In her latest Brexit Blog, Catherine Stihler MEP says the force behind the US election result has parallels in the UK and in Scotland.
After the year we’ve had – the last five years or so come to think of it – Donald Trump becoming President-elect of the United States of America shouldn’t surprise me. And yet it did.
I woke yesterday morning to see that a man who has vilified and abused Mexicans and Muslim Americans, boasted of his rampant misogyny and stoked racial and social tensions for his own political ends has been granted the keys to the White House.
I shuddered as I checked the TV news and my social media accounts, flashbacks to the wee small hours of June 24th of this year when it became clear similar negative forces were set to prevail in the EU referendum. I remember the chill that raced along my spine when I saw Nigel Farage declaring victory after he had dragged his campaign through the gutter with that poster.
I know how the hardworking Clinton campaigners will have felt as the reality unfolded before them and that their anguish won’t subside for a long time. This was a chance to do something really, truly special and break one of the ultimate glass ceilings for women. The result – the missed opportunity to elect the first female President of the United States – is made all the more galling when the victor was caught bragging about his demeaning attitude to women.
A few questions have swirled around my head since, such as: “What is going on; is there a connection between the rise of populism on either side of the Atlantic?” and “How can the mainstream centre-left combat this growing threat?”
Neither is simple to answer, although simple and simplistic solutions to complex problems are part of the problem and go some way to explaining how we got here.
Populism is the short answer but how it has grown and how it can be confronted is where the real answers lie. It may seem clichéd to go back the Great Recession of 2008 but that is where populism really dug in its heels and started to shake up our political, social and economic landscape.
Populism is like a fire but it can only burn if it has the necessary ingredients. A fire needs a flammable material to use as a fuel source, a spark to ignite the flames and oxygen. Populism too requires a raw material, in the case of the West it comes in the form of tensions that have grown as a result of globalisation. The spark was the financial crash which lit the touch paper. The oxygen comes from politicians and others who stoke the fires of anger, pain, fear and hatred.
People, many of them in Labour heartlands have watched as traditional industries were forcibly reduced in size and stature or removed altogether. These citizens may benefit in many ways from globalisation but the rapid changes to the economy and society created fear and uncertainty. Communities began to feel cut adrift, that the “political elite” are only interested in themselves and not in helping the country and its people.
When the crash hit in 2008 and people began losing their jobs and what little economic security they had, tensions rose still further and populists were waiting for their time to strike. Populist politicians, newspapers and commentators who had cultivated fear of others and a loathing for the “Establishment” now had the perfect opportunity to scapegoat members of society.
The argument goes: the crash happened because of political elites who are corrupt and that the unemployed were only struggling to find work because of the tidal wave of immigrants coming here to steal jobs.
It was simple, easy to understand and it was very effective. The fact it was wrong doesn’t matter.
Power held by others became one of the key issues: ‘if only we held the power here, the people would make better decisions than unelected politicians in Brussels’. The populists of the Scottish National Party have used this kind of argument for a considerable length of time in Scotland.
“You don’t have a job? You are angry at political elites in Westminster? You love the NHS and want to ensure its survival? Well independence is the answer!” You can substitute in any question prior to the simple solution of independence, as the answer is always the same for nationalists. Their populism relies on knowing the answer and making it fit to any and all questions. Not only that but a stoking of the fires of division, anger, fear and hatred in order to aid conversion to the cause.
In 2014 the Scottish nationalists used fears over the NHS in the final weeks of their campaign in order to close the gap in the polls. Post-referendum polls showed a significant number of voters decided to back ‘Yes’ in the final month. They failed in their endeavour to overturn a large lead for ‘No’ but perhaps it was because they didn’t adopt this tactic earlier, or perhaps they did too soon. A poll with one or two weeks until Polling Day moved ‘Yes’ into the lead; this made the markets panic and perhaps enough people stayed firmly where they had originally positioned themselves, with ‘No’.
With Brexit the tune was the same but a far more ominous beat accompanied it. People like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage picked one issue in particular and didn’t just increase the oxygen supply to the fire, they used immigration as lighter fluid to make a Brexit bonfire. They succeeded where the SNP failed and perhaps it was because polls in those final couple of weeks showed a trend towards ‘Remain’. The confidence of the markets wasn’t truly tested as it was in early September 2014 and so voters couldn’t see what was to come on June 24th when the Pound collapsed and markets had to be suspended with the Bank of England stepping in to stabilise the jitters.
In the USA there is a similar fear for the future, a dislocation between electors and the elected, a sense of loss regarding the deindustrialisation and outsourcing that globalisation is seen to have brought. Donald Trump used the same playbook as those who advocated Brexit – identify the democratic, societal and economic stresses and offer simple and simplistic solutions. He did this to great effect in the Rust Belt. He created the appearance of understanding those whose vote he sought while offering them a way to change what is happening to them and their communities.
The hallmarks are all there, the only differences between nations is the shade of the populism. With the SNP there has long been an acceptance that they must position themselves as a mainstream party that deals with shades of grey and not just the black and white associated with most populist movements. Perhaps this is why their campaign lacked the potency of Brexit and Trump?
The biggest question is what mainstream centre-left parties do now. There are three options: ignore the forces of populism – this is not an option now if it ever truly was, attempt to co-opt some language or policy advocated by populists to show a willingness to listen and finally to challenge the populism directly.
The final option has to be the best in my opinion. The SNP, Brexit and Trump were all ignored as a real threat to mainstream parties; their opponents have all tried to close the policy gap by sharing promises in an attempt to nullify the threat. Neither of these approaches has worked.
Centre-left parties must now confront the stresses within society, the tensions that these groups have exploited in pursuit of their own aims. It is up to the progressives in the West to provide the real solutions to the problems our countries face – policy that doesn’t evade the complexities of life but meets them head on and deals with them directly. Only by offering credible alternatives that go deeper than the easy rhetoric of the populists can the left of centre grow and return to power.
I dread to think where we will end up next if we don’t get our act together – we must be the agents of change once more.