Brexit, Trump and the twilight of populism

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Brexit, Trump and the twilight of populism


“We have got people queuing up to come to this country to pick crops that are rotting in fields, to work in warehouses that otherwise wouldn’t be operable, and we’re not letting them in.”

So said Tory peer Simon Wolfson, Chairman of the retail giant Next, Brexit supporter and scion of a successful and philanthropic business family. To the fields and warehouses Lord Wolfson might have added hospitals, hotels, pubs and road haulage, to name but a few industries.

“It’s definitely not the Brexit I wanted, or indeed many of the people who voted for Brexit wanted,” he added. To which the obvious response is: be careful what you wish for. But that would be frivolous. It’s actually more serious than that.

Wolfson’s awakening spotlights the two most pressing issues facing Britain, its political class and its electorate, after six convulsive years since the 2016 referendum.

The first of these is the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of policy. Many people who voted to leave the EU did so because they felt that Britain’s sovereignty was being steadily undermined by the so-called acquis communautaire — in plain English, the ability to make our own laws. It’s a powerful and not unreasonable argument.

But the prospectus that led them to vote Leave and the eventual terms on which Britain left were shrouded in half truths about the consequences of a rock-hard Brexit. In particular the ramifications of the end to free movement were, at best, ill thought through — or, worse, buried under mountains of waffle.

Now, faced with storm-force headwinds, a recession, a war in Europe, labour shortages and labour unrest, a singularly inept government is struggling to shape a narrative that justifies the central political fact of our generation.

However much we may wish it to be, Brexit is not done. The issues that were laid out so enticingly in 2016 are too complex, too divisive, too obscure for easy solutions. Like unpeeling an onion, more and more layers are revealed. Brexit will bedevil our politics long into the future.

Immigration is the most obvious, the most toxic and the most illusory example of the dissonance surrounding Brexit. It is a subject so loaded with animosity that empirical evidence that might help shape a sensible approach is lost in the cacophony of dog whistles.

Syrian refugees and Albanian boat people are conflated with European workers who played a crucial role in keeping our public services, our hospitality and retail industries going. Economically useful immigrants and asylum seekers invading our beeches morph into a single threat weaponised for political gain.

Which brings us to the second big question raised by Brexit: what kind of country do we wish to be? The short answer is that we still don’t know. Seventy-seven years since the end of World War II and three years since leaving the EU, Britain remains divided and directionless.

Voters do not all have to think the same way for a country to function. But by and large they need to be agreed on the broad direction of travel. Britain is more than ever split between those who want a freewheeling American, low-tax, model in which the individual is sovereign and those who prefer a European social model.

Boris Johnson’s fabled Red North/Blue South coalition that swept him to power in 2019 is tottering. The Conservative Party is tearing itself apart. Is it a low-tax, low-benefits, turbo-charged free-enterprise project? Or is it, for want of a better phrase, a one-nation party that acknowledges, as the Tory peer William Waldegrave put it, that the individual is nothing without society?

The answer is it (still) doesn’t know. And that is a big problem not just for the party but the future of politics that requires self-confident, coherent political alternatives.

The Tory party, gripped by English nationalism, is in the hands of populists who are chipping away at its foundations, just as Jeremy Corbyn corroded Labour’s reputation. No, the comparison is not inappropriate, however much the member for Islington North is demonised.

The debacle of the Truss/Kwarteng experiment had the world shaking its collective head and banks rushing to pull fixed-rate mortgages sending a collective shiver around the nation.

We have an ineffectual governing party, hostage to this or that faction, hollowed out after 12 years in power. It has presided over an unprecedented period of instability and hairbrained policies that have left voters gasping.

The failed libertarian putsch ushered in Rishi Sunak, a young, inexperienced technocrat with no obvious feel for politics. Judging by his appointment of the twice sacked and thrice departed Gavin Williamson and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who smoulders on the front benches like an IED, he is hostage to a party apparently intent on self-destruction.

Like an incoming football manager whose struggling team is suddenly 3-0 down, he hopes to calm things down. The penny has dropped. Voters are tired of high drama and fairy tales. They don’t want people in power who break things. They want mature politicians who fix things.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, voters in the United States have given a (qualified) thumbs down to Republican extremism. President Joe Biden positioned himself on the sensible middle-ground and it seems to be paying off. Donald Trump’s stooges are in retreat.

The overturning of Roe v Wade by a conservative Supreme Court brought women out in force to protect abortion rights. This, together with other unexpected factors including a high turnout of young and ethnic minority voters, stemmed the Republican “Red Wave” predicted by most experts.

It’s tempting to think that populism has run its course (this time) and that what unites us is beginning to matter more than what divides us. More likely we are in remission.

But the respite offers the Labour Opposition opportunities to capture fresh ground. The most useful thing Sir Keir Starmer can do in the circumstances is to shoot straight: be honest and straightforward with the choices Britain faces.

Brexit and its consequences have been a taboo subject for too long. Starmer should stop telling voters what they want to hear and start telling them what they need to know. He has nothing to fear from the truth.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 70%
  • Interesting points: 73%
  • Agree with arguments: 71%
63 ratings - view all

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