For the second time in four months those of us of a liberal and international outlook have woken up in state of shock. Trump’s election in November and the UK Brexit vote in June mean that our hopes that the world may become more open and tolerant have taken a severe setback; it may take decades to recover. Deficiencies in leadership on our side of the argument are not the real problem. True, Hillary Clinton, for all her strengths, had made some unfortunate decisions that damaged her credibility and made her a target for resentment. True, Labour’s campaign for ‘Remain’ was handicapped by the inept leadership that Jeremy Corbyn displayed. However the winning sides in both instances achieved their victory through an unpleasant cocktail of arguments that appealed to the electorate’s worst nature.
In both countries electors were fed an incoherent but effective combination of the following arguments: there is an establishment (whether in Washington, Whitehall or Brussels) that runs things the way they want and have contempt for ‘ordinary people’; immigrants and immigration are a major part of the problem – they are stealing your jobs; we can take back our country and make it great again.
It would be a mistake to assume that the people who voted for such arguments are very angry. They are not. If they had been, they would have taken to the streets long ago: there is no civil unrest in small-town Ohio and Pennsylvania or in Newcastle and Sunderland. Those who voted this way are taking advantage of a rare opportunity to make a gesture of defiance – to stick up two fingers* as we would say over here. A good analogy would be our local Norwich City football fans; they are now regularly booing the manager and the team at home games because they are not getting the results they need to take them back into the Premier Division. Once the final whistle goes these fans return home to tea having made their gesture and they get on with the rest of their lives.
We will not overcome such attitudes unless and until we offer positive alternatives to the real basis of ‘ordinary people’s’ concerns. The fact is that the modern knowledge based and service driven economy is creating greater inequality – and this is a global problem.
Shortly before the 2015 election campaign the UK-based aid charity, Oxfam published an excellent report entitled Even it up: Time to end extreme inequality. The report commented that:
“Extreme economic inequality has exploded across the world in the last 30 years, making it one of the biggest economic, social and political challenges of our time. Age-old inequalities on the basis of gender, caste, race and religion – injustices in themselves – are exacerbated by the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots… Worldwide, inequality of individual wealth is even more extreme. At the start of 2014, Oxfam calculated that the richest 85 people on the planet owned as much as the poorest half of humanity.”
Now defining a problem does not constitute a great advance to its solution, but it is a first step. Those of us on the social-democratic left must develop a coherent and credible narrative on how wealth creation and wealth distribution can be managed in the 21st century. This must be international rather than national in content. It will be necessary to build international alliances while developing progressive domestic policies to manage the economy in a way that inspires confidence and maintains electoral support.
A long and ambitious task I know, but one that is essential if we are to build a better world for our grandchildren. I await a signal from here or from overseas that the task is beginning. I believe that we will soon see the emergence of an international community, amplified through technology, formed to counter protectionism, isolationism and xenophobia. If this appeals to college-educated people so be it.
Meanwhile I can only offer my deepest sympathy to my friends in the US. It’s not their fault: I’m sure that none of them voted Trump.
* The story is that the two-fingered gesture emerged at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. The French had threatened to cut off the index and middle fingers of any archers they captured. But since the English won, the archers then stuck up these two fingers to show they still had them. Sadly historical research shows this derivation to be a popularly accepted myth.