Westminster Reflections: Sir Bernard Jenkin MP discusses how to respond to this new politics
Nostalgia is a difficult addiction to shake off. After the political turmoil of the past few years – Brexit, Trump, destabilisation in Germany, Sweden and Italy, and the rise of a previously unelected centrist to the French presidency – the biggest problem facing politicians used to the way things were has been how to deal with all this.
It is not unreasonable to say that, until recently, politics had been relatively smooth sailing. The oft-misquoted ‘end of history’ was meant to lead us towards a global liberal democratic and economic model. The ‘new politics’ of consensus, managerial and centre ground-based government and leadership thought it would be invincible, but suddenly it is the old politics.
The behemoths of the Blair premiership and the Clinton presidency swept away previous ideologies and old tribalism, with a new combination of a kind of corporatist capitalism with socially progressive policies. This model then was meant to take over the world’s political systems, and politicians who came of age within it were swept along too. This extended into new foreign and security doctrines, as set out in Mr Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech, in which he advocated a form of liberal interventionism. He argued that it was possible to reconcile the conflict between Western liberal values and the national interests of Western democracies with the convenient phrase, “In the end, values and interests merge,” which is no more than a pretext to let you decide to do whatever you want.
The Iraqwar and its devastating fallout shattered the illusion of this Third Way’s moral superiority. A few years later, the financial crisis did the same for its economic authority as well. Lax corporate governance in the banks and the private sector, combined with the moral relativism of the mutually supporting corporate and political elites exposed the whole system to massive reputational damage. All of us have been exposed to far more exacting scrutiny of our ethics and standards, and collectively found wanting. Few in politics have been able to respond to the otherwise catastrophic collapse in public faith in politics. Many have either been incapable of it or they simply refuse.
The EU referendum’s result was the first time that the opinions of the electorate markedly differed from that of their politicians. But instead of being humbled by the realisation that the country they governed wanted something significantly different, most MPs have invented all sorts of excuses for distorting the meaning of the result of the vote, or simply for dismissing its authority. Leave voters were too old or stupid, or misled, or racist, or all of the above. Leave voters, at least enough of them, did not really mean to vote the way that they did. The winning margin of voters were not deciding about the UK’s membership of the EU, but, apparently, other things. (By the way, a similar analysis is never applied to any of the 48 per cent who voted Remain.) Some Remain MPs also become obsessed with conspiracy theories. Did social media swing the vote unfairly? Or was it, perhaps, Vladimir Putin? The UK Electoral Commission has never for a moment suggested that the safety of the result was the slightest threatened by these elements.
We see the same tired analysis in the United States. Countless articles published in liberal American news outlets interrogate voters in so-called ‘flyover country’ or agonise over whether Kremlin-influenced Facebook memes caused Trump. But this ignores the blinding truth that if Trump is indeed a deep and sustained failure of the US political system, something deep and sustained must have led to that failure. Shallow analyses of voters’ motives in dilapidated industrial towns, or analysis of Twitter bots, are a means of staying in denial, rather than accepting that something different is really happening.
These distractions have one thing in common: an implied certainty that if only the number of wrong votes could somehow be reduced to just enough to let the other side win, or otherwise discredit them, then we can get back to the comfortable business of ignoring the real reasons why millions of people did vote Leave, or for Donald Trump.
This is particularly stark in some European countries which, by virtue of their political systems, are centrist by design. The French presidential system offered a choice between the candidate from the National Front, and a never-before elected bureaucrat who had graduated from France’s chief political finishing school and worked as an investment banker. While Macron won the election handily, albeit against a background of mass abstentions, it cannot be a surprise that a politician with such a conventional background has been unable to stem the tide of popular feeling. The Gilets Jaunesare a predictable consequence of a system where a large portion of voters hungry for change are effectively disenfranchised every time.
Germany and Sweden have seen similar elections where populist parties have taken enough of their votes to destabilise existing governments, but those parties are not yet popular enough to take control themselves. This may lead to a vicious political feedback loop: frustration with the status quo means centre-right and centre-left parties do badly in elections, leading to centrists huddling together to form unimaginative and unstable governments, who reinforce the political stagnation and lead to more frustration and anger.
The challenge, then, for politicians all over is how to respond to this new politics, one in which the centre is discredited, and voters want different leadership. The established political parties must adapt or die.