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Brexit, Trump and the Fracturing of Conservatism

Trump le Pen Orban Credit to the Economist.

Watching the rise of right-wing populism tear conservative parties to shreds provides a certain amount of Schadenfreude. Donald Trump’s fight with the GOP Establishment is being mirrored across the Atlantic as senior Tories attack each other bitterly over the 23 June referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.

The Conservative Party’s Eurosceptics are finally having their day in the sun and, if the latest polls are vindicated, the sunlight will be permanent. As the leader of the Remain campaign, David Cameron’s position as Prime Minister will be untenable and Boris Johnson, the former London mayor whose Machiavellian ambition saw him side with the Brexit camp, may well be elevated to the top job.

The first and most arduous task of the floppy-haired, “anti-establishment”, Eton-n-Oxford graduate will be to extract Britain from its complex Euro-entanglements without sinking the economy. If Cameron resigns immediately the new PM will arrive at Downing Street with a pound in free-fall and a capital flight underway.

But what lies behind the conservative implosion, whose effects can also be seen in France, Austria, Denmark and, of course, Australia? In recent times the “sensible” conservatives have teamed up with centre-left parties to keep the right-wing populists out of government, such as in France against the National Front and (last month) in Austria, when a presidential run-off election saw a Green, backed by the main parties, defeat the far-right candidate by a whisker.

The same centre-right-centre-left alliance is operating in Britain with pro-European Tories and Labour forming a united front against Eurosceptics and UKIP.

These are alliances of convenience, of course. The cynic might say that the prime motive of the old parties is to retain the current system for their own advantage. But it’s more complicated. In Britain the Labour Party’s newish leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is the most radical it has had for several decades, the opposite of Tony Blair, whom Margaret Thatcher is said to have described as her “greatest achievement”.

And their reasons for staying in Europe diverge. For Labour it is a question of promoting international solidarity and strengthening social democracy, along with the founding belief that a united Europe is a peaceful Europe.

For the conservatives it is more about protecting and extending globalization, a business agenda of free flows of capital and labour and the benefits of uniform regulation.

But we should never forget that the fracturing of conservatism with the rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, and our own Tony Abbott would not be an issue unless a large minority of voters were willing to vote for them. To explain why is the most interesting question.

What is my country for?

Why have the mainstream parties lost the support of so many citizens? The fact that the phenomenon is rampant in a variety of nations suggests that global factors are behind it. The fact that right-wing populism is not on the rise everywhere suggests that national factors are important too, but let me focus on the former.

I think the underlying issue is the widespread uneasiness many feel about the loss of control over their lives due to the forces of globalization. By the forces of globalization I mean:

  • the ubiquity, power and apparent impunity of transnational corporations;
  • the mystifying and disturbing power of “global finance” that can wreck economies for no apparent reason and see towns and regions plunged into despair because someone far-off changed their profit-making strategy; and,
  • apparently uncontrollable immigration that seems to jeopardise enduring values and ways of life already severely shaken by decades of social upheaval, neoliberal policies and assaults from outside forces.

In short, large portions of national populations feel extremely vulnerable to global market forces – or regional ones in the case of Brexit. It’s those who lack the portable skills and social capital to move around in globalized economies who feel most vulnerable.

Implicitly they are asking a historically profound question: What is the nation-state for, if not to protect us and our culture?

It is they who are most drawn to the new right-wing populists, who promise to protect the nation and shield them from outside forces. In some places there are enough of them to make the unelectable electable.

Populism is not in itself a bad thing, and may be needed to rescue democracy from the “neoliberal consensus”. The ugly side of right-wing populism is the way in which resentments and fears are directed at people who are even more vulnerable, especially refugees and poor immigrants.

A few of the most powerful members of the global elite have happily stoked these fears and hatreds for their own benefit – I’m thinking of Rupert Murdoch – despite the fact that they are leading to the disintegration of the left-right political settlement that enabled the rise of globalism.

But populist sentiment has also been directed at some of the most deserving targets, notably the pervasive tax fraud committed unapologetically by the world’s biggest companies.

So there are much bigger issues at stake than conservative infighting. The same forces blindsiding the conservatives have also seen the left outflanked. It too has been captured by neoliberal ideology and believes that the market gives it little room to manouvre, and that is why we see the “unelectable” Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders doing so well.

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