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Trump and Brexit disasters blur our vision; but there is so much more worth focusing on

(Bloomberg) - Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are plenty of ways to change the world, and sometimes the simplest ideas are the best

Another day, another speech, another audience going broadly the same way as all the others – a majority pessimistic about Brexit, hugely pessimistic about Trump (just two out of 450 raised their hands for ‘optimistic’) and just one hand raised when I asked if they thought Jeremy Corbyn might be Prime Minister by 2020.

I have added a fourth question to my regular audience survey on the Trump-Brexit-Corbyn triple horror box set of our times, namely ‘regardless of whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about Brexit, do you have confidence that the government knows what it is doing?’

As it happens, the audience in question, at an internal conference of the credit company Experian, taking place in South Wales, was the most optimistic about Brexit of all the audiences I have surveyed.

Around a third were optimistic, two-thirds pessimistic. Yet when it came to the ‘regardless of your view’ question, a sizeable majority did not have confidence in the government’s handling of the situation. This is democratically unsustainable, to have an Opposition viewed universally as unelectable, and a government viewed as incompetent in the face of the biggest challenge of our lifetime.

The theme I was asked to talk about at the Experian event, was ‘connections’, how to make them, how to use them, how to make them work for you and change the world.

It was really just an invitation to talk about my book, Winners and How They Succeed, but I found myself also talking about an event I had just attended in Venice, the place from where I had flown to Wales. Well, not Venice, but nearby Murano, where the first spectacles were developed in the 13th century.

The location was deliberately chosen to reflect that history, because the event was a two-day brainstorm for Clearly, a campaign aimed at tackling poor vision, especially in poorer countries. As connections go it was quite a gathering: not just eye experts from various parts of the world, but senior people from the Gates Foundation and other philanthropic bodies, alongside experts who had worked for London 2012, Comic and Sport Relief, Obama’s digital campaign in 2008, Cameron’s digital campaign in 2015, and also the woman who had helped deliver proper eye-care throughout Rwanda, the jewel in Clearly’s crown.

I was not alone among the non-eye people in never really having thought about the issue. But the figures are astounding: one third of the world’s population without access to spectacles and contact lenses; 2.5 billion people with poor vision and no access to treatment; most just need reading glasses that you and I can get for a few quid; 165 million with severe issues like cataracts, glaucoma and trachoma which need specialist treatment. That is a lot of eyes that cannot see properly.

Clearly was set up by a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, James Chen, who first became aware of his own poor vision when he failed his driving test aged 15 because he discovered he couldn’t read the written test. From that moment has grown a campaign with a big bold goal – to ensure that by the time a man lands on Mars (scheduled date currently 2035, with Clearly hoping to meet their own goal ahead of it) the whole world will be able to see it.

From an often exhilarating brainstorm, lots of ideas large and small emerged. One was that we persuade world leaders to have a ‘no glasses’ day. I don’t have the data on what proportion of the world’s Presidents and Prime Ministers wear glasses or contact lenses, but I would reckon somewhere between 90 and 100%. Are they even aware of the problem? And might it help get the issue up the political agenda if they could spend just a day ‘seeing’ what that was like?

As I left Murano, (my God what a beautiful place) I decided to do my own little glass-less experiment. My eyes have been 20-20 for most of my life but a few years ago I started to need specs for reading, and I am now somewhere between 2 and 2.5 on the cheapo glasses I get from Boots. What a difference it made, forcing myself not to wear them. I could just about deal with texts, if I held my phone a yard away, but struggled to read Twitter.

Newspapers were pretty much a no-no, beyond the headlines. The book I had with me (a wonderful book of letters sent by President Mitterrand to his long-term mistress now you ask) was impossible. I couldn’t tell the time. The air steward had to check my seat for me because I couldn’t read the letters on my boarding pass. He chose my food because I couldn’t read the menu.

When I landed, I struggled with the machine to buy a train ticket, and put in the wrong pin. I knew there was a midweek Match of the Day on but had to phone someone to find out when it was, because I couldn’t read a paper or social media to find out. On and on it went … and I thought, what it is like for kids and adults when their vision is like this all the time? How can they possibly get educated properly? How do they read instructions, for machinery, or medicines, or anything? How do they drive safely? By the time I got to bed, now trying and failing to set an alarm on my phone, the effort I had made for just a few hours had given me a stunningly bad headache, and I couldn’t sleep.

My role at the event was to speak about great campaigns in history, to see what Clearly could learn from struggles as varied as the civil rights movement or the fight to get women the vote; from gay rights to the various battles to improve mental and physical health. At a dinner on the eve of the conference, a microphone was passed around and the thirty or so people gathered were given two minutes to cite campaigns which had inspired them – I went for the anti-apartheid movement that led to Nelson Mandela’s release and subsequent election, and the ASH campaign against smoking in the face of incredibly powerful and well-funded lobbying. At the end of the hour and more it took us, we had heard of an incredible variety of campaigns, it struck me that he words Trump and Brexit had not been mentioned.

I got back to my room and rewrote my speech for the morning, suggesting that for all the headlines he commands, Trump will go the way of all but a few American presidents, never be part of that Lincoln, Washington, Truman, Roosevelt, JFK elite that will live down through history for mainly good reasons not bad. That Brexit, Hard, Soft or hopefully non-existent, will just merge into some of the other waves of history currently swirling around our deeply troubled planet. That this will be the era remembered more for technology than politics, that it might be the era we find a cure for cancer for example. That of the handful of names from each era which become part of the public discourse for all time, certainly Mandela and the Queen will be among them, but it might also be Bill Gates and Tim Berners Lee, JK Rowling and the Beatles, Muhammad Ali and Maradona, who endure for all time from our lifetime.

Can anyone here, I asked them the following morning, name a political figure whose legend has endured from the era of Shakespeare? Could they name anyone that Machiavelli actually served? From the renaissance, which political and business figures existed to match the might of Michelangelo? So might we unknowingly be living through a second renaissance, I wondered?

It doesn’t feel like it, with a numpty in the White House, and a government at home that is handling Brexit like a UKIP activist on steroids. But for all the bad change being delivered by the people we read and hear about night and day, there is an awful lot of change being wrought by others of more talent and better values. There are plenty of ways to change the world, and sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Trump. Brexit. Corbyn. Disasters every one. But they do not have to define the era we are living through. I left Venice fairly confident they won’t.

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