As far as years go, 2015 was a good year for Britain and humanity; the world signed the Paris agreement – legally capping emissions, the UK economy had retained its position as one of the fastest growing economies in the developed world and with the deficit on a downward trend, and progress was being made internationally – on European reform, the Middle Eastern peace progress and a ceasefire in Ukraine. That, and progress being made on equality, with the United States finally joining much of the Western world in legalising same sex marriage.
But fast forward twelve months and all that hard work looks set to unravel. Pollsters and pundits have failed to recognise or predict the will of the people in popular votes in many of the Western states and a chasm has opened between the establishment and the people of a size that has never been seen before. International organisations are beginning to lose their membership and tensions between countries seem to be on the rise with Russia and NATO deployments in the Baltics.
In thirty years time, when politics, economics and international relations students look back on this year, they will see nationalist tensions, they will see apathy and dissillussionment, and they will see a silent revolution where the people tear out the establishment and replace it with another. Hardly the growing success story of the year proceding.
2016 is the year the world said No to globalisation, No to international unity, and No to the state of global affairs in their current form. Essentially, the current model of politics as we know it is no longer welcome and business as usual is no longer an option.
Perhaps the most notable event of the year, and especially for a Brit, is the result of the Brexit Referendum in June. It came as a great surprise to the millions who awoke early to find out the result. The United Kingdom would be leaving the European Union with a margin of only 52-48. A campaign fraught with accusations of lies, misconceptions and an undertone of racism had emerged victorious over the recommendations of virtually the entire political class, most scientists and renowned economists and every past British head of government and foreign dignitary bar Putin. Regarless of your own position on the vote, it is hard to deny that the result caused a shockwave, and quite understandably too.
It was inconcievable that the UK would actually vote to leave, against such overwhelming advice against and against what most European countries saw not as a project, but as a neccesity and a duty. The polls too, both months in advance and on the week put Remain ahead.
In announcing the result, there was a recognition that despite the damage that may or may not be inflicted upon the UK by departing, the British people were tired from being governed, both by persons from other states, as well as from a ruling class in both Brussels and Westminster who have only ever made piecemeal attempts to appeal to the voter, and just enought to get their foot into the door.
Take a look at the aftermath, and it is with great difficulty that one can hold onto the optimism portrayed by the Leave campaigns. The pound has plunged, leaving little time before inflation kicks in stretching living standards further than they already are; the UK is struggling to make any leeway on trade deals with India only this week suggesting May’s new stance on immigration is incompatible with the kind of deal most countries would require; and Chancellor Hammond has warned of further austerity (after 6 long years of it) due to an estimated £25 billion deterioration in public finances since the vote.
It all makes for depressing reading but regardless, Brexit must happen. The vote was an exercise in democracy and the government, albeit a different government, promised to enforce the result with gusto. The trust in the system is being tested.
There are two factors here though, that one must be wary not to overlook. Firstly, one of the key campaigns for cancelling British membership was on that of democracy, that our Parliament and Government can better represent the people at home than abroad; that British institutions have a higher gearing of understanding of the British people than those in Brussels. Then why, is the current British government and the one who is steering Britain through the highest level of turmoil for the past two decades and reshaping the constitution for the next fifty years and beyond, unelected?
Yes, the British system relies on Parliament creating the Government; but at this point in time, Conservative policy seems wildly detatched from the 2015 manifesto and Theresa May has little or no mandate upon her negotiating stance come 2017. With this in mind, we can view that the British people did not necessarily vote the way they did, to enhance the elected’s accountability to them, but rather to send a message that they want and need influence. For that reason alone, Brexit must go ahead. Otherwise, there will be a sense that the establishment always knows best and the public is little more than a rubber stamp on greater things. This too is why I find myself dismayed to name the new UK Polar Vessel the RRS Boaty McBoatface. In this situation, people voted often without thought and righteous intention with the view that someone else will sort it out later. In order for a democracy to function, public decisions must have their consequences, and the people must understand that.
The second interesting factor concerns the way that Brexit goes ahead. As we are seeing in the courts today, a campaign that Parliament must approve the invokation of Article 50 before it can occur. The United Kingdom has no single codified constitution, and whilst this has allowed our Parliament to transform and recreate itself over the hundreds of years it has managed, a dilemna such as that of today can be a considerable problem. In essence, Parliament is the supreme authority in the UK, and no other body can question that. Surely, therefore it must get the vote on Brexit. The problem is that it was Parliament who approved the EU referendum, the Government that announced it and said it would be enforced, and the people who voted for Article 50 to be invoked. It seems almost painful to see the judges sitting on the benches being torn between Parliament and the Consitution and the people and the Government; even more so given the unfair and unhelpful levels of offence and insult that has been directed at them.
In this referendum the British people said no to uniting with the rest of the continent and no to the political class of the day. Cameron’s government was one of a great reformer, and a progressive one at that; so it is hardly surprising that many of May’s policies have remnants of a bygone era in the late last century, turning back time and scuppering many of the liberal free values held in high regard up until today.
The rest of the continent has hardly been immune from this widespread dissillusionment. Marine Le Pen is nearing 30% of the vote in the French Presidentials with the National Front and Germany’s ‘Alternative for Germany’ is gaining on 15%. The European project seems to be in decline. Even for the European’s who are much more wedded to continental integration than us, who sit away on an island, the ability for nationalist tendencies to grow so high should be of concern. The greatest wars and atrocities in history all stemmed from an ‘us and them’ viewpoint, most often along the division of birthplace and it has taken great strength for Western liberal democracy to bury such views for the past 100 years. We are seeing a bigger shift against the core Western liberal values than ever before.
Take Poland, one of the EU’s biggest advocates; a state who’s governing Law and Order party has cracked down on press freedoms and advocated a substantial strengthening of police and military capabilities; neither of which indicate a welcoming, open nation.
Or take Turkey, a country who up until five years ago was an obvious contender for EU membership but who’s President has beefed up his own powers, reducing that of his Prime Minister and Parliament and who has silenced critics by curbing press powers and going so far as to take a satire artist to court in Germany. Fast forward to July this year and we saw a coup. Turkey is not your typical Middle Eastern or North African state but rather has been an advocate of Western liberal ideologies and one of the most powerful and influential democratic muslim countries that there is. The idea that a nation so close to EU integration can turn its back on liberal ideoogy and then suffer a coup by leading echelons of its military only to have its democratcally elected leader claim power back by means of a Facetime call, is more a story for a thriller film than that for political reality. It highlights just how much has changed in the past six months.
THE UNITED STATES
Of course the great story of the week, or rather the most notable, is that of Trump’s election to the White House. Much like Brexit, all fingers were pointing to Clinton, but because of Brexit, I never abandoned the possibility of it occuring, however stange and deluded it seemed all but a year ago. After all that has happened in recent months, I find it strange that I still find myself surprised.
Of all the campaigns, referendums and elections I have witnessed in my liftime, this is possibly the divisive (and Brexit second). Two candidates, polling first and second for least popular candidate on record, fighting it out only for the even more popular one to win. The United States has elected a man, who brags about groping women, who has an open distrust on minority groupings whether Hispanic, LGBT or Black, and who has declared war on the entire political class with barely an ally in sight. Condemned by his party, by the media and by foreign dignitarites. It makes the Brexit choice look like a challenge. Will he be able to do all the things he has claimed he wants to? I doubt it. Does he want to do all the things he has said he wants to? Again, I doubt it. Is his election of dissillussionment with the establishment and a desire for an alternative no matter how bad? I think so.
In essence, Trump is such as wildcard choice for President that him winning the Presidency sends the best possible signal that American politics as usual is over. Had he fallen at the last hurdle, it leaves the false impression that in politics, any problem will always sort itself out. I find myself partially pleased with the result on this basis. Both were awful candidates and that sends the message.
My reasoning here is reinforced by his over-conciliatory and humbling acceptance of the result this morning; calling for unity, congratulating his opponent, and wishing all Americans well for the future. A stark contrast from even yesterday. Whether or not he will be a good President is yet to be seen. What is evident though, is that the system needs reform, and the public command it.
Up until this point, each and every leader and government and every shift towards a nationalist policy stance that I have alluded to has been the result of a shift in public attitude and an exercise in democracy. It cannot just be dismissed as a one-off occurence but rather a deep distrust towards not just individual governments, but the entire political establishment as it exists today.
This change in feeling in Western states though, has enabled the rulers of others to also roll back cooperation; both on human rights, as well as on international relations and trade. Disaffiliation between the UK and EU is yet to occur, but many other stated have taken the plunge with other organisations.
The Maldives has this year left the Commonwealth; arguing it was meddling in domestic affairs when the Commonwealth threatened suspension over its move away from democracy. Combined with withdrawals from the International Criminal Court so far this year, Burundi, The Gambia, and most surprisingly, South Africa, states are turning their back on international bodies and demanding sovereignty for their people at any cost. In doing so, they are abandoning liberal ideology and they are making global cooperation a great deal harder.
It is no accidental coincidence that the best countries to live in are the most open and the worst, the most isolated. It is by nature of their very stance. Liberalism encourages a better quality of life through equality of peoples, through free markets, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation; through freedoms between states; to trade, to travel, to live. So why, despite the evidence of the past century are we seeing this reversal in global decision making. Again, the system isn’t working for everyone.
Whilst at current, the solution seems to be to cut ties with every international body and pull sovereignty back to domestic institutions, this only gives the illusion of better democracy and sovereignty. The alternative, better solution for the world (but maybe not current leaders) is to hold on and cherish the liberalism that stands today, but rather to govern at a slow place and in the interests of citizens, or stand down where the people want it. Patching up such a chasm between the public and elite cannot solely be done by moving where the power lies, but predominantly by how the power is wielded.
This is the year that the people have had enough of business as usual, that they have demanded to be heard, and that they have demanded so with such gusto that they have thrown out the rulebook and gambled their entire futures. They have said No to the status quo and enough is enough. The risk is; at what cost? The future of many a state and many an international organisation hangs in the balance and the prevailing ideologies at the heart of global politics are strained more than ever before.
Today, politics stands at a crossroads; barely a week has gone by this year before another inconcievable situation finds itself true. But at the core of the changes we are seeing this year is a creeping shift; a sad and solemn shift away from, and a growing distrust of, liberalism and its core values; of freedom, of equality, of democracy and of international cooperation. As such, it is more important than ever that those who believe in its core values fight for it so that the progress the world has achieved in the past 50 years might continue. It is more important than ever that we highlight what liberalism still has to offer. Change can occur, but it would be a great travesty if liberalism was the cost.