Graeme Archer is a medical statistician, a former winner of the Orwell Prize for blogging, and was recently a speechwriter for a Cabinet Minister.
“What do you think of Trump, then?” asked my brother-in-law over New Year, in an attempt to spark a discussion about politics. “Erm … nothing, really,” I replied, more or less honestly.
More or less honestly, because while I don’t care either for Trump’s un-Conservative domestic policy, or his Putin-sucking foreign policy (insert bareback riding joke here), his victory does interest me. And I disagree with those commentators who claim that Brexit and Trump represent very different political phenomena.
So: what did we learn in 2016, from the Brexit-Trump surprises? And: what does that enable us to predict about the coming year?
Here is what I learned.
Despite decades of lectures from every available pulpit – actual pulpits, with bishops and the like, as well as the metaphorical ones inhabited by newspaper columnists, BBC sitcom narratives, and politicians – a working majority in the UK and the US, whether they usually vote Left or Right, prioritise (local) communitarian values over (global) liberal ones.
By “communitarian”, I mean the belief that those people among whom we live have a higher claim on our attention than do those others who live elsewhere (and it follows from this that new neighbours, should they fundamentally change the culture of your community, need not necessarily be an unalloyed good thing.)
Given that we are all born at random (the entity writing this piece is an Ayrshire boy called Graeme, but he could as easily have been born in Syria and called Mohammed), this is quite an unexpected finding. It certainly surprises liberals, whose cultural dominance led them to believe that most people accept their worldview (of universal equality and hence equal claims on our attention.)
This communitarianism is usually hidden from view, albeit in plain sight, by party allegiance. It comes into play at general elections, but manifest along predictable party lines.
Over-crudely, and historically: working-class areas voted Labour, because it subsidised the loss-making heavy industries that gave their menfolk work. Middle-class county types voted either Conservative or Liberal, according to which candidate promised most strenuously to protect their lush, green views from houses for poor people, and to maintain the charitable status of their privileged, expensive schools.
To call such communitarianism selfish, or to suggest that such voters don’t understand that global capitalism and unlimited immigration will increase GDP (as the strange alliance of Blairite leftovers and liberal Right-wingers do), is to miss this central Brexit lesson.
What made our referendum special – and much more important than merely determining our relationship with the EU, however this offends the amour propre of some civil servants – is that it ripped away the tribalism in which we normally sublimate our deepest beliefs about how to build a good society. There was no Tory or Labour candidate to choose between.
And while I’m sure, for ConservativeHome readers, the actual question on the ballot paper was of primary interest, my suspicion is that most people understood the question to be: do you care most about your neighbour? Or about the millions of people who’d like to move next door, if the government lets them?
A friend at work made me sit up, while I was still planning to vote Remain. My PhD educated and impeccably middle-class friend voted Leave: not because she gives a stuff about the EU, but because she’s had enough of the increasing presence of, let’s be honest, unchecked extreme Islamism in our cities, and the excuses liberals make for it, and, of course, the terrorism which seems to be fostered by it. Not just the terrorism, though: she wonders about the society her daughters will inherit, and she saw the referendum as a way to make this disquiet known.
The liberal would say to her: but more than half of our immigration – and the type of which you’re least fond – comes from outside the EU. So why vote Leave? I tried that with her. “This was the only chance in my lifetime to tell the government what I think about the way some immigration has changed things. Voting Tory or Labour has made no difference at all. You think I care about a trading bloc more than I do about who comes to live in my town?”
Oh, responds the liberal. It’s not either/or. We can open lots of Sure Start centres, and so on. And spend more of your money to help with “cohesion”. And anyway, what are you, some sort of racist?
The withering response to this mixture of “Magic money tree” and “Immigration’s only a problem because of you” was made quite clear twice last year, on June 23rd and November 8th.
Which brings us to 2017. The lesson for Labour is sufficiently clear; now let us never speak of their coming oblivion again (OK, maybe next time.) But what about France?
The current assumption is that, should (as seems likely) Marine le Pen make the second round of the French presidential election, she will be beaten, by Any Other Candidate.
The most probable Other Candidate is Francois Fillon, the centre-Right Gaullist. Marine le Pen’s father is an out-and-out Nazi: how can Fillon possibly lose?
Leave aside the assiduousness with which Marine le Pen is casting off the less palatable characters of the Front National (responding to a Right-wing piece of identity politics from her niece Marion, Le Pen’s closest (and gay) lieutenant was reported as saying “That person is alone and isolated … We’re going to get rid of her, make her shut her mouth, the stupid cow.”)
In British terms, Fillon is Thatcherite, while (economically) le Pen is shamelessly Old Labour, peddling the myth that France’s bloated public sector doesn’t require reform. I agree with Fillon, but on what basis do we assume that the French electorate will? They elected Hollande just five years ago.
The likely second round of the French election, then: a national either/or plebiscite, shorn mostly of traditional party allegiance, with no socialist to vote for. The choice: economic (global) liberalism, versus (communitarian) promises of welfarism and border control. Remind you of anything?
The Scottish Presbyterianism of my youth left a residual hatred of gambling, which probably explains my career choice. (To understand the wickedness of gambling, it helps to learn the rules of probability.)
But were I a gambler? Given the evidence of 2016, I wouldn’t bet against le Pen.