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Friday, 2 December 2016

Richmond Park: the turning of the tide?

At last, some good news. So thank you, voters of Richmond Park, for ousting your pro-Brexit, squillionaire MP Zac Goldsmith, and thank you, victorious Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney, for saying this:

'Our message is clear: we do not want a hard Brexit. We do not want to pull out of the single market. We will not let intolerance, division and fear win. Richmond Park was full of people like me, who felt the country was going wrong, that the politics of anger and division were on the rise, that the liberal, tolerant values we took for granted were under threat. Today we have said no. We will defend the Britain we love. We will stand up for the open, tolerant Britain we believe in.'

So has the tide turned? Is Sarah Olney the harbinger of a bright new dawn, a better future? Not so fast, my friend, not so fast.

For well over 200 years, Western liberal democracies have subscribed to two fundamental principles, both of which, despite the good people of leafy Richmond Park, are now being challenged for the first time since the fall of Fascism. (And I say that as someone whose first job as a foreign correspondent was in Fascist Spain in the early 1970s.)

The first principle was enshrined in the US independence declaration of 1776:  'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

The second became the rallying cry of the French revolution: 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité'.

Does Donald Trump believe that we are all created equal? That we are all equally entitled to certain unalienable rights? All of us, including Muslims, and flag-burners, and Mexicans? Does he even recognise the word 'truths'?

Does Marine Le Pen believe in liberté, égalité, and fraternité? Including for France's five million Muslim citizens? And refugees?

The fact that these questions even need to be asked suggests the depth of the crisis into which the West is sinking. It extends much further than who sits in the Oval Office or the Elysée Palace, because it challenges the very principles on which our societies and our nations have been built over more than two centuries.

Nationalism and nativism seem to be sweeping away liberalism. 'We are all created equal' is being replaced by 'Me and my country, first and last.' And even if you don't believe that history repeats itself, it does no harm to look back at history once in a while, if only to see whether there might be some mistakes we could avoid making a second time.

No parallels are exact, of course, but Europe before the outbreak of each of the 20th century's catastrophic world wars bore too many worrying resemblances to some of what we are witnessing now: a nationalist fervour whipped up against both external and internal enemies; the hunt for scapegoats; and rapid social and economic change that left millions of people feeling alienated and ignored.

The institutions that grew out of the debris of the Second World War, imperfect as they are -- the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and its predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) -- were all born of the grim experience of protectionism and extreme nationalism. Today, alas, no world leaders remember the 1930s and what they led to, which may be why they seem so blithely to be ready to make the same mistakes all over again. In the words of the historian Mark Mazower, quoted in this excellent overview of the similarities and differences between then and now: 'The political class has very impoverished historical memory and as a result it has a very limited imagination.' 

This weekend, voters in two European countries will have a chance to reverse what Philip Stephens of the Financial Times calls 'the populist narrative of an indigenous dispossessed. ' In Italy, they'll be voting in a referendum on constitutional reform that, in effect, is a referendum on the country's ruling class. And in Austria, they'll be voting, again, for a president, with one of the two candidates representing a party that was established by former Nazis.

If the Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer wins in Austria, and if Italy's prime minister Matteo Renzi is defeated in Sunday's referendum, the nationalist drums will continue to beat ever louder. With nationalism comes protectionism, a tearing up of the free trade agreements on which global trade has depended for the past several decades. Protectionism also means the reintroduction of tariff barriers, competitive currency devaluations and rising unemployment. It's not a pretty sight.

But it is important for liberals and free traders neither to lose heart nor to concede ideological territory. For one thing, it cannot be repeated often enough that in the US, Hillary Clinton won two and a half million more votes than Donald Trump. In other words, American voters did not endorse an ignorant bigot, even if the vagaries of their electoral system conspired to put him in the White House nonetheless.

(And, by the way, if anyone still thinks that Trump is on the side of the white working class, do please take a closer look at the people he's appointing to run his administration. According to the Washington Post, his nominees so far include 'several multi-millionaires, an heir to a family mega-fortune and two Forbes-certified billionaires.' Champions of the dispossessed? I don't think so.)

For another thing, Le Pen may not win in France, and despite what the opinion polls say, Geert Wilders of the Dutch anti-immigration Party for Freedom may not win next March's general elections in the Netherlands. (Come on, who believes opinion polls any more?)

Which brings us back to Brexit. It seems to be slowly dawning on the British media that the terms on which the UK eventually leaves the EU will not be dictated in London, but in Brussels and Berlin. Twenty-seven against one is not exactly a battle between equals, and there is still no sign that Theresa May or her three Brexiteers have any idea at all how to play what few cards they have. So far, it seems that all they have managed is to exasperate our EU partners into some pretty brutal briefing against the omni-shambles that is the government's current strategy.


The Lib Dems' grande dame Shirley Williams claimed on the eve of the Richmond Park poll that a Lib Dem win would 'change the political weather', just as her victory in Crosby did 35 years ago. I'd love to think she was right. But at least the result should strengthen the resolve of those who want to slow the rush to a Brexit disaster. The battle has only just begun.