Gloriously Complicated

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On June 8, British democracy did everything it wasn’t supposed to do.  Having called a snap general election, Prime Minister Theresa May was expected to sweep everything before her.  She did not.  The Tories were said to be on the verge of the largest electoral landslide in postwar British history.  They were not.  May’s opponent, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, was supposed to be hopelessly far left of the mainstream.  He was not.  May did just about win the election—in fact she won more votes than even Tony Blair in his New Labour landslide of 1997—but thanks to our first-past-the-post electoral system (peace be upon it), she failed to win an outright majority, and has had to form a somewhat desperate-looking coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

The general election was meant to be all about Brexit.  It was not.  When Mrs. May threw down the electoral gauntlet on April 18, she challenged the country to get behind her as she set about extricating Britain from the European Union.  “Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done,” she said.  As things turned, however, Brexit ended up being a side issue.

It was thought that the Liberal Democrats, the largest clearly anti-Brexit party, would win large numbers of votes from distressed voters who wanted to remain in the European Union.  But they didn’t.  The Liberal Democrats experienced a small bump on election day, though not nearly enough to influence the result or re-establish themselves as major players in Westminster.  The almost unspeakable truth in Westminster is that, while the issue of our E.U. withdrawal convulses the political class, most Brits have never felt that strongly about it one way or the other, and people are quite bored by back-and-forth debate between Leavers and Remainers.  The vast majority seem to have accepted that Brexit ought to go ahead—80 percent of the electorate voted for the two biggest parties, which have committed themselves to carrying out the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.  But as Theresa May went around the country banging on about Brexit, the public seemed to tune her out.  Elections tend to be won and lost on nitty-gritty issues such as taxation, healthcare, and schooling.  It’s quite possible that the Labour Party did much better than anyone expected precisely because Corbyn talked about Brexit as little as he could.  He successfully “parked the issue,” as the wonks like to say.

The biggest parties did not destroy themselves, then, as they had done in the French presidential election a few weeks earlier and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S. last year.  The small, insurgent parties did not thrive, as they are meant to do in this so-called age of anti-politics.  Four in five voters voted for Labour or the Conservatives.  The Greens went backward.  The anti-E.U. United Kingdom Independence Party, the closest thing Britain has to a right-wing populist party, lost all the gains they had made in recent years.  That’s because UKIP’s raison d’etre—to take Britain out of the European Union—has gone, co-opted by the two major parties.  Right-wing British populism has vanished, or been co-opted by the governing party, depending on how you look at it.

The short election campaign was blighted by two Islamist terror attacks—one in Manchester, in which 22 people (many of them children) died, and another in central London, which killed eight.  These incidents also did not affect the British public in the way that most journalists (me included, especially in my last Chronicles column) thought they would.

We all predicted, somewhat callously and in hindsight foolishly, that terrorism would be good for May, since she presented herself as a “strong and stable” leader and knew about terror response because, before becoming prime minister, she had been home secretary for six years.  The Islamist violence was also assumed to be bad news for Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral fortunes, since he is widely and often dismissed as a terrorist sympathizer because of his earlier associations with the IRA and Hamas.  In fact, Corbyn, the dovish left-wing internationalist, surged in the polls after each attack.  There was no upsurge in what left-wing journalists call “nativist” sentiment.  Though she responded to each attack with dignity, May was widely attacked for having cut police numbers while at the Home Office.

What does all this tell us about politics everywhere—other than that British journalists have little idea what they are talking about?  Well, it certainly suggests that democracy is far more gloriously complicated than we give it credit for—and that, across the world, all the pitting of “economic nationalism” against globalization in late democracy is wide of the mark.

After 2016, the year of Trump and Brexit, it has generally been assumed that the world is experiencing a populist-nationalist revolution.  On the liberal left and in the center, we’ve seen despair; on the right, jubilation.  Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader turned Donald Trump brown-nose, has often compared 2016 with 1848—a year in which the nation state reimposed itself as the greatest force in human history. 

In 2017, election results have tended to go the other way, and the reaction pendulum has swung back too far.  In Austria, the threat of the Freedom Party has been (for now) kept at bay.  In the Netherlands, the blond anti-Islamist Geert Wilders and his Party For Freedom lost—just—to Prime Minister Mark Rutte.  In Germany, the threat of Alternative for Germany appears to be fading ahead of September’s election.  And then there’s France, where the National Front’s Marine Le Pen made it through to the second round of the presidential election, as everybody expected, only to be defeated with ease by Emmanuel Macron, a centrist extraordinaire.  Macron is now hailed by happy liberals as an Anti-Trump—a man who can single-handedly reverse the dread tide of populism and make left-liberal politics great again.

But it’s foolish to think that European democracy is settling down.  Macron’s election was not an obvious triumph for liberalism.  For a start, Marine Le Pen won just under 40 percent, roughly double what her father achieved in 2002.  That’s hardly a failure for the far right.  It’s also worth pointing out that, were it not for another explicitly nationalist party, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, the result of the French election could have been very different.  Debout la France won about five percent of the vote in the first round and almost certainly deprived François Fillon, the Republican candidate, of a place in the second round.  Fillon’s campaign was plagued by scandal, but had he made it into the second round, he would have presented a far greater challenge to Macron than Le Pen did.

Macron, meanwhile, had to win by performing the most extraordinary chameleon act.  As a consummate elite insider—a former Rothschild banker who was a close advisor to President François Hollande—he somehow successfully presented himself as a radical outsider.  His start-up En Marche movement has managed to take control of a country in just over a year.  It is the most amazing story of political entrepreneurship since, well, Donald Trump.  In fact, the more you look at Macron, the more he starts to resemble not the Anti-Trump but a Mirror Trump.  He inverts Trump’s political style to push forward his charisma.

When Donald Trump agreed to withdraw from the Paris Accords, Macron looked meaningfully into a camera and rebuked him with the words “make the planet great again”—a not tremendously subtle play on words, which created a storm on social media.  In a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Macron accused the Russian state of “lying propaganda”—a very Trumpist albeit anti-Trump move.  Look, too, at Macron’s strange so-called Buy European Act, his measure to defend the E.U.’s trade integrity.  It is clear protectionism, and an obvious echo of Trump’s domestic economic agenda (“Buy American, Hire American”).  Macron is not then necessarily some new Napoleon of neoliberalism.  He is more the E.U.’s version of Trump.  It’s no wonder that the two men seem to get on far better than anyone expected—without their pathetically macho handshake-offs at international summits.

Macron’s success cannot, therefore, be an obvious triumph for liberal internationalism against the forces of populist nationalism.

Similarly, Theresa May cannot now be depicted as a failure of nationalism—although plenty of globally minded analysts are now keen to do so.  As I described in my last column, May tried to carve out a clever new “third way,” not between socialism and free markets, but between nationalism and internationalism.  It was perhaps a bit too clever by half, and May hardly helped her cause by proving to be one of the least effective election campaigners in British history.  Her defeat is undoubtedly a blow for Brexit, in that she wanted to secure a thumping parliamentary majority ahead of her difficult negotiations with Brussels.  Now, she is considerably weaker than she was before, at home and abroad, and many Tories think it will be impossible for her to carry on as prime minister much longer.  It’s also a concern, even among ardent Brexiteers, that the woman now overseeing the most seismic shift in postwar British governance seems to be increasingly hopeless.  Yet to interpret the election as an unambiguous victory for Europhiles against nationalists is flat wrong.  Then again, what do I know?        

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