Sunday, 13 November 2016

The simple conclusion from Brexit and Trump

As anyone who either didn't vote for Britain to leave the European Union, or didn't vote for President-Elect Donald Trump, or was not a fan of either one or both these notions tries to process what has happened in 2016, there is one very simple conclusion.

A lot of us are more conservative than we think, and people in general are, quite simply pretty damn conservative. These results are largely about inherent conservatism.

Of course, this should have become obvious during last year's poll-defying general election in Britain. The predicted knife-edge result in a David Cameron versus Ed Milliband contest turned into a pretty comfortable win for Cameron's Conservatives. The phenomenon of secret Tories was born, the people who could really only express their true beliefs in the privacy of the polling booth.

And then it happened again when Brexit triumphed. Secret Brexiters were also in our midst, people who again dared not mention their intention to put their cross in the "leave" box or even to tell this to a pollster, but did so when nobody was looking.

And then, just as Trump promised when he said his victory would be "Brexit plus plus plus", the polls turned out to be utter bunkum, and typing the words "President-Elect Donald Trump" still feels weird to many a journalist's fingers, my own included.

Of course, "conservative" is a broad term. There are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, some people fit into both categories, others are one or the other. But, if we are going to be honest, there is an element of conservatism in a lot of us. 

It takes many forms. Some of them you may recognise in yourself, some you may not. This is the part of us that claims to be a feminist yet fervently checks the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame to mock a famous woman who has had the temerity to put on weight or wear an unflattering dress. This is the person who claims to be socially liberal but still makes fun of the guests on Jeremy Kyle. This is the old school, hard left trade union type who is also a fervent anti-abortionist. This is anyone who likes the security of a monogamous marriage. This is the eyeroll when one sees how much tax comes out of their salary and mutters to oneself that they hope everyone on benefits appreciates their hard-earned. This is the reason why TV programmes such as Benefits Street and Geordie Shore keep getting made. It is the maintaining of a sexist, racist, classist double standard that allows Trump, with his five children to three wives to run for president, but such a marital track record would have denied Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton the same opportunity. It is the part of us that thanks the troops for their service, gets their kids christened despite being agnostic at best, and judges people's sex lives.

And it is this inherent conservatism that leads people to say things like: "Give Trump/Brexit a chance. It might be OK, after all." and "We need to accept the result and move on." Even if they didn't vote for the winning outcome. But for everyone who tells the world to take a chill pill, to calm down, that everything will be fine, there are people fearful in the wake of both the EU referendum and the ascension of Donald Trump. The inherent conservatism that leads to glib calls for calm is almost always based in privilege, from the people who genuinely don't think the referendum or election result will adversely affect them in any way at all.

While there are certainly people from the black, Asian, Hispanic, LGBT and Muslim communities - oh, and women - who voted for Donald Trump, there are plenty of people from these communities who are fearful as to what the future holds. Based on Trump's awful rhetoric, these are not irrational fears. If any of these fears come true, such as mass deportations, travel bans for an entire religion despite it being made up of 72 sects, a rollback of reproductive rights, a daft wall, more inter-racial violence, a society where it is even harder to be take seriously as a sexual assault victim, and so on and so forth, will those who voted for Trump take responsibility? Equally, will everyone who voted Brexit take responsibility if everything truly does turn to shit after the hounds of Article 50 are released?

After all, personal responsibility is a popular principle among conservatives. Will the conservatives who voted for Trump or Brexit take responsibility if their desired utopia does not materialise? 

And it all makes a mockery of left versus right. The lines between the left and the right are now blurred but the inherent conservatism is still there.

The Trump vote was not, as much as Jeremy Corbyn would like to think so, a massive anti-globalist, anti-establishment wake-up call. Donald Trump, in sending jobs to China (and now his daughter, Ivanka, the only woman on his transition team, in sending jobs from China to the even cheaper workforces of Ethiopia) has benefited enormously from globalisation. Plenty of people, stereotypical establishment types, figured they'd do well under Trump and voted accordingly. Conversely, there was certainly an element of anti-globalisation feeling among many a Brexiter, from the hard left to the protectionist right as well. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are all apologists for Putin's Russia, even though it is a profoundly undemocratic, anti-freedom regime. 

Disturbingly - and elements of the left and right are equally appalling here - there are calls for censorship of journalists and of all manner of media outlets, as well as stifling of peaceful protests. Like the post-Brexit slanging matches, there are gloating Trump voters taking the "we won, get over it" line, as if democracy begins and ends at the ballot box. These people don't want to be challenged by protesters or by the media. And there are plenty on the left these days who are also mad about censorship and won't rest until the BBC morphs into Pravda, Laura Kuenssberg is replaced by Naomi Klein, and the Morning Star is the only newspaper available.

And when you look at who voted for Trump, and realise that there are plenty of educated, wealthy people among them, and when you realise that large swathes of England and Wales voted to leave the EU, even in areas that have benefited enormously from EU membership, it is clear that generalisations about every person who voted in these directions are grossly unhelpful if there is to be constructive dialogue about any of these issues any time soon. 

But there is certainly an undercurrent of inherent conservatism out there and it tells me that a populist leftist movement won't necessarily win out on either side of the pond. 

Elections are won on the centre ground - or the perceived centre ground - in the UK. Right now, the Tories have convinced broad swathes of the electorate that they hold the middle ground. Hell, there are still people who think the NHS is perfectly safe under this government, despite another £700m of our money going to Virgin Care in Somerset while remaining free from the accountability of freedom of information requirements. Indeed, the NHS is a solid example of inherent conservatism again rearing its head. There is no shortage of people who claim to support the NHS but still blame immigrants if they cannot get a GP appointment, have no issue with unchecked outsourcing of health services to the private sector "as long as it remains free at the point of use" and would not bat an eyelid if services such as IVF, transgender healthcare, abortion and birth control, were not covered by the NHS. 

Meanwhile, it's not quite apples and oranges when you compare it all with the US - there would be a political home in America for many a British Conservative MP in the Democrats, for example. David Cameron, Anna Soubry and Justine Greening, for example, would not look out of place as US Democrats, and it is actually not too hard to imagine Hillary Clinton sitting on the green leather benches of Theresa May's Conservative government. On top of all this, I am unconvinced that an ageing, Jewish-often-perceived-as-atheist, self-proclaimed socialist, such as Bernie Sanders would win over enough of America to lead a government. 

None of this points to either Britain or the US crying out for a hard left alternative, as disappointing as many will find that conclusion. While there are certainly differences between British and American societies, both nations are, at heart, conservative. And this is what the opponents of Brexit and Donald Trump need to address if they are to make a real impact.

Picture by Chris/Flickr

1 comment:

  1. the UK has BREXIT, USA has TRUMP and Australia has Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Turnbull.
    Just where is the world going?