I haven’t posted here for some time. In recent years I’ve focused my blogging energy on the annual challenge of National Blog Post Month during each November. I’ll probably try that again this year too. So what’s prompted me to come back to the blog right now? Simply that there’s a lot of stuff that makes we want to write now.
The end of the world is confidently predicted on a more or less annual cycle, and usually on the basis of a strained interpretation of a Nostradamus prophecy. Nevertheless, there is something apocalyptic about current world events. When nation states can collude in the premeditated murder of troublesome journalists; while others build secret internment camps for religious minorities; and ‘populist’ leaders of major industrial countries downplay the threats of global warming, it is clear that the moderate, centrist consensus that has largely dominated global political discourse over the past 40 years or more, is rapidly unravelling.
Whilst identifying the precise tipping point is inevitably a matter of contention, there is no doubt that populist movements around the world were galvanised and emboldened by the Brexit referendum vote in the UK in June 2016. The decision of 52% of voters to support the withdrawal from the European Union was used by campaigners for Donald Trump in the US to justify Trump’s call for people to take back control from a liberal elite portrayed as self-serving and out of touch with ordinary people. The fact that both the leave campaign and Trump’s own push for the White House have since been shown to have been funded and supported through illegal payments, and interference from foreign (predominantly Russian) intelligence networks, has had only limited impact on the sense among core supporters that they made the right decision. Brexit will lead to greater hardship and reduced prospects for people in the UK for generations to come, but at least the UK will be solely responsible for its own destiny. Trump’s America will end up isolated and with a much-reduced influence in the world, but at least in the eyes of steel workers and coal miners in Pennsylvania, the country will be Great Again.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of Nicaraguan dictator and US ally : “He may be a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard”. There’s no doubt that similar sentiments led to the election of Trump, and the popularity of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK’s Brexit campaign. The fact that none of these can sustain any credible claim to be ‘men of the people’ is irrelevant. Where they have succeeded is in persuading those who feel left behind or otherwise excluded from a share in improving economic fortunes, that they will stop the exploitation of ordinary working people by bureaucrats in Europe, or crafty exporters from Mexico, China or Canada, and will do deals that will increase the fortunes of everybody in the US or UK. Faced with a choice of more of the same or an enticing vision of sunny uplands and the realisation of some mythical era when independent nation states were free from the constraints and shackles of world trade bodies and international treaties, voters have largely taken the view that they had nothing to lose in giving the alternative a try. Voters – feeling that ‘however they vote, the government always gets in’ – have turned their backs on politicians in favour of populist causes or candidates promising changes that will actually make a difference. When those changes prove more difficult to deliver – an orderly Brexit, or a wall at the Mexican border for example – the populists deflect the blame onto ‘the establishment’ or those outside the country who are portrayed as unreasonable, intransigent or untrustworthy.
Professor David Runciman of Cambridge University’s Department of Politics, traces the roots of the current populist surge to the financial crash of 2008 and the austerity economics that followed. Paradoxically, Runciman sees Brexit and Trump as symptoms of a ‘mid-life crisis’ in the development of democracy – a kind of recognition that things need freshening up but without any real desire to destabilise the democratic foundations of our political system. Rather colourfully (and appropriately in the case of Trump, Farage and Johnson) Runciman offers the view that voters have fastened on the idea of changing leaders rather than the system – trying a different clown, as he puts it.
The coming weeks will give a much better picture of whether the current crop of clowns have outlived their entertainment value. The US mid-term elections will provide the clearest indication yet of the extent to which the Trump administration has retained the popular appeal that took Donald into the White House; while the final details of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union seem increasingly destined to result in a general election as the only way of reconciling the mess that is the Conservative Party’s fragile coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party.
Whatever happens between now and 30th November, it’s unlikely that I’ll be short of things to write about during NaBloPoMo 2018!