Two days before Britain voted to leave the European Union, Shanker Singham wrote an article arguing in favour of Remain. Yet today he is busy promoting what he calls “the Brexit opportunity”.
Why did Singham, one of the world’s leading trade and competition lawyers, change his mind? I’ve come to his offices in Mayfair to find out. But also to discover more about another, even more profound conversion.
Singham works at the Legatum Institute, a think tank “promoting policies that lift people from poverty to prosperity”. On this, the hottest day of the year, we retreat to an air-conditioned library several floors up.
Dressed in a dark suit and a bright red tie, Singham sips a cup of coffee. Throughout our conversation his phone lights up with messages from MPs asking for urgent briefings. He has an air of calm busyness – an apparent contradiction that might explain how he is able to work seven-day weeks without burning out.
For the past 25 years, Singham has been involved in some of the world’s most significant economic transitions: the transformation of the Soviet Union, Poland’s entry into the EU, the Latin American apertura, US free trade negotiation and China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation. A joint US-UK citizen, he counselled Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio during their presidential runs.
Singham’s surname is Sri Lankan. His Tamil parents came independently from the former colony and met in London. His father worked as an accountant, his mother as a microbiologist. “It wasn’t the easiest transition to make and they certainly made a lot of sacrifices,” he says. He went to St Paul’s School (whose past pupils include Pepys and Milton), then Oxford.
His father was a Hindu and his mother came from a Methodist family converted by 19th-century American missionaries. Singham was confirmed as an Anglican in St Paul’s Cathedral, but attended a Baptist church with his mother. There he heard a “very Evangelical message”: that you could only be saved if you accepted Jesus Christ. “Of course, my father was Hindu, so this left me with a bit of a conundrum.”
After graduating, Singham moved to the United States. With his wife, Mellicent, a half-American, half-Belgian actress, he attended Episcopal services. But he began to feel that the rapidly liberalising American branch of the Anglican Communion was turning into a mere “social club”.
They decided to send their son to The Heights, an Opus Dei-run school favoured by Washington DC’s Catholic elite. One day the school told him about Anglicanorum Coetibus, Benedict XVI’s invitation to groups of Anglicans to enter into full communion with Rome. Singham, who says he was always “theologically inclined”, began to read everything he could about the Catholic Church, immersing himself in Benedict’s writings and then those of the Church Fathers.
He struggled with the role of Mary, but his doubts were resolved by reading the Bible and applying “logic and reason”. He also wrestled with the teaching that Anglican orders are invalid. “But when I realised that they weren’t false or empty, but incomplete, that was a big transition,” he says.
He likens that time to looking at a beautiful cathedral and seeing only one side. “It’s still correct and accurate, but it’s not everything. I had my perspective shifted and I could see the whole building.”
His wife, by contrast, accepted Catholicism intuitively. It was she, he says, who “drove the train”.
Singham was taught catechism by Linda Poindexter, the wife of Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and a former Episcopal priest. His spiritual director was Mgr Andrew Wadsworth, an English priest based in Washington with the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). Singham was received at St Raphael’s in Potomac, Maryland, in 2014.
He isn’t a member of Opus Dei, but he admires its “evangelical Catholicism” and attends its retreats if he needs a spiritual boost. When he speaks about his role at the Legatum Institute there are echoes of Opus Dei’s idea of “the sanctification of work”.
“I’ve always believed that my neighbour is just as much the child in Bangladesh as it is the person right here,” he says. “Our goal has always been to promote policies that lift people out of poverty. I’m very grateful that my work has always been directed towards that.”
Singham doesn’t like the word “capitalism”, which he says was coined by critics. But when he discusses its merits he has an apostolic fervour. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, he thinks that the problem is not that capitalism has been tried and found wanting, but that his vision of capitalism, based on free trade and open competition, has not been properly tried.
“Most people around the world live in conditions of crony capitalism,” he says. “Competition is not the organising principle. Who you know matters more than what you know.
“Our goal is to have everyone living under those conditions of open trade, competition on the merits and property rights protection. We think that will lift billions of people out of poverty.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Singham agrees with Pope Francis’s negative assessment of the global economy – up to a point.
“I think he is absolutely right when it comes to crony capitalism,” he says. “That is what he is describing.”
He argues that the Pope’s native Argentina is one of the most “distorted” markets on earth. “The effect of that distortion has been absolutely tragic. Argentina was the sixth-biggest economy in the world in the early 1900s. It had everything going for it.”
A lack of genuine competition, he thinks, is the main reason why Argentina and other nations have failed to prosper.
“If your country is governed by competition principles, it’s basically aspirational,” he says. “You succeed or fail based on your merits and hard work.
“Do you wake up in the morning believing you can do that? Do you wake up in hope or in despair? Most people wake up in despair – not just for themselves; they don’t believe that things are going to improve for their children or their grandchildren.”
That’s probably not the case for most Britons, but Singham fears that it could be if the country fails to champion global trade when it exits the EU on March 29, 2019.
“What we do now will determine the lives of British people – and actually not just British people, the lives of people all around the world – for decades or even centuries to come,” he says. “If we do this right – if we capture the opportunity and the prize – then people will look back in 100 years on this time as a pivotal moment in history, a true inflection point.”
He argues that in order to prosper Britain must make a clean break with the single market, seal a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU and sign deals with the world’s trading powers.
“We need to get away from terminology like ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’, which is completely meaningless,” he says. “There are two kinds of Brexit: a good Brexit and a bad Brexit. A good Brexit consists of maximising the opportunity and minimising the disruption. That’s all it is. A bad Brexit is what happens if we don’t do that.”
He thinks that a “good Brexit” will help the poor. If Britain reduced agricultural subsidies, for example, impoverished farmers would benefit.
“This is a very big undertaking, perhaps the biggest since the Second World War. You’re asking people to do a lot of work and they’re not going to do it unless they see that there’s a big prize at the end of the journey,” he says.
There is no guarantee that Britain will avoid a “bad Brexit”. But he thinks that a good one is more likely if Britons adopt a Churchillian “war mentality”.
“Not because we’re at war with Europe,” he explains, “but because we’re at war with wealth destruction, at war with poverty, at war with despair. Those enemies out there are very real and if we make a mistake we absolutely will push people into poverty. There will be wealth destruction. It will be catastrophic for the global economy. So the stakes are very high.”
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