George Maggs works as a constituency coordinator for Charlotte Leslie MP and is a final year PhD researcher at the University of the West of England. He writes in a personal capacity.
A lot has been written already about the rise of Brexit and Trumpist populism and the supposed death of liberalism. And many ideas have been offered up by commentators to try to explain this phenomenon. It is argued that people are rebelling against out-of-touch “elites”; that rising inequality means people are reaching for the extremes; that although “globalisation” has created wealth, too many people have lost out, and therefore vote for nationalist and protectionist alternatives. It has even been suggested that we have entered a “post-truth politics” where people now apparently blindly follow whatever they hear on Fox News, see in the “Murdoch Press”, or happen to read on the side of a bus.
None of these explanations, however, are sufficient. People who voted for Trump, or for Brexit (like myself), or indeed for the AfD in Germany or Le Pen in France vote the way they do for a plethora of reasons. Some positive; some less so. But they were certainly not rebelling against “elites”. Donald Trump, by any definition of the term, is a member of any elite. Many elite members also voted for Trump, and for Britain to leave the EU.
Neither is it about inequality or “social justice”. Trump offered tax cuts for corporations, bragged about not paying federal taxes, and pledged to reduce spending on social programmess. Moreover, in Russia, Putin’s populist regime has been in power and has remained popular for over a decade, and has done nothing about Russia’s many social problems.
The rise of populist politics cannot be explained by individuals, or by social trends, but is instead due the resurfacing of an idea about nationhood that has never truly gone away. Communitarianism, and the belief in independent, self-governing nation states, is back in vogue. The seeds were sown for the “Death of Liberalism” – or at least the cosmopolitan variant of liberalism – not here in 2016, but much earlier through the rise of the “liberal” centre-left, the creation of the nanny state, and the imposition of political correctness.
George Orwell wrote in 1941 that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution”. Since the war, patriotism has been frowned upon not just in Britain, but across the “liberal” Western World. This is particularly so in Europe, where people were encouraged to do away with feelings of pride in nationality and instead become “European”, global citizens.
But for most however, labels like “European” and “citizen of the world” are just hollow platitudes. There is no strength in an identity which includes everyone and excludes no one. This is what Theresa May meant when she said: “if you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. A cosmopolitan liberalism which made people that others believe them to be stupid for being proud of their country induced an anger amongst many which could only be supressed for so long. We have now reached a turning point.
So-called liberal leaders also overreached themselves by breaking from traditional liberal values of toleration and freedom by telling people what to think and how to act. Free speech, press freedom, and even the freedom to think outside the politically correct confines have all been curtailed over recent decades. Worse, people who do not subscribe to mainstream liberal ideas have been made to feel morally inferior for thinking in the way they do. Don’t like immigration? You’re a racist. Don’t like gay marriage? You’re a fascist. Want to put a St George’s flag on your white van? Well, you’re obviously an uneducated moron.
In the past, working class patriots were able to vote for left-wing parties. Clement Attlee, for example, was an unashamed patriot. This is no longer the case. Left-wing “liberal” parties who are supposed to represent working people are becoming ever more out of step with the way such people think. Ask the average man in Pittsburgh or Arrondissement or Walsall what he’s concerned about, and I guarantee you it won’t be refugee rights, nationalising the railways or climate change. It will be much more likely to be immigration, a sense that his country is changing beyond recognition, and that it’s becoming less powerful and important on the world stage. These things matter – not just for our wellbeing, but also for our identity and sense of self. Peoples’ longing for a shared sense of identity and a desire to belong to a recognisable community is innate within our being.
In short, patriotism and the nation state are being revived. The contemporary cosmopolitan liberal thought of the last four decades is beginning to die, and whilst we of course need to guard against nationalism, racism and xenophobia which can all too often accompany populist movements, we should not shed many tears.
To respond to the voice of people who have until recently simply been sniggered at, political leaders need to become more conservative. Not in the economic sense, but socially: doing more to conserve our sovereignty, free and democratic institutions, predominantly Christian heritage, and way of life. Leaders also need to become more liberal – not in the modern cosmopolitan way in which liberalism has become understood, but classically liberal. We need to allow people the freedom to say and to think what they like, and to make their own choices and mistakes.
The current shift in political attitudes and the strength of feeling this change has evoked from both sides is nothing less than a clash of fundamental ideals. This clash extends across social classes, as well as across political left versus right divides. It can be understood as a battle between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism. Cosmopolitanism has been winning for decades, but the centre ground has now shifted decisively. Liberal-minded conservatives are well placed to take advantage.