Talking to an eminent pollster this afternoon I was struck by the number of occasions she said ‘But that’s not what was supposed to happen.’ But then she’d said the same thing after the Brexit victory in late June and she could well be in the same position if President Le Pen takes over in France. I was also struck by the number of occasions in the weeks leading up both to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory that commentators said that people’s common-sense dictated that they would vote for the status quo and that they would not vote for ‘walking off a cliff’. What both victories show is that globalisation has not spread its benefits across society and that many people, especially the white working-classes, not only feel that they have been left behind by global trends but that their feelings reflected the harsh realities of economic change—deindustrialisation because things can be manufactured more cheaply abroad but government had provided no alternative economic opportunities for those who lost out. Brexit should have warned the Democrats of the consequences of failing to listen to working-class anger…but no, the political establishment continued down their road to political emasculation undaunted.
What has happened in the last decade has been a shift in people’s attitudes to globalisation though it was already a growing force before the financial ‘crash’ of 2008. Globalisation in the West resulted in the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle- and working-classes feeling forgotten by an establishment whose sole aim appeared to be ‘let’s make money whatever the social cost’. This may have been a tenable, if morally bankrupt, position while those beyond the charmed establishment circle were content with the crumbs from their masters’ tables…the financial crash changed all that. People became viscerally angry with bankers who appeared to wield power without responsibility knowing that the state would be compelled to bail them out if things went wrong and arrogantly most appeared not to care complaining that they no longer had their six-figure bonuses slashed and expecting society to understand. And, of course, the establishment did what was expected of them…they used tax-payers’ money to bail them out. No bankers went to jail because of their reckless roulette behaviour. Did bankers’ behaviour change? Well, there were a few mea culpas but then things adapted to the new circumstances and bonuses were back, interest on savings was slashed and bank profits began their upward trajectory again. The establishment might have thought…problem solved but bailing out the banks was one thing but bailing out other industries and protecting jobs, that’s something very difficult…nationalising banks might be a good thing, but nationalising steel production that’s another thing. So the bankers, seen as part of the establishment, were protected but steel workers were not…yes the government made all the right noises but the end result was always the same…stagnant wages, unemployment, community disintegration, deindustrialisation and cheaper foreign imports and losing out to the economic rebalancing that comes with globalisation.
At the same time that many in the working-classes felt under pressure, levels of immigration increased with growing numbers, often fleeing conflict, crossing international borders in search of economic security. For proponents of globalisation this was a good thing…if you allow unfettered immigration then wages will fall—a simple result of supply and demand--and profits rise. The problem was not immigration itself but its rapidity and scale…too many immigrants too quickly placed pressure on infrastructures already stretched by austerity policies across the West. Again it was the white working-classes that disproportionately bore the brunt of this process…it was their services that were under pressure whether in education, health or housing; it was their jobs that were threatened by being undercut by cheap immigrant labour; it was their communities whose cultural character changed in a matter of a decade. And the establishment, well, did very little…it did not provide the finance necessary for local authorities to build more cheap housing, new schools and hospitals. Is it surprising that the level of ‘hate crime’ and racially aggravated offences increased? In the UK, whether you could deport people or not was a matter no longer decided in London but in Brussels while in the USA support for ‘Trump’s wall’ was symptomatic of the depth of the establishment’s failure to understand people’s anger and that this anger was being directed against migrants.
Nativism and populism—usually together—tend to occur where sections in society feel that their status is in some way threatened or compromised by the uncaring attitude of the liberal political establishment. Its character may vary but it is based on the dualism between them and us. Brexit in many respects represented ‘institutional nativism’ where them is the increasingly pervasive interventionism of the European Union and us is the reclaiming of British sovereignty…the nativist question is where ought power in Britain lie? The establishment had, since the referendum in 1975, maintained its support for the European Union as an economic institution though increasingly not as a political one…Britain always saw itself as ‘exceptionalist’ in relation to the EU with its non-adoption of the euro, its rebates and red lines where the hope was that the EU would reform itself at satisfy the establishment’s wish to remain a member. Yet, for the past twenty years, the people increasingly and inexorably moved away from that political position…was promised an input through referendums that never occurred and which, had David Cameron not decided to slay the Eurosceptic dragon in his own party, would probably still be the case…there were always good reasons from the political elites not to ask the people, they might get the wrong answer (which of course they did). As with Trumpian nativism, migration became a central issue on Brexit building a wall—whether symbolic or actual in the USA is unclear—as a means of controlling immigration though what ‘controlling’ means is unclear. In the United States, unlike in Britain, nativism is linked to isolationism, the policy of the 1920s and 1930s…the view that we need to make America ‘great again’ at home, addressing the anger of the white working-classes among Trump’s key supporters if necessary, and unlike the UK that sees its future in global free trade, through protectionism and by building economic, political and military strength at home.
Brexit and Trump’s decisive victory are both revolts against neo-liberal establishments and elites that were not merely deaf to the concerns of the working-classes but never entered into any form of dialogue with them. They appear to have assumed that they knew what the proper directions were for the UK and USA and, I suspect it never even entered their mind until it was too late, that many people thought it was the wrong direction. The neo-liberal elites in Europe are under sustained attack. Marine Le Pen wants France to leave the EU and will contest the presidential elections next year and so does Bepe Grillo leader of the populist Five Star Movement in Italy. Italy will hold a constitutional referendum in December that may unseat Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. There are also strong anti-EU parties in the Netherlands and increasingly in Germany that won a surge of support in September’s local government elections. The liberal consensus that has been a central feature of political discourse since 1945 is now in tatters.