Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
There is a wind of change blowing through the political establishment. It heralds change an end to complacency and it will not be denied.
Yesterday’s shock election of Donald Trump against all ‘informed’ opinion as the 45th president of the United States hasn’t just left the pollsters in disarray – the whole political establishment is in shock. Establishment parties in the USA of the left and right have been forced to recognise that so much of what they took for granted for years is being turned on its head. There are some parallels here as well. Remember how the Brexit vote confounded the pundits. All were certain that the UK would vote to remain in the EU by a strong margin. After all, the establishment club of experts, the wealthy and the political elite all were in favour. Surely, they thought, ‘ordinary’ ill-educated people would do as they were told; yet they did not.
I, like many, found the American election campaign pretty unedifying as it plumbed new depths of rarely-seen personal abuse. Whilst I know many Republican politicians, I do not know Trump. The unfolding news of his tax affairs and his views on women were an anathema made worse by the conflicting accounts I received of who Trump was from those who knew him.
Yet, whilst watching the last few days in the US election, one similarity with our Brexit vote struck me. It was the way so many of the American political class and the mainstream media convinced themselves that because an outcome where Trump got elected was so unthinkable to them, it was therefore impossible for others as well. So, as the polling stations on the East coast started to close in the early part of the evening and the polls gave Clinton a reasonable margin, they barely contained themselves, assuming that the result was a foregone conclusion. By 4am, however, their mood had turned to despair as it hit them that Trump was about to be elected by so many voters whom they had taken for granted would support Clinton.
You only need to look at Wisconsin, previously a Democrat stronghold, to understand the depth of their despair. In one short night the normal political playbook was torn up and people who for years have felt marginalised and unnoticed now call the shots. One simple fact reveals the reason why so many voted the way they did. Even though the US economy is growing and unemployment is falling, the proportion of those of working age who are in work in the USA is historically very low. The numbers on sickness benefit have risen dramatically and too many have been without work for a long time.
So whatever our own personal feelings about the winner, having gone through a similar shake up here in the UK we are now uniquely placed to help shape the future. After all, for the last eight years President Obama made it abundantly clear that he did not consider the UK as any more important in his international relations than any other country, particularly Germany and the EU itself. The so called ‘special relationship wasn’t very special and not much of a relationship. The final insult was when he came over here and told us we would be in the “back of the queue” when it came to a trade deal if we left the EU. Now, all that could be about to change, as Trump heads to the White House.
In the UK, we have a choice. We can, like so many others, indulge ourselves in an orgy of complaint about the result – we have already seen that kind of behaviour over the Brexit result. Or we can choose to engage with the new administration in a positive way. After all, Trump has already indicated that he regards the UK as a close ally and friend of the United States, and that when ready the UK would be his first choice for initiating a new trade deal. Yes, he has said some outrageous, ill-thought-through things about the USA’s international commitments but his acceptance speech seemed to indicate a more moderate tone, more conciliatory.
This is where an opportunity opens up for the UK. Notwithstanding the fact that we are bound on a course that takes us out of the EU, We should seize this opportunity to engage the new administration and remind them of our enduring friendship in good times and in bad. A positive tone of support and assistance will reinvigorate a relationship which has the potential to help us both.
In her straightforward congratulations, instead of carping or nuancing that welcome like some other leaders, Theresa May has put her country in a good place on which we can build.
Even as head of the foremost economy and military power in the world, President-elect Trump needs friends if he is to ensure American interests at home and abroad are sustained. That is where a close relationship between the USA and the UK could yield tangible rewards. Take for example his views on NATO and the suggestion that he might pull the USA out of the alliance. He is not, by the way, the first US President to question the commitment of other member states to the alliance (and in the past many serious US politicians have for that reason suggested that the USA should leave). Yet at this time of international upheaval, NATO remains the best way of ensuring security for us all, even though for too many countries, commitment to NATO has been pretty superficial and inefficient. The reality is that the USA still carries a disproportionate amount of the burden. That is where the UK as a close and trusted friend can help re-shape that relationship so that the USA remains committed to NATO whilst helping get greater commitment from others.
The Prime Minister is well placed to do this for she has also made it clear that as we leave the EU we want ensure we control migration and ensure the economy works for those in the bottom half of the income scale. These were concerns held by many in the USA as well. We are however committed to do that through free trade and as we do so we can help the USA shape its own programme as the new American administration seeks to deliver to the same group of people.
I am old enough to recall the way that the special relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War and brought prosperity to countless people around the globe. Whilst there are of course great differences between May and Trump personally, the need for a strong America and a strong UK working together is as vital today as it has ever been.
The wind of change is blowing through more than just the USA and the UK. Yet I am certain of this: when our two nations are together the world is a safer place.