Brexit & My Writer’s Block

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I hate to admit it, but I’m stuck.

I have writers block, and not being a professional writer have had no experience to force myself through it.

Time and again I sit down to write something, only to find that the subject has changed, some new development has altered the facts and the effects are so sudden that I have to discard everything that I thought I was going to write and start over.

Its demoralizing.

Take Brexit for instance. Several times I’ve sat down to write something on it, but Brexit is now best explained like a Homeric poem, involving political intrigue, shadowy figures manipulating citizens for their own ends, and battles for leadership. That’s not how this began, but over time a politically mismanaged attempt to lance a populist boil from within the conservative party ranks has metastasized into a full blown crisis. To date Brexit has cost two Prime Minister’s their job, it has left one of the oldest democratic institutions in complete gridlock and has fractured the two leading political parties in Britain.

Currently the Tory party in England is choosing the next head of the party (and next Prime Minister of the country) with high expectations that it will fall to a man who spent the bulk of the Brexit campaign lying about the benefits of a leave vote and who had no intention that his side should actually win.

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This is Boris. Boris is a politician. Here is Boris standing in front of a bus with a promise to put more money in the NHS if Britain votes to leave the EU. Boris was lying about putting this money into the NHS. Lie Boris lie

Meanwhile the core issues surrounding Brexit remain unresolved. So badly has this been handled that the British government has been granted two extensions so they don’t leave the EU without a deal (which would be bad for everybody). However having been granted those extensions Britain remains no closer to resolving the core matters that divide the various camps of various Brexiteers.

I could go on like this for some time, but there are whole books written about Brexit now (I recommend “A Short History of Brexit” by Kevin O’Rourke), covering in far greater detail all of the issues surrounding the attempts to leave the EU, how it has come about as a movement, and why the problems remain intractable and will likely not end well.

What I think we are witnessing is how political issues become political crises, and how it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what happens next. In functioning democracies political disputes resolve in a compromise in which neither group gets precisely what they want but recognize that not reaching a compromise would be worse. Today’s current political climate has become anathema to compromise and various groups would rather risk everything and get nothing than lose some of their standing. Historically this hasn’t been a good sign for countries.

Currently Brexit is scheduled for October 31st. That extension was granted because Theresa May had begun negotiating with Jeremy Corbyn (another populist) and the Labour Party to find votes for her Brexit deal. This negotiation looked to find votes for May’s existing deal with the EU, which would have resolved the issue surrounding the Irish border and kept Britain in the Common Market while also opening the door to a second referendum. Her party balked at this treachery and thus ended her tenure as PM. Boris Johnson, the man currently on track to replace Theresa May has said that he wouldn’t “rule out” proroguing parliament if MPs attempted to block a “No Deal” or “Hard Brexit.” I imagine that the EU wonders why it has invested all the time it has trying to help the UK.

All of this is silly, dangerous and maddening. For investors it means that there continues to be a ticking time bomb on the global stage, and like Donald Trump and his tariffs, anything could happen. And amazingly it continues on unabated, no closer to a compromise and no closer to a solution.

Hopefully this means I’m over my writers block.

“The opinions expressed are those of the author and may not necessarily be those of Aligned Capital Partners Inc (ACPI).  ACPI is regulated by the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (www.IROC.ca) and member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund (www.CIPF.ca).  This commentary is for general information only and not meant to be personalized investment advice.”

The Catalonia Effect

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Years ago I walked the Camino De Santiago, a holy pilgrimage across Spain that dates back to the 9th century. Not being Catholic I’m sure that a number of religious aspects of my month-long trek were lost on me, but what I did take away was a cursory understanding of Spain’s curious political instability. Everywhere I went there was graffiti calling for the independence of Catalonia, a movement that I had been completely ignorant of. In fact, other than the Basque region, it had never occurred to me to even question the essential makeup of the nation of Spain.

Last week Catalonia held a highly contentious referendum on its independence. Like Scotland and Wales, Catalonia has a devolved parliament and is a region with its own language and history distinct from (and forever tied to) Spain. Leading up to the referendum was a fair amount of heavy handedness from the government in Madrid that only made things worse. Strictly speaking the referendum is likely illegal, and the Spanish constitution does not recognize Catalonia’s decision to simply walk itself out the door on a whim. More puzzling has been the outcome of the vote, with the Catolinian government refusing to categorically claim independence. A deadline set for this Monday was meant to clarify Catalonia’s declaration of independence, but it seems to have lapsed without clarification.

In the universe of investing events like this seem poised to throw everything into chaos, and yet markets have shown themselves to be surprisingly resilient in the face of big political upheavals. Last year included a surprise win for the Brexit vote, which initially began with a market panic, but morphed into a prolonged rally for the British markets. The US too has had a surprising run in the Dow and S&P500 despite numerous concerns about the stability of the US government and its inability to pass any of it objectives.

So how should investors react when political chaos erupts? Is it a sign that we should hunt for safer shores, or should we simply brave the chaos?

One thing to consider is that we probably over estimate the importance of events as they unfold and assume that things that are bad in the real world are equally bad in the markets. War is bad objectively, but it isn’t necessarily bad for business. Protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been damaging to those involved but they haven’t slowed market rallies much, a depressing but necessary distinction.

Antifragile-bookOn the other hand chronic instability has a way of building in systems. One of the reasons that serious conflicts, political instability and angry populism haven’t done much to negate market optimism is because the nature of Western Liberal democracies is to be able to absorb a surprising amount of negative events. Our institutions and financial systems have been built (and re-built) precisely to be resilient and not fragile. Where as in the past bad news might have shut down lending practices or hamstrung the economy, we have endeavored to make our systems flexible and allow for our economies to continue even under difficult circumstances.

However there are limits. In isolation its easy to deal with large negative events, but over time institutions can be pushed to their breaking point. There are compelling arguments that the wave of reactionary populism that has captured elections over the past three years is a sign of how far stretched our institutions are. Central banks, democratic governments and the welfare state have been so badly stretched by a combination of forces; from a war on terror, a global financial crisis and extended economic malaise, that we shouldn’t find it surprising that 1 in 4 Austrians, 1 in 3 French and 1 in 8 Germans have all voted for a far right candidate in recent elections.

Equally we can see the presumed effects of Climate Change as large parts of the US have suffered under multiple hurricanes, torrential downpours, or raging forest fires. For how many years can a community or nation deal with the repeated destruction of a city before the economy or government can’t cope?

In this reading, markets have simply not caught up yet with the scope of the problems that we face and are too focused on corporate minutia to see the proverbial iceberg in our path.

While I believe there is some truth in such a view, I think we have to concede that it is us as citizens that are too focused on the minutia. The market tends to focus on things like earning reports, sales predictions and analyst takes on various companies before it considers major events in the valuation of stocks.

Consider, for instance, the election of Donald Trump. Trump rode a wave of dissatisfaction with free trade and promised to shake up the trade deals the US had with other nations. Superficially this threatens the future earnings of multinational firms that depend on trade deals like NAFTA. But how many people didn’t go and buy a car they had been intending to buy over the last year? As is often the case the immediacy of political craziness obscures the time it will take for those issues to become reality. Trump may end up canceling NAFTA, but that could be years away and has little impact on the price of companies now. That applies to events like Brexit and even the Catalonian vote. Yes, they create problems, but those problems are unlikely to be very immediate.

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The lesson for investors is to remain calm and conduct regular reviews of your portfolio with your financial advisor (if you don’t have a financial advisor you should give me a call), to ensure that the logic behind the investment decisions still makes sense. Nothing will be more likely to keep you on track with your investment goals and sidestepping bad decisions than making sure you and your investment advisor remain on the same page.

2017 – The Year Ahead

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Many of you won’t know this, but my father used to sky dive. He’d stopped by the time I was born (reportedly because my mom had a natural aversion to life threatening hobbies) but in many ways his hobby would be a reoccurring source of guidance for life lessons.

For instance, whenever I was nervous about doing some BIG THING, my dad would let me know that once you were doing THE BIG THING, your anxiety would drop considerably. Sky divers know this, as they are only nervous until they jump out of the plane, and then get very calm. The fear is in the anticipation, not the actual doing.

2016 had a lot of anticipation, but not an actual lot of doing. Brexit happened, but hasn’t really happened. Donald Trump has been elected, but hasn’t been sworn in. The Canadian housing market continued its horrific upward trend and news stories began to abound about the looming robot job-pocalypse. 2016 was full of anticipation, but little action.

donald-twitterbot2017 will begin to rectify some of these issues. Next week we will see the arrival of President Donald Twitterbot™, finally ending speculation about what kind of president Donald Trump will be and seeing what he actually does. So far markets have been reasonably calm in the face of the enormous uncertainty that Trump represents, but his pro-business posture seems to have got traders eager for a more unregulated market with greater earnings for the future. Right now bets are that Trump might really jump start the economy, but there are real questions as to what that might mean. Unemployment is already very low and inflation looks like it is actually beginning to creep up. Housing prices (amazingly) are back to 2007 levels and the economy seems to be moving into the later stages of a growth cycle.

2017 will likely not be the year that the Canadian housing bubble/debt situation comes crashing down, but its also unlikely to be the year that the situation improves. Economically the short term outlook for Canada is already kind of bad. The oil patch is already running second to a more robust energy story from the United States. Canadian financials had a very healthy year last year, but as we’ve previously written while the TSX was the best returning developed market over 2016, in a longer view it has only recently caught up with its previous high from 2014.

2017 may be the year that automation starts being a real issue in the economy. Already much of Donald Trump’s anger towards globalisation is being challenged by analysis that shows its not Mexico that steals jobs, but robots. But as robots continue to be more adept at handling more complicated tasks there is simply less need for humans to do much of that work. Case in point is Amazon’s new store Amazon Go, currently being opened in Seattle.

While many point to this as Amazon’s foray into the world of groceries (and a better shopping experience) Amazon’s real business is in supply management. The algorithms they use and the new technology they’ve developed are not designed to be one offs, but ways to handle high volumes of business traffic with as few people, and as low a cost as possible. Combined with driverless cars (currently being tested in multiple cities & countries)and our growing app economy, we will be pushing more people out of steady work across multiple sectors of the economy in coming years.

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2017 will also be the year that Brexit will begin, though it will be two years before it is complete. Many people will be watching on how Teresa May’s government handles the Brexit negotiations, how confident England looks on its position, and how hostile or open Europe seems to be to conceding to Britain’s views. Either way it should provide lots of turbulence as it unfolds over the coming years.

But despite all this, there is a kind of calm in the markets. We’ve crossed the line on these issues and there’s nothing to do but continue ahead. Trump will be President Donald Twitterbot™, Brexit will happen, regardless of how many people remain opposed and markets will either go up or down as a response. Perhaps the new normal is a great deal more similar to the old normal than we all thought.

Then again…

 

Investing in the Age of Brexit Populism

There is going to be lots of news around Brexit for the next while, and we have many other things to look at. So until more is known and more things are resolved this will be our last piece looking at the In/Out Referendum of June 23rd.

 

So far the best thing that I’ve read about Brexit is an essay by Glenn Greenwald, who has captured much of the essential cognitive dissonance that revolves around the populist uprisings we’ve seen this year, from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn and from Donald Trump to UKIP. You can read the essay here, but I think he gives a poignant take down of an isolated political class and an elitist media that fails to capture what drives much of the populism intent on burning down modern institutions. In light of that criticism, what should investors think about the current situation and how does it apply to their investments?

Let’s start with the basics; that leaving the EU is a bad idea but an understandable one. The Eurozone is rife with problems, from bureaucratic nonsense to democratic unaccountability, the whole thing gets under many people’s skin, and not just in the UK. Across Europe millions of people have been displaced from good work, have lost sight of the dignity in their lives and have come to be told repeatedly that the lives they lead are small, petty and must make way for a new way of doing things. The vast project that is the EU has been to reorder societies along new globalized lines, and if you live in Greece, Spain, Portugal or Italy those lines have come with terrible burdens of austerity and high unemployment.

It’s easy to see that the outstanding issues of the 21st century are going unchecked. Wealth inequality and increasing urbanization are colliding with the problems of expensive housing markets, wage stagnation and low inflation rates. The benefits of economic growth are becoming increasingly sparse as the costs of comfortably integrating into society continue to rise.

In response to these problems the media has shown little ability to navigate an insightful course. Trump is a fascist, Bernie Sanders is clueless, “Leave” voters are bigots, and any objection to the existing status quo that could upset the prescribed “correct” system is deemed laughably impractical or simply an enemy of free society.

This is a dynamic that can plainly not exist and if there is any hope in restoring or renewing faith in the institutions that govern much of our lives. We must find ways to more tactfully discuss big issues. Trump supporters are not idiots and fascists. Bernie supporters are not ignorant millennials. Leave campaigners are not xenophobic bigots. These are real people and have come to the feeling that they are disenfranchised citizenry who see the dignity of their lives is being undercut by a relentless march of progress. Addressing that will lead to more successful solutions to our collective woes than name calling and mud slinging.

For investors this continued disruption could not happen at a worse time. In some ways it is the needs of an aging population that have set the stage of much of the discontent. As one generation heads towards retirement having benefited from a prolonged period of stability and increasing economic wealth, the generations behind it are finding little left at the table. Fighting for stability means accepting that the current situation is worth fighting for. For retirees stability is paramount as years of retirement still need to be financed, but if you are 50 or younger fighting for a better deal may be worth the chaos.

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For anyone doubts that cities are the most important part of our society and economic wealth, here is the history of cities over the past 5000 years. – From the Guardian

 

Investors should take note then that this is the new normal. Volatility is becoming an increasing fact of life and if wealth inequality, an unstable middle class and expensive urbanisation can not be tamed and conquered our politics will remain a hot bed of populist uprisings. So what can investors do? They need to broaden their scope of acceptable investments. The trend currently is towards more passive investments, like ETFs that mimic indices, but that only has the effect of magnifying the volatility. Investors should be speaking to their advisors about all options, including active managers, guaranteed retirement investments, products that pay income and even products with limited liquidity that don’t trade on the open market. This isn’t the time to limit your investment ideas, its the time to expand them.

Do you need new investment ideas? Give us a call to learn about all the different ways that investments can help you through volatile markets!

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Let’s Undo Brexit! (Here’s How)

Brexit-2If there was ever going to be a moment to gain some clarity about what the Brexit would truly and ultimately mean, Friday was the day. Following the win by the leave camp, markets were sent reeling on the uncertainty stirred up by the referendum, and by the day’s end Britain had gone from being the 5th largest economy to the 6th, $2 trillion in value had been wiped from the markets, Scotland wants another referendum as Northern Ireland is proposing a unified Ireland, and embarrassingly the top google result in the UK following the referendum was “What is the EU?”

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The buyers remorse now swirling around the UK seems to have ignited a renewed “Remain” campaign. Already there is a petition to have another referendum, citing the quite reasonable objections that a 52-48 split does not indicate the kind of definitive turnout to, in good conscience, topple the British economy and break up the UK. In other corners some of the bloom has quickly come off the rose.

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Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader who has been championing the leave vote while Boris Johnson (BoJo for short) has parading across the country with a bus emblazoned with the phrase “we give the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund the NHS instead” has said that was a poor choice of campaign phrase. In other words the NHS will not be getting an additional £350 million per week. JoJo on the other hand has said that there is no urgency in triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, and instead there should be preliminary discussions before actually starting the leaving process.

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Liars! Lying Liars!

In Cornwall, the picturesque seaside county with a crumbling and weak economy, it has suddenly dawned on the residents that they are hugely dependent on cash transfers from Brussels, an idea that had apparently not occurred to them when they overwhelmingly voted in favour of leaving.

It is worth taking some time to consider some underlying facts. The referendum is non-binding, merely advisory to the government. As the impact of a leave vote starts to set in and people begin to reject the emotional tenor of the campaign in favour of some hard truths, the next government will have time to try and potentially weasel out of the deal. The current front-runner for the next Prime Minister is BoJo himself, a man who had said that he sided with Leave (and became its very public face) because he didn’t think Brussels would really negotiate with the UK unless they knew the Britain might seriously leave.

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Brexit will not happen, at least not like the worst case scenarios have made it out to be. David Cameron has said triggering Article 50 will fall to the next Prime Minister, which is months away. The chief proponents of Brexit don’t seem eager to start the clock on an official leave at all. Despite calls from within the EU to get the ball rolling on leaving, the real appetite to lock down a time table for a permanent withdrawal from the eurozone isn’t there. Instead it seems the winners are happier to let everyone know that they’ve got the gun, and that it’s loaded.

There are months to still screw this up, but the leave camp has had its outburst and now its time to look in the mirror and see the outburst for what it is; and ugly distortion of what the future could be. Nigel Farage and UKIP have had their moment, letting everyone know they are a serious force that needs to be addressed. But the stakes are far higher than I think many believed or thought could come to pass. The GBP fell dramatically, markets convulsed, Scotland and Northern Ireland might leave and starting Monday many financial jobs will start being cut in London. Now is the time to calm markets not with more interest rate cuts but with some measured language that could open the door to another referendum, or at least avoid the worst outcomes of an isolated and petulant Britain.

* this article had initially incorrectly identified Boris Johnson’s nickname as JoJo

The Age of Breakable Things

With Brexit around the corner, the potential for a Donald Trump presidency and a host of other global problems (big problems), it’s hard not to talk about all the chaos and what it might mean to investors even when there is lots of other things to go over. For now, this will be our last article on the subject of Brexit until next week following the vote. I will take a look at some other issues later in the week.

One thing that jumps out at me about “Brexit” is how fragile much of our world is. Progress is most often thought of as making things stronger or better, but that is only true to a point. Progress also has the unfortunate downside of making things much more fragile. The more progress allows us to do, the more fragile each step makes us.

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Beautiful tall buildings like this remain a testament to our progress and how profoundly fragile it all is.

Historically that fragility can frequently be seen during times of war. Britain, undoubtedly the world’s most powerful empire at the outset of the first and second world war, saw how quickly its strengths could be overcome by the weaknesses of a far flung empire. The supply lines, the distant resources and the broad reach of the war all exposed the underlying frailty of the British Empire. Two World Wars was all it took to end an empire that had been 500 years in the making.

What we hold in common with the British Empire is the causal assumption that things are the way they are naturally, that we cannot change the inherent status quo in our lives. Canada, the United States and Europe are rich nations because they are naturally rich nations, and not the result of a combination luck, science, philosophy and culture that have conspired to land us where we are today.

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We live in a breakable society, one that doesn’t realize how fragile it is. In the past few years it has been tested in a multitude of ways, and this year is no exception. Brexit isn’t even the worst of how it can be. Syria has been reduced to rubble, Turkey has essentially lapsed into a dictatorship, with Russia having gone the same way. Venezuela, which I wrote about earlier, has moved from breadlines to mob violence.

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Progress isn’t just uneven, it also isn’t guaranteed. Nations, empires and great civilizations have all come and gone, each of them burning brightly, however briefly, before being extinguished. The speed of a decline in Venezuela isn’t just a result of bad management, it is a reflection to just how much support our civilization needs. The rise of the new introverted nationalism doesn’t see this, and has sought an imagined self sufficiency as a way to relieve temporary difficulties. If people thought that the EU was difficult to deal with when you were a part fo it, wait until you aren’t.

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Brexit is a choice that is both scary and appealing because it is scary. For an entire generation there may never be a choice like this again, a chance to permanently alter the geopolitical landscape, even with little understanding of what those changes can mean or do. Whether Britain will be poorer or richer over the next decade may ultimately hinge on the vote this Friday. Far more frightening is whether our ability to build something lasting, powerful but fragile will be permanently undone in the European sphere.

Notes from the Edge

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The June 18th cover for The Spectator

 

With the BREXIT vote now only days away its worth taking a moment to consider the dramatic political shift that seems to be happening around the globe. Where once left/right politics dominated, or pro-capitalism vs. pro-socialist forces clashed, today the challenge is far more frightening. Today we sit on the brink of the end of the new internationalism and face the rise of old nationalism.

In Jon Ronson’s funny and insightful book THEM: Adventures with Extremists, the author describes his final meeting with a founding member of the Bilderberg Group (yes, that Bilderberg Group) Lord Healy, who explains that at the end of the Second World War a real effort was made to encourage trade and economic growth as a way of deferring future wars. The Bilderberg Group is but one of many, slightly shadowy and often undemocratic, organizations that exist to further those goals, encouraging powerful people to air out their issues and discuss ways to make that vision of the world more likely.

But for millions of people the new internationalism that has been fostered through trade agreements, globalization and corporatism has made the world more hostile to millions of “left behind” voters. It has seemingly given power to cigarette manufactures in Africa, or created unfair and uncompetitive “tax free zones” in South Pacific nations. It has fostered sweatshops in Sri Lanka, dangerous factories in Bangladesh, all at the expense of industrial workers in Western developed nations. In Europe this internationalism is blamed for feckless leadership on humanitarian, fiscal and bureaucratic issues. In America it is blamed for the rust belt through the mid-west.

The response to the growing frustration on all these issues has been a resurgence of nationalism and political “strong-men”. Putin’s Crimea grab was as much about returning pride to Russia as it was about diverting attention from his own domestic issues, reestablishing  Russia’s place as a significant regional power. Across Europe there are rumblings, both of renewed regional nationalism from within countries, as well as growing concern that a “leave vote” in Brexit could destabilize the entire EU experiment. In the United States these issues have given power to the Donald Trump populism, but have also fired the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Energy to these issues have undoubtedly been fueled as a result of 2008, a disaster so wide reaching and so disruptive to the Internationalist narrative about the skill set of the political and corporate classes that it shouldn’t be surprising that millions of people seem ready to do irreparable harm to the status quo. The subsequent inability to provide a strong and sustained economic recovery like some recessions of the past has only made matters worse. Every ill, every short coming, every poor decision and every injustice inherent within the structure that we inhabit is now expected to be resolved by setting the whole thing on fire and assuming that the problem is solved.

I am constantly surprised by how little people actually want to see changed by referendums like these. During the Scottish Referendum, the expectation was that Scotland would continue on exactly as it does, but without any association to London. The Leave campaign in Britain is quite sure that while Britain will no longer be part of the common market, a deal can be worked out that will allow free trade to continue unabated and for British people who live in places like Spain and Italy to continue to do so without visas or travel restrictions. Donald Trump is quite convinced that he can have a trade war with China without upsetting American business interests there, and the host of smaller countries like Venezuela or Turkey can slide into despotism without adverse impacts to their international reputation.

We’re at the edge, with the mob pushing for change (any change) with little real understanding of the consequences. It is little surprise that the technocrats and political establishment are so unlikable and so uninspiring in the face of the radicals and revolutionaries that want to see a sizable change that can’t be brought about until everything is torn down. And while it is true that the status quo can’t remain, it is equally unlikely that the end of the EU, or a British exit will stem the tide of migrants from Eritrea, or that tearing up NAFTA will return factories to Michigan, or that Marine Le Pen can turn the clock back on France and bring back the beret.

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I expect market volatility over the next while as investors and deal makers try and figure out the correct response to either a leave or remain vote. If Britain does leave, the next 100 days will be telling as pronouncements will be made to try and smooth the troubled waters. But the real work will come in the next 2 years, as negotiations will begin to do all the hard work that the referendum creates. You can’t just burn it all down, you have to build something in its place. How successful the reformers are at the latter will be the real test of the new nationalism.