First published in LibDemVoice 22nd Nov 2020
Liberal democracy is in crisis, particularly in the UK and the USA. In the UK we are perhaps bemused at how we could have come to elect such a corrupt, cronyistic and incompetent government, and in the USA there is much debate over how the Trump lump has not gone away despite four years of Trump’s Twitter tantrums.
There is a tendency to view this as a short term phenomenon – what went wrong four years ago, six years ago, even ten years ago. In my view this has been coming for forty years. It has not been inevitable but, during the neoliberal period (roughly from the 80s till today), social forces and personal decision making have moved us steadily towards the situation we now find ourselves in.
In a nutshell, the elevation to power of Thatcher and Reagan marked the start of what was seen to be a move towards freedom, opening up societies all over the world to the liberating forces of the market. This had two sides, globalisation, an ineluctable social force beyond the power of individuals to affect, and the strategy of global elites both old and new, to use globalisation to create new wealth and power for themselves. They have been very successful. So it turned out to be a move towards freedom for some, but by no means all. The elites used liberalism as their watchword, while ignoring the principle of liberalism that their freedom is only valid in so far as it does not compromise other people’s freedom.
At the same time there has been a steady corrosion of community and democratic values, partly because the new markets require it (they don’t work without precarious labour) and partly because of media elites who found that telling lies worked, and political elites who did not care to confront them. People sold on consumer capitalism found easy answers to all the ills in their lives in the lies told them by the media. Rupert Murdoch and Hugh Dacre, among others, spent decades preparing the British public for the Brexit lie. They have succeeded in making many people’s lives precarious and hoodwinking them into blaming others for that.
The reason this perspective is important is that it sheds light on our immediate future. The Trump lump and the Brexit lump are not going to go away. Their defining feature is resentment, honed over forty years. It won’t disappear just because Trump has blown himself out and Brexit has happened. (Farage is already looking for new ways to foment resentment by attacking lockdown.) If we want to make our countries more liberal again, then we have to look at long term solutions as well as short term ones – there is no quick fix for a problem that has been forty deliberate and persistent years in the making.
We still need our short term activity. We can and must fight to win elections and to influence policy. But we also need a long term strategy as deliberate and persistent as theirs has been. The epitome – and the nadir - of the liberal attitude was the remain campaign in 2016, the most disastrously disorganised and inept campaign I have ever been involved in. We deserved to lose. Our biggest mistake was expecting the voters to be sensible. That did not happen and will not happen again until we make it happen. We must seek to persuade over a long period of time – a drip, drip of persistent, deliberate and targeted conversation over many years, if we want our countries ever to be generous again.