I guess the roots of our current politics started with the banking crisis of 2008. A massively under-regulated system had cost everyday people thousands, if not more – yet the response of the authorities was largely to bail out the banks and let the bankers walk free. The system looked after its own. Your everyday Joe was left to sink or swim depending on how lucky they were.
The UK’s 2010 election resulted in an unpopular Labour government being voted out, but no-one really trusted the Conservatives to govern on their own either. Austerity was reimposed with a firm grip. Global companies who were able to transfer funds between countries at the press of a button naturally pushed their deposits to low-tax or zero-tax regimes. Not only was the little man penalised, but the big players in the system were getting away with it again.
Several interpretations of the EU referendum have been made, but the lack of hope in the current setup was self-evident. While eurocrats were arguing about minor changes to freedom of movement rules, anger was growing at a disengaged system – because it’s not the people who have removed themselves from the system; it’s the other way round. The result: a kicking for the establishment, a cry for more fundamental change; a revolt against those perceived to be in it for themselves.
The US has just done the same thing. The choice on offer was seen to be between a continuer (Clinton) or a changer (Trump). Clinton struggled to throw off the “crooked Hillary” label, because she was inextricably linked to the establishment, and the establishment was seen as corrupt. The very qualities that made her the most qualified candidate also made her the least desirable in the eyes of those who had had enough.
The detailed map of the US results also makes for interesting viewing, because Clinton piled up votes on the coasts and in a few other major cities (Chicago and Atlanta), but the non-urban hinterland (see Democrat states like California, Oregon, Virginia and New York) voted Republican – they voted to change because they have been most badly hit by the changes in the economy. US culture has moved from being a land of opportunity. Instead it’s now dominated by urban liberal elites.
There has been a recent analysis that politics is re-orientating itself to a libertarian vs authoritarian axis. After decades where politics seems to have been arguing about minor tweaks to the economy, we are now seeing large number of people protest about the way the economy and our society is actually working. We have a generation now who can’t see their children having better prospects than they did. It’s a destruction of hope – because that means the world is getting worse, not better. So it’s natural that change is required. My proposition is that it’s not necessarily liberal vs authoritarian. More accurately it’s change vs continuity.
The choice on offer in both the US and the UK meant that the change “candidates”, have been fundamentally illiberal. The Brexit campaign offered change, but at the cost of isolating ourselves and vilifying those who are different. Trump offered the same basic ticket. The authoritarian aspect is merely the side that has captured the change narrative.
My analysis is that, as liberals, we must start voicing how we see change as both needed and working. The danger of not doing so is that we get tarred as the establishment party, or at least one of them, and so there is little to distinguish ourselves from the others in voters’ eyes. At a recent dinner Nick Clegg said that a standard Lib Dem response was “hmm, you have a point”, even when the point was plainly horrific. “We’re so damned reasonable” was his analysis.
If we are to succeed, we need to find a radical voice which states clearly that we perceive society as it is currently structured to be wrong and unfair, and that we have a vision for how we get to a society as we want it to be. More importantly, we need to be able to articulate it clearly. Our challenge is to reconnect a system to the people, not the other way round.