James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
If global elites understand the reasons for Brexit, Trump’s win and the political turbulence that manifests itself in mainland Europe, you wouldn’t know it from the conference programme of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.
Amid the business focused events that naturally dominate Davos, there are a small number of sessions that attendees hope will shine a light on the events of the last year. These touch on things like “fear”, “anger” and “post-multiculturalism”.
The message to fellow attendees – and indeed to the outside world – is clear: Davos’s participants are rational, happy, and successful; those that vote against them are tied by the same suspect values and low social and economic status.
Davos attendees are parochial in their own way. They know lots of other people across the world like them and they know the world’s leading financial and political centres well. But they have no understanding of – or interest in – ordinary people in their own countries. Many literally never go to provincial towns or speak to ordinary people other than taxi drivers, retail workers and hotel staff.
Because of that, most can only rely on guesswork, polling and the tabloid press for any sort of window into the public mind. With that detachment comes a serious misunderstanding of what is happening in the world.
Their biggest mistake is to try to see the events of the last year as all deriving from the same core issues and mobilising the same sorts of people. Precisely because they are global, the Davos crowd misunderstands the differences between national movements and transnational trends.
Of course there have been great global shifts in the past and there will be again in the future. However, that is not obviously the case now. Brexit was delivered fundamentally by working people – predominantly in the lower middle class – who aren’t hostile to migrants or indeed to globalisation but who worry about the impact of large-scale immigration on their ability to access public services and housing.
Meanwhile in America, many of those that voted for Trump were affluent middle class people. Most didn’t vote Trump out of hostility to migrants. And most didn’t vote for protectionism and an end to America’s role in the world. Rather, they voted in large numbers against what they perceived as an attack on established American society – an explosion of political correctness, challenges to the family and an undermining of the rule of law.
In parts of mainland Europe it is easier to paint the picture of traditional populist politics on the rise. But what is motivating people to vote for the Five Star Movement in Italy (which if anything leans left) is very different from what is motivating people to vote for the Front National (which leans hard right).
My point is this: these causes are more national than global. One Davos session asks: “As populism rises across the globe, is it playing on the politics of fear or is it an overdue rebellion of the forgotten?” Certainly in the case of the two highest profile cases – Brexit and Trump – my answer would be “neither”.
The World Economic Forum has served an important purpose, but it has intensified the global, shallow outlook of much of the elite. They should all spend more time on local buses and trains and stay off international flights for a while.