, including the productivity puzzle, and entrepreneurialism.

Speaking to the IoD in advance of the event, Peston said that “there is no question we want to create more of a ‘can do’ culture.” To help foster this, he emphasised the importance of people sharing the secrets of their success. He urged the IoD to “encourage its members to speak out about how they have achieved what they have achieved.”

The greater part of the evening’s discussion, however, focussed upon the book’s central theme – of populism, and the backlash against a perceived political elite. Peston sought to explain to members his motivation for writing the book. “As a journalist, you hate getting things wrong. And I got a very big thing wrong – I didn’t expect Britain to vote for Brexit.”

Writing WTF was in large part an attempt to wrestle with the question of how he – and many others – made this mistake. Peston also spoke of the “prevailing sense that the economy has not been working for the vast majority of people for a considerable amount of time.”

One IoD member suggested that a lack of enthusiastic campaigning from the Labour leadership might have been one factor in the Brexit vote, and asked Peston what his view was of Labour’s stance on Brexit. The journalist responded, saying that though during the campaign “it was impossible to believe that Corbyn gave two hoots”, it was “very difficult to tell” whether more engagement would have made a difference.

He went on to say he believed Labour may move toward supporting staying in the Internal Market, and possibly a second referendum. This was because June’s election result caused the Labour leadership to suddenly “wake up to the fact” that they could be in power. According to the journalist, much of Labour’s electoral success was down to the widespread belief that Labour would offer a less ‘hard’ Brexit.

The discussion ended with Peston emphasising that “politics probably matter more than at any time since I was a teenager.” The journalist celebrated growing engagement in politics, but warned that “though people are becoming more passionate, they’re also becoming deafer”. In the end, he underlined that “We’ve all got a responsibility to get more involved, but also to be more understanding of other arguments”.

Those present certainly appreciated listening to Peston’s thoughts on politics and the economy, and the journalist received extended applause before departing to present ITV’s News at Ten later that evening.

Before racing off to the ITV newsroom, we caught Peston for a very quick Q&A on a couple of subjects... 

What role should the IoD have at this pivotal time for the UK?

What should the IoD be doing to ensure entrepreneurialism is encouraged across all sectors of society?

How would Jeremy Corbyn's promise to increase public spending and nationalise industries effects to IoD members and the economy as a whole?

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