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June 24, 2013

Bill Clinton at the Scottish Business Awards

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Bill Clinton gave the keynote at last Friday's Scottish Business Awards, where we were generously hosted by Gift Experience Scotland which was shortlisted for Online Business of the Year. From its table, where eyes and conversation sparkled, we were treated to a fine view of the evening's keynote.

Bill Clinton was introduced by Tom Hunter with a reference to his time at the White House resembling being in a cemetery - "lots of people beneath you and none of them listening". The former President began with the famous Steve Jobs quotation (used in Apple's 1997 TV commercial):

Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the trouble-makers ... The only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

He went on to speak at length about the Clinton Foundation, renamed 12 years ago for his family, and his experiences of funding African traders. He spoke of his recent travels, including celebrating his friend Shimon Peres' 90th birthday in Israel and golfing in St Andrews, and confided that he got up at 2 am to watch basketball. It was fluent and entertaining, but if there was a structure, it was hard to discern: he rambled.

This makes summary difficult, but I'll try: he stressed some obstacles to the rise and rise of global capitalism. He remarked that the market needs inequality to function at all, but if there is too much inequality, then growth suffers. Problems are also caused by unequal access to good health and to the clean water and other infrastructure on which it depends. He spoke of the need for some instability, but terrorism and banking collapse were examples of excessive instability. And the demands of capitalism on energy and other scarce resources may not be sustainable.

He acclaimed as the most important book that he read last year The Social Conquest of Earth by biologist Edward O Wilson. Its thesis is that humans, like ants, have to master "the supremely delicate art of encouraging altruism, so that individuals in the groups would act as if they value the goal of the group over their own goals. ... Every human and every human society has to learn how to manage adroitly the perpetual ambiguity and conflict between individual needs and group needs." However Clinton didn't explain any of this, but dwelled on the factoid that the combined weight of all the ants in the world outweighs the biomass of humans. (I looked this up afterwards and learned that ants outnumber humans by over a million to one, so the equal biomass doesn't seem that surprising.)

Clinton concluded by stressing the importance of co-operation: "Conflict is about the past. Our future is about our ability to co-operate."

The questions ranged widely. The first was about Scottish independence, an issue which he judiciously body-swerved: "I honestly don't understand enough about what the difference would be between a status of independence which apparently will have some relationship with the UK and the current devolution understanding" he said - an unsurprising disclaimer in front of Alex Salmond who present an award thereafter. The Q&A that impressed me most was "What's next for Hillary?" - to which he confided some intriguing early history of their relationship, and declared his unquestioning present and future support, whatever she decides. Overall, despite lasting well over an hour, it was an entertaining talk from a plausible, charming fellow - once the world's most powerful man.

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