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The Instability of Britain and the US: How Do We Come Back From This?

Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

There is a famous scene in Shakespeare’s Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt, when the French lords speak of the inevitability of their coming victory. Puffed up with arrogance, they deride the English: “Do but behold yon poor and starved band.” Of course, all this is to be exposed as bombast when the over-confident lords get their comeuppance the following day.

I was thinking about this scene when Donald Trump was elected President last year, contrary to the predictions of almost every commentator in the US. I thought about it again when pundits in Britain had their own St Crispin’s Day on 8 June, as Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament, dumbfounding expectations that Jeremy Corbyn was leading the Labour Party to calamitous defeat. A comical outcome of the general election was the way in which the commentariat, who has by and large lauded May as a mix of Queen Elizabeth I, Judi Dench and Margaret Thatcher, switched at high speed to seeing clear similarities between her and Inspector Clouseau.

It is always satisfactory to see anybody in the prediction business tripping over their feet and getting egg on their faces. Most commentators admitted error, noted that everybody else had also got the election wrong, but still managed to sound as if they knew what made the nation tick. It was particularly easy to move on the agenda in the week after the election because of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The American political establishment – at the core of which is TheNew York Times and CNN – have been busily counterattacking Trump and his election victory as the outcome of a Russian plot. Evidence for this is scant.

The anti-Trump forces may well be right in their strategy. Simple innocence is not going to do Trump a lot of good, and refuting vague and exaggerated charges can be difficult because of their very lack of substance. The Republicans should know this because they persecuted the Clintons for years by manufacturing scandals such as the Whitewater real estate deal, the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi and Hillary’s supposed mishandling of her private emails.

Current political battles are so intense that they mask crucial long-term developments: Britain and America both look much more unstable today than they have done at any time since the Second World War. Some weakening of Anglo-Saxon dominance on the world stage had been expected in the wake of the Iraq war in 2003 and the financial crisis in 2008, but suddenly both powers feel as if they are starting to implode.

The pros and cons of Brexit are furiously debated in Britain, usually with the point at issue being the ultimate political and economic outcome of leaving the EU. But two important negative consequences are already with us: Britain is far more divided than it used to be and the Government is entirely preoccupied with Brexit to the exclusion of anything else. Brexit is like the tremors of an earthquake that shake apart weak and vulnerable points in British society, state and nation.

The British ruling class used to have a high international reputation for intelligence and realism in pursuit of its own interests. This may have been exaggerated, but latterly it seems to have lost its touch and to be happiest when sawing off the branch on which it is sitting. Privatisation and globalisation since Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979 were always going to weaken Britain because these exalted private gain over public and communal interests. The political selling point was the old saying that a rising tide raises all ships, but this turned out to depend on how big or small a ship you were sailing in and many of the latter were soon foundering. What the three political earthquakes in the Anglo-Saxon world – the Brexit referendum, the British general election and the US presidential election – have in common is that they showed that there are many more people unhappy with the status quo than anybody had suspected.

Loathing for Trump on the part of most of the US media is so intense as to make sensible commentary a rarity. They see Trump as a demonic conman who is ruining their country and they may well be right, but this makes it all the more necessary to ask what are the real grievances among voters that he was able to identify and exploit. Edward Luttwak, political scientist and historian, has a compelling article in the Times Literary Supplement pointing to an all-important but little regarded statistic for car “affordability” in the US which shows that almost half of American households have “been impoverished to the point that they can no longer afford a new car”. This is in a country where a car is a necessity to get to work or shop for food, but where wage stagnation and the rising price of vehicles makes it an increasing strain to buy one. Luttwak argues that Trump got “the political economy” right in a way that none of his opponents even tried to do and this made him invulnerable to attacks on his character that his opponents thought would destroy him.

The affordability of housing is to the British what the affordability of cars is to Americans: the prohibitive cost of buying and the extortionate cost of renting a place to live increasingly determines political choices. Ownership of property underpins the political chasm separating young from old voters, the dividing line being the advanced age of 47. Below this, the majority vote Labour and above it Conservative. Students are supposed to have been energised into voting Labour by the promise of abolishing tuition fees, but when I talked to them they were much more worried about paying high rents for miserable accommodation which, unlike tuition fees, they have to pay cash down.

The results of the Brexit vote, the US presidential election and the British general election were all so close that any factor can be highlighted as the one which made the difference. Conservatives tend to point to a poor and over-confident campaign on their part, emphasising marginal considerations such as Theresa May’s spectacular lack of the common touch. Less talked about by Conservatives was the surprising failure of the campaign of vilification directed against Jeremy Corbyn which not only failed to sink him but confirmed his status as the anti-establishment candidate.

Corbyn is a much better person than Trump, but both men benefit from the impossibility of putting somebody on permanent trial by the media without continually mentioning their name. Trump evidently calculates that it scarcely matters what he is accused of so long as he tops the media agenda. Corbyn likewise draws benefits from media hostility so unrelenting that it discredits itself and no longer inflicts real wounds. Political establishments are baffled by successful challenges from those they had dismissed and despised, unlike Shakespeare’s defeated French leader at Agincourt who says: “Let’s stab ourselves. Are these the wretches we played at dice for?”

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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