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Global Finance | 20 March 2024

The opportunity of optimism – Lord Browne’s Tacitus Lecture

Our Wealth Management Executive Director, Alan Marshall, reflects on the importance of optimism for business leaders and investors alike following Lord Browne’s address to the City of London.

I was recently fortunate enough to attend the Tacitus Lecture at the City of London’s Guild Hall, hosted by the Worshipful Company of World Traders. The annual lecture brings together an audience of commerce, trade and industry leaders to hear the insights of a speaker chosen to address subjects encompassing ‘historical significance, modern matters and future thinking’. Recent lectures have seen Rory Stewart OBE speak on populism and poverty, Prof David Olusoha OBE address the history of the City and Christine Lagarde look to redefine finance and purpose.

This year’s speaker was Lord Browne of Madingley, Chairman of climate growth equity venture, BeyondNetZero, and former Group Chief Executive of BP.

His lecture was a brilliant explanation of the power of optimism – you can watch the whole thing below.



Lord Browne opened his address by referencing the optimism he had inherited from his mother – a survivor of Auschwitz. Sadly, he noted, it feels we are not in an era of bright outlooks, but one marked more by despondency as political, economic and environmental uncertainties cloud our horizons: “My worry, is that this all-pervading mood risks condemning us to a belief that humankind’s condition is one of inevitable failure.”

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Coutts’ Alan Marshall and Lord Browne of Madingley.


However, this should not be the case he argued. If we’re able to step back and provide some context, we can see that very significant, very good change has happened. For example, in 1990, nearly one in 10 children died before the age of five. Today it’s closer to one in 25 – that’s more than 7.5 million children saved every year. And whereas more than half of people around the world lived in extreme poverty 75 years ago, now less than 10% do. 

“The potential of science and engineering to solve our problems and shape our societies in positive ways has never been greater.” 


Lord Browne of Madingley


Here is cause for further optimism in what we can achieve. From a personal and professional perspective, this resonates because as bankers to businesses and individuals we should be optimistic. That does not mean blindly believing the future will be better regardless. Indeed, optimism can only be founded on good caution and understanding the parameters of risk. The core driver of my optimism is the clients I am fortunate enough to work with. They do amazing things in business and in their personal lives which improves the prosperity and wellbeing of society. In doing so they’re important cogs of the engines of progress. I know that statement may sound grandiose but in perspective we can see it to be true.

The setting of the Tacitus Lecture is also poignant. The City of London itself has long been an engine of trade, commerce, investment and innovation – all processes that, when applied correctly and responsibly, have been crucial enablers of social progress and prosperity.

As a bank we often talk about trying to reflect that in what we do. Our purpose is to serve our clients and help them realise their goals and ambitions. With that comes our own responsibilities as investors and enablers. Lord Browne went on to highlight the importance of prudent investment in diversity, equality and in reducing the level of carbon on our atmosphere. Importantly, he made clear that this should not be misconstrued as a gesture: “This is not charity. This is investment for the long term, with real returns. And it has potential to lessen the global north-south and rich-poor divides.” Not investing in clean energy, better governance and equality he said, “just doesn’t make sense to me on either a human level or a business one.”

It's a privilege to work so closely with corporate executives because they too realise that this is a moment for opportunity. Today, over 300 investment houses, including Coutts, have signed up the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative to support net zero emissions by 2050 and limit warming to 1.5 Celsius – their total assets under management (AUM) is $57 trillion. We know that this is happening because investors can see the potential long-term returns in investing in the global energy transition and they want to secure that opportunity for clients.

Likewise, there is so much to be gained from working for equality – Lord Browne told us India alone loses $32 billion a year in economic output because of LGBT discrimination, while the US economy could add an extra $9 billion a year if companies improve their ability to retain LGBT talent.

Speaking with business leaders after the event it was clear they too shared the tenet that measured optimism seeks opportunity. In the City that has always been the case and I look forward to many more such conversations going forward. We know the potential is there, now it is about realising it. As Lord Browne noted, “this is not about tokenism or quotas. It is about human advancement made possible by meritocracy without any boundaries”.

(Main image: Lord Browne of Madingley addresses the City’s Guild Hall)



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