Events, Dear Boy, Events

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Harold Macmillan, 1957

Concept description

In a phrase that has come to signify the effect of unanticipated events on government plans, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was reportedly asked by a journalist what he feared most for the near future and he answered, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Antonio Martelli (reference below) uses the Macmillan quotation to open the first chapter of his book on scenario building and planning, and writes:

“Are events really so fearsome? Sometimes they are. One dictionary defines an event as “a thing that happens or takes place, especially one of importance: the fact of a thing occurring”. The events that Macmillan had in mind when he answered the question were most probably those that occurred in the political sphere and could create problems that were difficult to solve: problems which could divert his energies and those of his government from other tasks, perhaps equally or even more important, but less urgent. Above all, he feared  unexpected events  against which, by definition, there were no contingency plans. Events of this kind invariably imply change and, in particular, unwelcome change.” (p. 1)

 Martelli goes on to make the case for scenario planning:

“But are events of this kind necessarily – that is, by their very nature – unexpected? Not really. In his Discourses on Livy, Niccolò Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian political thinker, claimed that, even if he could not explain how or why, he had noticed that no grave event ever happened in a city that had not been predicted by fortune tellers, by prodigies or by other heavenly signs. In the 21st century, we have largely (but not completely) given up the latter means of prediction, but the need to know something about future events has not diminished; actually, it has increased. So, we strive to devise and to apply methods and techniques which may help us in this direction, even if we know beforehand that results will be, at best, hypotheses to be confirmed or disproved by actual events.

“However, one of the reasons (maybe the main one) why events can be better anticipated now than in Machiavelli’s time is that now it is much more possible to place them in a context, and the proper context of an event is the trend of which it is a part. Trends can be defined in many ways, but in essence they are sequences of events concerning the same phenomenon. Trends may refer to a variety of phenomena – in the economic, social or political areas – to fashions, fads and opinions, to production and to consumption. …

“Trends are pervasive: they are part of the everyday life of people, of cities, of nations and of the whole of human society. This is the main reason why they arouse so much interest and why anticipating their future evolution prompts so many intense efforts. If we look at the future as a sequence of events which form trends, future trends are the projections of past trends. In this sense, there is an obvious analogy between the analysis of the past provided by historical accounts and the efforts to anticipate the future.” (pp. 1-2)

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Managing Risk (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Antonio Martelli (2014), Models of Scenario Building and Planning, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 315 pages. See quoted material in preview page, accessed 24 November 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 24 November 2019.

Image: BBC, On This Day, at, accessed 24 November 2019.