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We Are Living in the Age of 'Cautious Optimism'

It's the perfect non-committal response for deeply uncertain times.

Read any news report about the not-too-distant future and you'll likely read two words over and over again. Not "Donald Trump"; not "single market"; not even the legendary "fake news". No, wherever you look, everyone is "cautiously optimistic".

You see, "cautious optimism" is all anybody is capable of feeling at the moment. It's how the US markets are reacting to Donald Trump's presidency; it's how Germany's foreign minister is approaching diplomatic relations with Turkey; it's a measure of Putin's faith in a Syrian peace deal; it was even the mood at the midnight launch of Nintendo's new Switch console, apparently. Brexit Britain is also fertile soil for cautious optimism: the suited boys in the city have been feeling it, as have leaders in the manufacturing industry. Even the Demon Headmaster himself, Chancellor Philip Hammond, exuded it with his latest budget.

Everyone's feeling cautiously optimistic, and let me tell you: it feels tentatively good, baby.

In more normal times, cautious optimism isn't a national mood, more a personal disposition. It's what you let yourself feel when you're awaiting the results of an STI test. It's the faint prayer that the speed camera you just tore past was broken, or that maybe someone will find your really expensive phone and hand it into a police station.

Cautious optimism is not something for a civilisation to aspire to – yet search it on Google and you'll receive 30,700 results from the last month alone. "I think we can be cautiously optimistic" has become 2017's "Yes We Can". But none of that really explains what the fuck politicians and journalists are actually talking about when they say they it.

"Since the referendum, 'cautious optimism' has hung over talk of Britain's economic future like a limp thumbs up."

Let's consider the recent sale of General Motors' loss-making European operations to Groupe PSA of France. For the 4,500 employees working at Vauxhall sites in Ellesmere Port and Luton, this is a highly alarming turn of events just as Britain prepares to leave the single market. Eight out of every ten cars made in the UK are exported to the EU, and the President of Ford Europe, Jim Farley, just last week described tariff-free trade with Europe as "really, really important" to protecting the future of British workers. With a far more competitive and healthy trading environment offered by Germany, what logical reason would Vauxhall have not to close its UK factories?

Don't worry, though: business secretary Greg Clark has had a chat with the Groupe PSA and he's "cautiously optimistic". Cautiously optimistic about what, exactly? That despite the prospect of importing components into the single market and then exporting finished cars out of it again, the European car industry will risk it all in exchange for that illustrious Made in Luton tag? In this case, the phrase offers little more than a nod and a wink, balancing the future of thousands of jobs on the allusion of back-door negotiations. Don't worry. Daddy's got this under control.

Since the referendum, "cautious optimism" has hung over talk of Britain's economic future like a limp thumbs up. The weak "get out of jail free card" for politicians who know there is suffering on the horizon, but are pretending to smile since, well, "nobody knows for sure". Conservative MPs who campaigned hard for Remain are now "cautiously optimistic" about Brexit, not because they suddenly think it's a good idea, but because they would rather U-turn than lose votes among the all-powerful 52 percent.

We might be leaving the largest free trading bloc in the world, the NHS might be crumbling, the UK might be headed for a future as a low-regulation tax haven, but hey – maybe one day, at some point in the future, one good thing might happen!

Photo: Gage Skidmore

And what of the "cautious optimism" that surrounds Donald Trump like a hastily-drawn chalk halo? Ever since his election back in November commentators from Obama to India have been describing his presidency as an exercise in wishful thinking. Everyone else seemed to follow suit following his speech to Congress, when he somehow fast-tracked himself to JFK status by reading a teleprompter and clapping. It seems that all wrongdoings, both in word and action, are willingly forgiven in the light of anything remotely presidential thanks to the continuing political gift of cautious optimism.

That said, with Trump the phrase takes on a slightly more tragic note. It is, in this case, less about lying to the public in order to preserve faith, and perhaps more a last-ditch attempt at wallpapering over the cracks of genuine fear. Nobody, from the the Democrats to Justin Trudeau, really knows how many of the Donald's ominous words on abortion, gun control, military expansion and climate change will become reality, and until world leaders can get away with saying "we're fucked" without losing the confidence of their voters, "cautious optimism" will have to do.

Not that this makes hearing the phrase everyday any less rancorous, especially for those of us who didn't vote for the pigs currently being smothered in lipstick. For young people facing a future of low-employment and even lower home-ownership, "cautious optimism" isn't a privilege we're afforded. We're jumping straight to "confident pessimism" or "full-blown anxiety". For Vauxhall employees, for nurses in NHS hospitals, or Somalian refugees seeking a new life in America, "cautious optimism" has a different name again: "fear".

To live in the age of "cautious optimism" is to be walking blindly into unprecedented chaos, and being told by the perpetrators to buckle up and enjoy the ride. It's about as reassuring as being told to cheer up, cos it might never happen – all the while knowing it probably will.

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