When the histories come to be written it is unlikely that the judgments on the year 2016 will be favourable. On the contrary it is likely that this year will rank up with 1914 as one of the most disastrous of modern times. The election of Donald Trump on November 8th confirmed that there will be no doubt – it will be the year we took leave of our senses.
The leitmotif of the times is division. Of course in politics there have always been divisions; indeed there wouldn’t be politics without them. There would be a one Party state. But increasingly these divisions have become raucous and confrontational – the gap between points of view has never been wider.
Here in Britain we had a Yes/No referendum on whether the United Kingdom should continue to be a member of the European Union. This binary choice was absurd. The way modern countries govern themselves has to be cooperative – we are, whether we like it or not, interdependent as never before. And this interdependence has to be reflected in structure. There are perhaps three countries somewhat disconnected from this need because of their size – the United States, China and Russia. But for the rest of us we have not only to work together but to have governance structures which recognise this and make it work.
The reality that cooperation is essential was largely missing from the EU Referendum “debate”. The “Leave” campaign centred not on facts and details but on chauvinism and prejudice. I was in my local High Street one day when I heard a “Remain” campaigner ask a passer-by (middle aged, male) whether he could rely on his vote for “Remain”. “Nah Mate”, said the gentleman, “too many Muslims here already”. This was a singular instance but I quote it because it was a metaphor for the whole campaign. Membership of the EU brings very few Muslims indeed to the UK – obviously. None of the EU countries is Muslim and there is no evidence that the citizens of these countries who are Muslim come in any significant numbers to the UK under the free movement rules of the Union. So we have voters making a decision on false understandings and on stoked-up bigotry – the whole referendum campaign revolved around such confusions and lies.
While Britain was committing collective suicide by electing to be the only country in Europe not in the EU (except Norway and Switzerland which are special cases) one of our two historic major political parties had a total nervous breakdown. The Labour Party has had its ups and downs over the 116 years of its existence. But in the post war period it has been the main Social Democratic force in Britain and under Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair it enjoyed significant and largely successful periods in office. Under Blair in particular it became a modern Party which recognised that a modern western country like the UK has to be a partnership between the public and private sectors. Socialist ideology was largely abandoned in favour of pragmatism and three General Elections were won. A rather tired Gordon Brown failed to retain office in 2010 and we had the unusual phenomenon (for Britain anyway) of a Coalition between the Conservatives and the third Party the Liberal Democrats. For those of us who prefer cooperation to confrontation this was rather welcome. But by 2015 the Coalition (which in honesty hadn’t done much) had run out of steam and a clever but rather disreputable Conservative campaign not only soundly trounced Labour but decimated the LibDems as well. Adversarial politics had returned and it seemed was here to stay.
Ed Miliband, an able politician and respected ex Minister, had run a confused Labour campaign in 2015. He stood down after the General Election defeat. There then followed a truly bizarre Labour Leadership campaign. A veteran backbencher, the Hard Left Jeremy Corbyn, just made it on to the ballot with minutes to spare, after several Labour MPs gave him their nominations to, as “The Guardian” put it “ensure members could vote on a wide field of candidates.” Among Mr Corbyn’s nominees were former deputy leader Margaret Beckett and such centrist heavyweights as David Lammy and Sadiq Khan. Corbyn was a 20-1 outsider initially but gradually his campaign became intense and when the result was announced on 12 September 2015 landslide victory with 59.5% of the votes. In September 2016 Corbyn consolidated his positon when he increased this majority in another leadership contest against the lightweight centrist Owen Smith. But whoever mainstream Labour had put up Corbyn was secure as tens of thousands of Left Wing entryists to Labour had joined the Party specifically to support him. Labour has been taken over by the Hard Left
Through 2016 Labour has had had a Leader who the vast majority of Labour MPs opposed, who lagged way behind in the opinion polls and who was clearly unsuited to the job. When the EU Referendum was held on 23rd June Corbyn had nominally supported the “Remain” cause but his long history as a Socialist Eurosceptic was known. In 1990 he had said:
“I am opposed to a fortress Europe that basically creates wealth for itself at the expense of the world, creates an undemocratic control of government for the whole of Europe, and, in truth, works only for the good of multinational corporations and banking systems. It will cause further imbalances in world poverty and world trade arrangements. I view the free market of 1992 not as an opportunity, but as a disaster for very many people throughout the world. “
Corbyn’s reluctance unequivocally to support “Remain” and campaign for it (despite his party’s long-standing support of the EU) was undoubtedly a factor in the “Leave” campaign’s victory. More important even than this was the realisation that Labour had a Leader of unbendable hard left views and that he was not going to compromise them for anybody. The divisions grew as the year progressed. The hard left tightened their grip by forming a nominally Labour-supporting group called “Momentum” to promote the Corbynite cause and, as we have seen, Corbyn won comfortably in the second leadership contest.
Once David Cameron had resigned immediately after the EU Referendum (his position was clearly untenable) the Conservatives were plunged into a leadership contest of their own. Here the divisions within the Party were seen in the raw. Cameron had been undermined over the years by the Tory Right who were anti EU, campaigned for “Leave”, but who also had a Thatcherite political agenda. I have argued here that it was a wish for a return to Thatcherite policies that was the real goal of the Right and that exit from Europe was really a means to an end rather than an end in itself for many of them. This group’s preferred leadership choice post Cameron was Boris Johnson who though not really “one of them” was popular in the country and sufficiently ambitious not to be bothered about being used – so long as he was in Number 10. But Boris botched his campaign and the Right was momentarily confused about what to do. Michael Gove was toyed with and then, bizarrely, an unknown backbencher Andrea Leadsom who had the right Anti EU and Right Wing credentials. It looked for a while as if Leadsom could win but then, unlike in Labour, sanity prevailed and she stood down (as had Gove) leaving Theresa May as the last woman standing. She became Prime Minister without any formal contest or vote.
It is possible that the powers that be on the Right in the Conservatives wanted Mrs May all along though this requires a belief in a conspiracy theory that is improbable. However Mrs May, though supporting “Remain”, had been invisible during the Referendum campaign. Recent allegations claim that Mrs May actually refused to help David Cameron during the campaign. Whatever the truth of this – and remember that the true Brexit faithful wanted Leadsom rather the infinitely more qualified May for a time – the Party had to settle for May in the end. With hindsight Mrs May’s decision not to campaign for “Remain” looks a masterstroke – for her personally anyway,.
There was a sigh of relief when Theresa May moved into Number 10 – and not just among the Conservatives. For a few weeks we had both of our main political parties in turmoil and normal politics was suspended. May is seen as a safe pair of hands and with everything else going on around us that at least was welcome. Her Cabinet appointments were clever – especially pragmatic. The exit from the European Union she put in the hands of not just her once rival Boris Johnson but also the conviction Eurosceptics David Davis and Liam Fox. If the Brexit negotiations fall apart then it won’t be because she didn’t give the faithful the task.
The prospect of exit from the European Union hangs over Britain like a Damoclean sword. We have arrived in this one way street by accident because David Cameron wanted to finish off his Eurosceptic right and thought that to seek a public mandate in a referendum was the way to do it. In normal times he would have succeeded – we tend to vote for the status quo in the United Kingdom. But these are not normal times. I am reminded of Chesterton’s
“But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.”
In short “Don’t underestimate, patronise or take us for granted”. I think that Cameron and the rest of the “Remain” campaign were guilty of this charge. They thought, not wholly unreasonably, that if every serious political Party in Britain, every part of the Establishment and every public figure of note – from the President of the United States downwards – supported “Remain” the people would follow. But they misread the extent of the dormant xenophobia in many of the British voters. And they failed to see the extent that the most unscrupulous of the Eurosceptics” Leave” campaigners (like UKIP leader Nigel Farage), and their supporters in the media, would exploit this. The man in the High Street I quote above was far from alone. And part of the “Leave”campaign used this outrageously – but effectively.
This hoarding was among the worst implying, as it does, with its picture of thousands of refugees crossing into Slovenia from Croatia during the height of the migrant crisis in October 2015, that because of the EU Britain was going to overrun with such refugees. The xenophobia that was dormant was brought to the surface by such communications and when combined with the genetic bloody-mindedness of the English suggested by Chesterton’s poem a toxic recipe for “Leave” emerged.
That the “Leave” vote in the EU Referendum was a “protest vote” oversimplifies what was going on a bit. But there is clear evidence that the leitmotif of “Division” was hard at work. Those of us who saw the idea of Britain outside the European Union as preposterous as it was dangerous struggled to counter the appeal to the gut that slogans like “take back control” had. I heard people using the word “sovereignty” as if it was in normal parlance. In fact it became (as in the vile poster above) a surrogate for an anti-immigration stance. “Take back control of our borders” simply meant reduce or stop immigration. Those who bought this pitch probably saw immigration as some homogenous entity which was bad – and those of us who tried to inform and nuance the debate simply failed. The man in the High Street wasn’t listening. So the country divided over Europe. The older, less well-educated, northern and working class you were the more likely you were to vote for Brexit. The polarity of Britain into “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets” as Benjamin Disraeli put it in his novel Sybil was very apparent. Disraeli was writing about the rich and the poor and whilst this is still a key element of 21st Century Britain’s two nations with the Welfare State it has become somewhat less of an economic divide than in Victorian times. But the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that despite our status as the fifth or sixth richest nation in the world we have a serious poverty problem. A study that the foundation carried out in 2010 showed the following:
- 1 million children in Britain are currently living in poverty in working households, where at least one adult is working.
- 9 million people were identified as ‘poor’ in Britain in 2008/9 based on their household income before housing costs.
- 2 million pensioners who currently live in poverty in Britain
- Britain has a higher proportion of its population living in relative poverty than most other EU countries
When there is such social inequality those who are disadvantaged understandably seek scapegoats. In the Scottish Independence referendum in September 2014 Scotland came very close to opting for independence. In this graph we see how opinion changed over time and note how the campaign of “Yes” (to independence) turned a situation in which there was little chance of a successful outcome (for them) almost into victory. This was undoubtedly due not to any increasing confidence that Scotland would be economically better of as an independent state but to the using of the referendum as an opportunity to make a protest. The Scots “Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands” (the yes campaign slogan) is directly analogous to the Brexit campaigners’ “We want our country back”. The perceived villains are different – Westminster for the Scots, Brussels for the Brexiters – but the message is the same. This returns us to the same poem by Chesterton quoted above. He also said in that work:
“They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords”
So the “people of England” (or Scotland) stand up and ask to be free of the hegemony of the “unhappy lords”. In essence this message is nationalistic – the Scots to be free of the English, the English to be free of the Europeans. Webster’s dictionary defines “Nationalism” as follows:
- A feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries
- A desire by a large group of people (such as people who share the same culture, history, language, etc.) to form a separate and independent nation of their own
The post war trend to cooperation between nation states – exemplified by the European Union – is anti-nationalist. But today’s general mistrust of political elites – in Brussels or Westminster especially – has led to what has been called the rise of right-wing “populist nativism”. This has been defined as “protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.” This is directly linked to the idea that decisions we natives take are preferable to decisions taken elsewhere. Michael Gove, explaining why he supported Brexit, put it succinctly:
“I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change.”
This is a classic case of an argument that seems irrefutable but which in fact is nonsense. The nonsense comes from the reality that the sheer interdependency of states in the modern world precludes taking up the drawbridge and retreating. Post Brexit if we want to trade with the twenty-seven remaining EU countries we will have to obey EU rules to do so. The only difference being that we will no longer be in a position to influence those rules.
This brings us to Donald Trump. Trump’s very first words in the first Presidential debate confirmed where he comes from:
“Our jobs are fleeing the country. They’re going to Mexico. They’re going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They’re devaluing their currency, and there’s nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. Because they’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.”
Trump’s pitch was rawly nationalistic and protectionist. In the debate he mocked Hillary Clinton saying that she was a “typical politician” – the implication being that he is not a politician at all. Which is true, but whether you want the world’s most powerful politician not to be a politician at all is a good question. During the referendum campaign Michael Gove refused to name any economists who back Britain’s exit from the European Union, saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. This is pure populist nativism and very similar to Trump. Note Gove’s “in this country” – the people of England who have not spoken yet. And the “we know better than the experts” is carefully designed to appeal to the disillusioned and neglected and give them comfort. The “Remain” case was strongly promoted by the “experts” – as you would expect. Gove knew exactly what he was doing when he dismissed them.
You can, of course, call 2016 the year when “People Power” triumphed over the establishment. But in fact it was the year when the unscrupulous used fear and downright untruths to promote their own political agendas. The irony of Brexit having been possible only because the less advantaged in society chose it is supreme. What Brexit will give us is a continuity of Right Wing Government in Britain for the foreseeable future and to think that the disadvantaged will become less disadvantaged as a consequence of this is stretching credulity to braking point. And the same forces propelled Donald Trump into the White House. There is no doubt that for many Trump voters disillusion with the political status quo was the reason for their choice. “What have we got to lose?” said sufficient voters to make it happen. Well they will soon find out – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are under threat. Trump is not equipped in any way for the job to which he has been elected. It will end badly for him (so what?) but also for America and the world.
We leave 2016 impoverished as a people here in Britain, in the United States and around the world. Historians still look back at 1914 and try to explain why the disasters happened. The first similar books on 2016 are under preparation – thought the final chapter cannot yet be written.