Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
Trump nominated. A far-right president in Austria narrowly avoided. Radical governments in much of Eastern Europe. Eight years after the financial crisis, we’re in the middle of a political bank run.
When you don’t trust the bank, it seems rational to take your money out: it gives you more control, but when everyone does the same the bank collapses. When you don’t trust political institutions, you vote for someone who promises to overturn them, and endanger the system that guarantees our prosperity and security.
What prosperity? What security? asked the angry voters of Camberley opposed to Remain last weekend. They see a system that works for urban elites, the highly educated, the immigrants, but not for them. But their anger is only on the surface about the EU. Had I instead spent the bank holiday weekend in Styria or Lille, or Bialystok or West Bend, Iowa, the answer would have been much the same.
Trump blames Mexicans and Washington; Austria’s Hofer blames middle eastern refugees; Marine Le Pen blames Anglo-Saxon capitalism; Brexiteers blame French Eurosclerosis. They can’t all be right, so what is going on?
It’s hard for us political obsessives to understand how opaque and confusing modern political systems can seem. Put yourself in the position of someone who’s never cared about politics, and now finds their life upturned by political decisions they can’t fathom.
It’s a bit like when you’re sitting in front of your computer, which has suddenly started behaving very strangely, and you’re terrified that if you press the wrong button, all your emails will be deleted. In the middle of your panic a brightly coloured window pops up.
“You might have a virus!!!”
Do you click on the window? You don’t – you ask someone in authority, like your teenage grandson. But what if he’s wrong? Didn’t he wipe your sister’s computer by accident, and you had to pay someone almost as much as the cost of the machine to get it restored?
Modern capitalism has undermined confidence in authority at the lower end of the market. In theory, it’s made lots of things cheaper, but only if you accept the loss of control: you can get a cheaper gas bill, if you sign up to a long-term contract and pay by direct debit; or a less expensive phone contract — if it’s 24 months long. White goods are sold cheaply: but with expensive warranties. When you can afford to replace a broken washing machine, you don’t need the insurance; but when you can’t, that expensive insurance is essential. The ultimate sources of financial authority gave us PPI scams.
It’s worse in the labour market. The US and Britain don’t have anything as divisive as France’s two-tier employment system that cossets well-protected insiders at the expense of outsiders stuck with insecure temporary contracts. But at the lower, unskilled, end, where workers’ bargaining power is weak, the insecurity mounts up. It’s maybe the flip side of a dynamic economy where companies are allowed to grow and fail, but it’s no way to live while raising a family or caring for elderly parents. And for men once in industrial work, who used to have jobs that guaranteed a good wage and wives who did the caring, the shock has been especially severe. In the United States at least, the life expectancy of white working class men has even started to fall.
This isn’t poverty in the material sense: but a life of high stress, in which you keep yourself afloat through constant struggle that only barely seems worth it. Of course many of us thrive in this kind of system: but we’re young, educated to take advantage of the opportunities our societies afford, we don’t have dependents and we’re mostly not seriously ill.
Populists are doing well because they promise to restore security. They should be ashamed because the poor with slender means and few assets will be hit hardest by the dislocation they promise. The Polish government’s crusade against foreign banks won’t help Poles of modest means own homes or start businesses. Marine Le Pen won’t help French industrial workers. Trump’s plan to build a wall with Mexico won’t improve conditions for a 60-something former factory worker in Oklahoma. And a populist Brexit won’t help those men and women in Camberley, because Brexiteers’ shock therapy hopes to boost the British economy by making it even less regulated and more friendly to creative destruction than it already is.
A real bank run stops when people’s deposits are made secure. This political bank run won’t end until we work out how to make working people’s economic lives secure again. Today’s populists would only accelerate it.