BRITAIN & AMERICA 2016
I've long contended that frontline politicians don’t do as much as people think. Their rhetoric is mainly performative while structural change moves at a glacial pace conservatively. On the news agenda most events don’t effect most people being essentially for story value. Progress in the world happens discreetly through the forces of creative imagination and initiative, attributes too often lacking in politics.
My piece during the run-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum was written with that in mind. I suggested the vote then would be little more than a moment of excitement as a mature democracy meandered in its constitutionally unwritten way from unitary state toward some kind of federalism. The plebiscite was only energising that movement.
Although I might revise that now with Britain leaving the European Union, much of what I said at the time still stands: a referendum was only a starting point, a license to negotiate in a contingent process that could drag on with uncertain outcomes. So far so true with Brexit. I’d also noted that the Scottish referendum was initially hatched by a small group of ideologues with minimal support in the wider community. Likewise the British one. Who can honestly say they were so troubled by EU membership these past forty years, so irredeemably violated by its intrusions, that cutting ties was the only remedy? Very few I imagine. Passions were aroused and votes were cast in both these binary ballots for reasons complex and difficult to analyse despite what the protagonists say.
Where I may have misjudged was in assuming that UK politics never frightens the horses. With the old horses looking distinctly nervous currently in the wake of a Leave vote, that argument is becoming precarious. Add America’s recent electing of a new president, a wildcard figure who appears to be throwing away the rulebook, and the liberal consensus is seriously on the back foot. A political firmament established across our lifetimes is in jeopardy, hijacked by so called populists and right-leaning demagogues with designs on returning society to a questionable version of the past.
Demagogues & Deplorables
It’s not proper to blame the people but I do. Apart from those who didn’t bother going to the polls I blame the ones who acted out of vengeance, the ones who used their vote as a protest thus saddling us all with the world-views of Trump and Farage. These two speak for the dispossessed apparently, the disgruntled, the ones who got “left behind” while the rest live in splendour. Who are these unhappy people I wondered? It might be easier to say what they're not. They’re not intellectual or cosmopolitan, not sophisticated or multi-cultural, not lesbian, gay, transgender or feminist. Regressive might be the word. Or masculinist, as in mainly unreconstructed men propped up by women inured to their sexism.
I recognise them well enough. They are bang in the middle of my background. We were raised in one of the most privileged generations in history. The notion that we have been left behind by a liberal elite who dictate to us is disingenuous to say the least. Apart from their obvious xenophobia the disgruntled are simply pissed that others have more than they do. Unlike me, a low-rent creative who can barely pay the bills, most of them are relatively well off enjoying luxuries their ancestry could never have imagined. Globalisation may have been flawed but it bestowed huge benefits on them: cheap food and materials, technology, generally high levels of employment and for the great majority an absence of war.
Though still numerous these types are on the wane. Theirs is the last gasp of a dying breed trying to hold on to legitimacy. Automation alone is rendering their skill-set obsolete. I don’t say that with relish but it’s a looming spectre agreeable or not. And politicians won’t help them. The pressing need to address the future imaginatively is absent from the rhetoric of the demagogues so bereft are they of ideas beyond the rehashing of old objectives which have no chance of fruition. So I might bang on a bit longer with my contention that politics is ineffectual and judge this upsurge of populism as a temporary blip cynically promoted by agitators for their own advancement. Calling them and their support “deplorables” might be insulting but it feels about right.
Talking of which, Mrs Clinton was such a mistake. The wife of a previous guy... really? Not long ago they had the son of a previous guy. For God’s sake America, the founders left dynasties behind for good reason. Now the top job has been handed to Trump with his dodgy profile and intemperate language. I assume he will be a short-lived aberration. My uninformed guess is that he could be in for a rude awakening, a man who for much of his time will have run his businesses as a dictatorship. Now at seventy, with no experience of politics and no discernible intellect, he’ll be up against thousands of strong willed people, all with an agenda, many seeking to frustrate his efforts, most of them far more experienced in these matters than he is. I suspect he will either crash and burn or be so out his depth as to be overwhelmed by the sheer unfamiliarity of the situation in which he finds himself.
Worst of all would be if he tries to govern consistent with his belligerent rhetoric. It alone might've disqualified him for high office. We need reminding that presidents and prime ministers, like monarchs, are figure-heads first and as such are expected to behave with a certain grace befitting their position. I have no affection for politicians, Obama the rare exception, but I respect good offices and the historical process which is our inheritance, a process which has delivered peace and stable democracy to increasing numbers throughout the world. We need reminding how hard that was to achieve and how fragile it is. We need reminding too that countries don’t exist in nature. They are constructs held together in the collective imagination. To that end the language of leadership is crucial. Politicians may not do much but we certainly don’t need them speaking and acting extemporaneously with no feel for the unintended consequence. Donald Trump so far seems to tick all the wrong boxes in these respects and as such is a menace.
Brexit will consume the British government for the next decade and beyond while a small army of civil servants revisits thousands of settled agreements for no guaranteed benefit. America has chosen for its president an amateur posing as an outlier. My view is that the systems of both societies are big enough to contain these dislocations. But in truth no one really knows for sure. The consequences could be benign. They could also be ruinous.
And all for dubious motives. All because a certain element felt they were not getting their share of the spoils. Turning the world upside down over petty grievances is excessive and stands in need of rebuke. Orwell said that if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The people who voted for potential chaos should be told. Being cynical before stupid they knew what they were doing. They just didn’t care.
on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump
commentary • 02.12.16