Sunday, 8 January 2017

In Donald Trump America has fallen for a spectacularly uninspiring despot

On 9 November the American people elected an aspiring despot, admittedly by a minority of votes cast, to be their next President. This, considering America’s long history as both the defender and exemplar of liberal-democratic values, is more than depressing. Until this point the American people have been almost uniquely resistant to the appeal of tyrants, demagogues and authoritarians. Trump’s election has smashed this jewel of American exceptionalism. I see no advantage in deceiving ourselves about what Trump is. He’s an authoritarian nationalist who violated just about every norm of democratic conduct during the election campaign. As I argued in this piece he cannot reasonably be described as a democrat. One of the things I find most galling about Trump’s rise is just how mediocre, uninspiring and fundamentally poor he is as a demagogue. I’d like to think that for a democracy as advanced as America’s to elect an autocrat it would take a politician of exceptional charm, eloquence and cunning. America, alas, has been seduced by a barely coherent cartoon villain.

Trump’s election as President is so disastrous for the democratic world because of the extent to which this world has been led and protected by, and often aspired to emulate, the United States of America. America has long provided a model, though admittedly an imperfect one, for other democracies to follow, and this has been particularly important for countries as they democratise. Much of Latin America, as well as parts of East Asia and Europe essentially copied the American Presidential system wholesale when drawing up their constitutions. The wealth and strength of America was the supreme vindication of the effectiveness of the liberal-democratic system of government, and no other liberal-democratic power has come close to matching America’s influence or prestige. The great democratisation of the 20th century, which saw an explosion of the liberal-democratic form of Government, was largely facilitated by American economic and military muscle. According to Oxford University’s One World in Data  (OWID) the number of democracies in the world increased from 17 in 1944, to 87 in 2009, during the period of peak American power.

Between 1941 and the present day America played a decisive role in helping defend liberal-democracy from rival ideologies, most notably fascism and Soviet communism, and in preventing a return to world politics based around imperialism. A number of the world’s most successful and secure democracies, such as Germany and Japan, were established or re-established at the point of an American gun. Other democratic powers played an important role of course, most notably Britain and France, but both these states initially relied heavily on non-democratic overseas empires for their strength. It’s only when you appreciate just how important America has been in promoting the liberal-democratic order, that you realise how disastrous it will be for the West to have a President who is not truly a democrat.

American democracy is well established, mature and (until around a year ago) looked incredibly stable. As such you might have thought it would take a demagogue of exceptional talent and cunning to seduce the American people with authoritarianism. But if that’s what you assumed, and I certainly used to, then you were wrong.  Instead it took an orange-faced buffoon with unusual hair, and a pennant for insulting a good proportion of the American population. Maybe Trump has some positive attributes, but they certainly don’t include intellectual consistency, personal morality or individual charm. Many demagogues give their followers powerful and inspiring speeches. Trump’s speeches during the election campaign by contrast were barely coherent. He had a tendency to go off onto wild, often irrelevant tangents, whilst engaging is an embarrassing amount of self-praise. Sometimes it appeared that he had descended into a parody of his own act.

Now of course there are some things Trump is extremely good at. During the election campaign he proved a master at exploiting concerns about ethnic and cultural change, via assertive white identity politics. But he combined this with an extraordinary capacity for self-destruction. At several points during both the Republican Primaries and Presidential election it looked like he had detonated his own campaign. During the Republican Primaries he disputed John McCain’s status as a war hero and claimed without evidence that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to the Kennedy assassination. Having got the Republican Party nomination he proceeded to engage in a public row with the parents of a dead Muslim American soldier. Even in the last few weeks, as President-Elect, Trump seems determined to court controversy. As evidence grows that the Russian Government hacked the DNC email system to help Trump the sensible thing would have been to stay quiet or try and change the subject. Instead Trump has praised Putin and Russia on Twitter, whilst de-facto criticising the American security apparatus.

Quite often when demagogues acquire power the host country has the excuse that it was going through a time of crisis. Most frequently the economy had collapsed, causing a dramatic rise in unemployment or destitution. Alternatively the country might be threatened by a hostile state, leading to calls for unity behind a single individual, or some section of the military might take over. None of these reasons are valid in the case of the United States and Trump. America is not facing an existential threat from any external power. ISIS is no more than a nuisance compared to a credible opponent, whilst Trump is actually friendly towards Russia, one of America’s main geo-political rivals. The American unemployment rate for October 2016 was 4.9%, low by comparison to European states, whilst the country has enjoyed solid (if unspectacular) economic growth over the last few years. Thus America, despite her advanced democratic institutions and history, elected a particularly unimpressive demagogue during a period of solid economic growth and international security.

The election of Donald Trump is, for supporters of liberal-democratic values, nothing less than a disaster. The world’s most powerful country, a state which has done much to protect the free world for over half a century, will soon be governed by an unstable authoritarian nationalist. Trump did not abide by democratic norms during the election campaign, and there’s no reason to think this is likely to change following his inauguration. Great power rarely makes men less corrupt. So the free world will soon have to deal with an American President who’s commitment to democracy, in any recognized form, is at best dubious and more likely non-existent. This has big implications for liberal-democracy both in America, and in those sections of the Western world that America helps protect.  

But what is particularly disheartening is the quality of demagogue to which America has fallen, and the conditions in which this took place. America has elected an ultra-authoritarian, a man who feels like he’s been ripped straight from the pages of some dystopian novel, during a period of steady economic growth and relative security. Trump is intellectually unimpressive, largely devoid of personal charm and clearly unstable. It would be one of the most tragic ironies of modern history if a democracy as great as America’s becomes redefined by a demagogue as poor as Donald Trump. Please America, for all our sakes, don’t let this happen.

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Friday, 6 January 2017

Make no mistake – Western civilisation is on Tuesday’s ballot paper

I wrote and posted this piece in early November 2016, just before the Presidential election. After Trump’s election I concluded that my language had been overly strident, and pulled the piece. I now regret that decision, so here is the piece in full. If it vanishes it means I've changed my mind again! 

On Tuesday 8 November America elects a new President and, for the first time in living memory, Western civilisation itself is on the ballot paper. Not directly of course, though it might as well be. The American people are choosing between two candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton or ‘Republican’ Donald Trump, only one of whom subscribes to the set of values which constitutes the basis of Western civilisation. And that candidate is Hillary Clinton. Trump’s commitment to democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law are all questionable at best – and that’s just based on the statements he has chosen to make publically. As such Americans who appreciate the civilisation that has been the basis for American success, regardless of political orientation, should vote for Clinton to protect the American republic and constitution.

It’s beyond sad that it’s got to this point. The Republican Party used to be one of the great defenders of Western civilisation. The party which helped defend the free world from communism, authoritarian regimes and more recently Islamist fundamentalism. But that Republican Party is dead, or at least missing in action. The current Republican party, judging by its Presidential candidate, is no longer a force for Western civilisation. With some honourable exceptions the party has bent the knee to Donald Trump, who encapsulates all they ought to despise. Supporters of constitutional democracy should mourn the Republican party of the past, the party of Lincoln and Raegan (and dare I say it of George W. Bush and John McCain), and hope for its return. But we, and that includes those of us who identify as Conservatives, should fight with all we have to ensure Hillary Clinton becomes the next American President.

You don’t have to think Hillary will be a good President to support her. In fact I’d recommend supporting her even if you think she will be extremely poor at the job. For what it’s worth I think she will make a reasonable President. She has good experience, and a level of basic decency. But, in the grand scheme of things, this barely matters. What matters is that she clearly subscribes to democratic-constitutional values, the basis of Western civilisation, whilst her opponent does not. So even if you are a diehard Republican, or energised Bernie Sanders supporter, if you support democratic-constitutional principles you need to vote for Hillary. Forget third party candidates. Unless you live in Utah, where traditional conservative Evan McMullin might have a better shot at beating Trump than Hillary, voting for a third party candidate in an election of this magnitude is a waste.

To say that Donald Trump’s commitment to democracy is questionable would be an understatement. Most significantly he struggles to accept the possibility or reality of defeat. He rarely, if ever, accepts that an opponent has beaten him fairly. Rather any setbacks are attributed, with little or no evidence, to conspiracy.  Other people, in Trump’s world, don’t oppose him due to honest disagreement, but because they are corrupt. When Trump lost the first Republican primary in Iowa to Ted Cruz he claimed, without evidence, that the poll was rigged. He’s already started making the same assertion regarding the Presidential election, especially a few weeks ago when he was polling particularly badly. Trump has stated that he might not accept the result of the Presidential election unless he wins, and has done so with a spectacular lack of hard evidence of foul play. As such he is striking at one of the core components of a democratic system, namely the idea that the loser, in the absence of proof of malpractice, accepts the legitimacy of the winner. 

Trump’s political convictions have lacked consistency in most areas, other than his longstanding admiration for authoritarianism. The foreign leaders he praises most freely, most prominently Russia’s Vladimir Putin, tend to be authoritarians.  He challenges the influence of key Western institutions, such as when he stated that he might not defend NATO members who hadn’t ‘fulfilled their obligations’ to America. As such the evidence is clear that Trump’s commitment to democracy, one of the most important features of Western civilisation, is incomplete or worse. 

Trump’s commitment to another key Western principle, constitutionalism and the rule of law, is little better. He has made it clear that he wants American forces to utilise torture, and to kill the families of suspected terrorists. Both of these clearly violate international law. He claimed that American born Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the Trump university case, is unfit to judge the case due to his Mexican heritage, a fragrant attack on judicial independence. Trump has also openly admitted that he would like to see the press subject to additional restrictions, and both he and his supporters have launched vitriolic attacks on critical journalists, most prominently Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. It’s reasonable to assume that this behaviour would continue, and perhaps even intensify, if Trump reaches the White House and gains control over the American state apparatus. Great power rarely has a restraining influence on rulers, and there’s little reason to think it will have this impact on Trump.

The ongoing Presidential election is the most important political event in my lifetime. The implications for America and the world, if a President is elected with little concern for Western values and institutions, are titanic. As such Americans from across the political spectrum need to come together and defend Western civilisation, and this means voting for the candidate who respects the democratic-constitutional values which form the basis of our civilisation, Hillary Clinton. Clinton clearly respects democracy, pluralism and the rule of law. Trump gives the impression that he does not. And right now that is virtually all that matters.


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Thursday, 5 January 2017

Why Conservatives should vote for Hillary

I wrote and posted this piece, on why American Conservatives should vote for Hillary Clinton, in October 2016. It went down pretty well, but after Trump’s election I wondered if I might have been too strident and removed the article. I now regret this removal, so here is the (somewhat dated) piece. For better or worse I’ve left it unmodified.

The 2016 American Presidential election has the potential to be a truly revolutionary moment in human history. And by revolutionary I mean comparable to the likes of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Bolshevik seizure of power in 2017. One of the two primary candidates will likely turn American’s foreign, and to a lesser extent domestic, policy on its head. They threaten the basic institutions of American Government, and the norms of her political discourse. Democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law – none of these mean much, perhaps not anything, to this candidate. And the candidate in question is describing himself as a Conservative – and has been nominated by the Republican Party. American Conservatives need to see this and fight, both for their country and to save some portion of their political reputations. 

Donald Trump is not a conservative. He’s a revolutionary. To be more specific he’s an authoritarian ultra-nationalist with an obsessional belief in his own right to power. This, in an American political context, makes him a revolutionary. Past American Presidents have accepted, or at least appeared to accept, liberal-democratic values. Admittedly the earlier Presidents didn’t accept them in their entirety, as they didn’t apply them to women or non-whites, but they did at least accept them for a section of the population. Trump gives the impression of actively detesting liberal-democratic values. The foreign leaders he admires are primarily authoritarian despots. He struggles to accept electoral defeat.  When he lost the first Republican primary in Iowa to Ted Cruz he claimed he was only beaten due to electoral fraud. He’s now making the same claim, with growing assertiveness and a consistent lack of evidence, about the Presidential election itself. He’s open about the fact he wants to imprison Hillary Clinton, his chief political opponent, advocates torture, wants to ban followers of a whole religion from entering America and increase restrictions on the press. He does not believe in, or care about, the American constitution.

The one good thing that can be said about Trump is that, in a key respect, he’s honest. He doesn’t hide his authoritarian leanings. He doesn’t quite say it openly, but his actions make it clear he’s running to be America’s dictator, not her President. That’s not to say that Trump will become a dictator if he wins, the strengths of the checks and balances in the American system should be strong enough to contain him, but I’m pretty confident that he’d like to. In this context there’s only one candidate that American Conservatives can support, to protect the American system from Trump’s authoritarian-nationalist revolution (and as a conservative I use the term ‘revolution’ in a largely pejorative sense). That’s the Democrat Party’s nominee Hillary Clinton. Forget third party candidates. Either Trump or Hillary is going to be the next President, and Americans should vote accordingly.

Clinton’s not a conservative. Instead she is a liberal, in many respects quite a right-wing liberal, but a liberal nonetheless. But this doesn’t matter all that much. I’m a British conservative, but I’d rather vote for the fairly ludicrous socialist Bernie Sanders than Trump. Sanders, like Clinton, largely respects America’s political institutions and values. Trump does not. As a result Trump doesn’t pass what I regard as the first hurdle to be accepted as the conservative candidate. Trump is certainly more classily conservative in many of his policy positions than Clinton (though he’s an unusually hard candidate to pin down on policy). But this doesn’t matter all that much. As long as his commitment to Western political institutions are questionable, and by God they are, no conservative should be able to support him.

The Republican party has long been regarded, around the world, as a defender of democratic and constitutional principles. The party of Lincoln and Reagan. But with Trump as it’s nominee I can no longer describe it as such with a straight face. And that’s why, despite my right-wing leanings, I implore American conservatives to vote for Clinton. America is still the land of the free. However after November’s Presidential election, this may no longer be the case.


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Does Donald Trump believe in democracy?

Does Donald Trump, President-elect of the United States, believe in democracy? A couple of years ago the idea that we’d be discussing whether a President-elect is a democrat would have seemed ludicrous. But then little about American politics has been normal in recent times. The American republic was founded on liberal-democratic principles, albeit not initially applied universally, and I’m confident that these principles have contributed to America’s exceptional success.

America hasn’t had a President since WWII, and probably not in her history, who didn’t at least pretend to adhere to democratic values. This could be about to change. The current President-elect has violated just about every core democratic principle, whilst going out of his way to befriend authoritarian dictators. Little about his politics has remained consistent, beyond an admiration for raw power. In short we need to confront what is staring us in the face. Donald Trump is not, by any sensible definition of the term, a believer in democracy. Only when we have acknowledged this uncomfortable truth can we appreciate what must be done to protect American institutions, and the republic itself, over the next four years.

For a democracy to succeed and remain stable certain democratic principles must be adhered to. Candidates must accept election results, conceding freely if they are electorally defeated. They should reject violence as a political tool, and encourage their supporters to do likewise. A free and independent media must be supported, acting as a link between candidates and the electorate and trying to hold candidates to account/ensure debate is rooted in objective truth. Finally where possible a degree of respect should be maintained between candidates, with argument focused on policy rather than personal attributes, whilst criticisms should be accepted.

During the Republican primaries and Presidential election Donald Trump smashed all these principles with all the subtlety of a rampaging gorilla. He repeatedly refused to say he would accept the result if he lost the Presidential election. At the Presidential debate in Las Vagas, when asked if he would respect the result, Trump replied ‘I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense’. He later pledged to accept the result ‘if I win’. Trump combined this with the aggressive promotion of the conspiracy theory, presented without any evidence whatsoever, that the election was rigged against him. He kept asserting, on social media, at rallies and during interviews, that the election was rigged in favour of Hillary Clinton. On 16 October he claimed that the election ‘is absolutely being rigged’ whilst on election day itself he told Fox News that there were voting machines where ‘you put down a Republican and it registers as a Democrat’. Back in February 2016, when he lost the Iowa Republican Primary to Ted Cruz, he made similar claims, stating that Cruz won due to ‘fraud’.

Trump also made statements which condoned or encouraged violence. He said he’d like to punch a protestor at one of his rallies ‘in the face’, and later claimed that ‘the Second Amendment People’ could do something if Clinton attempted to increase gun control, in what appeared to be a coded threat about her assassination. He went on to assert, using language which could have been stolen from the mouth of a Central Asian dictator, that he would like to have Clinton put in jail. During the second Presidential Debate, in one of many moments which should have torpedoed his campaign, after Clinton stated it was good that he wasn’t in charge of American law, Trump responded ‘Because you’d be in jail’.

Trump and his supporters launched attacks on the media, and individual journalists, which went well beyond normal democratic conduct. He described the media as ‘thieves and crooks’, said he would change libel law to make it easier to sue ‘dishonest’ (read critical) media organisations and launched almost demented attacks on individual journalists, most prominently Megyn Kelly of Fox News. He resolutely refused to respect any opponent, nor to tolerate criticism in the conventional manner.

Trump gave all of his most serious opponents an insulting nickname. ‘Little’ Marco Rubio, ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz and ‘Crooked’ Hillary Clinton. This was combined with the spreading of outrageous smears and conspiracy theories, without supporting evidence. Trump rose to political prominence promoting the racially tinged lie that President Obama was born outside America. He went on to link Ted Cruz’s father to the Kennedy assassination and to claim that Obama was the founder, and Hillary Clinton the co-founder, of ISIS. Moreover Trump has struggled to accept criticism in the conventional manner, and when attacked, as by impersonations on Saturday Night Live, he tends to lash out in retaliation.

In summary Trump has disregarded a number of the core tenants of democratic politics. He said he wouldn’t accept the election result if he lost, threatened to imprison his chief opponent, at times defended or even promoted violence and spread outrageous conspiracy theories without evidence. If there is any doubt about Trump’s attitude to democracy it’s worth taking a look at his overseas friends. Trump has gone out of his way to praise a number of authoritarian leaders, most vocally Russian dictator Vladamir Putin who he repeatedly praised both before and after the Presidential election. By contrast he has criticised the liberal-democratic leaders of a number of America’s traditional allies, accusing German Chancellor Angela Merkel of ‘ruining Germany’ and stating that he was unlikely to have a good relationship with then British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Alas the wright of evidence is too strong, and there’s nothing to be gained from self-deception. Donald Trump doesn’t believe in democracy, or at least not in any real sense of the word. He supports democracy as long as it helps him increase his power, as it did in November 2016. However when it fails to serve his interests, as appeared to be the case when he was polling badly, his support evaporates without explanation or excuse.

Having a President who doesn’t care for democracy doesn’t mean that American democracy, and associated institutions, are living on borrowed time. Democracy in America is impressively entrenched, and is protected by a wide range of safeguards (both constitutional and non-constitutional). However vigilance is required over the next four years, especially if events occur which significantly increase the executives power (such as a major terrorist attack or war). The safeguards of American democracy are powerless without people, including amongst the general public, being prepared to enforce them. Democratic republics, which once looked secure, have fallen before from ancient Rome to modern day Turkey. It would be na├»ve to think the American republic is exempt from the same forces. My view is that, given the chance, Donald Trump will undermine elements of American democracy. To what extent he is successful will depend on the actions of liberty loving Americans.


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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Predictions for 2017 – if you thought 2016 was bad you ain’t seen nothing yet

2016 was, in political terms, one hell of a year. It saw the greatest destabilisation of the world order since the fall of the USSR, and the most dramatic reversal for liberal-democratic values since WWII. The most important single event, on both counts, was the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. America is about to get a President who is narcissistic, deeply authoritarian, highly-unstable and who is not a democrat.  My last claim might be somewhat controversial, but it really shouldn’t be. During the Presidential election campaign Trump stamped on just about every democratic norm. He claimed the election was being rigged by his rivals, said he would imprison his chief opponent, constantly attacked the press, promoted outlandish conspiracy theories and even hinted at his opponent’s assassination. The foreign leaders Trump has done most to befriend and praise have predominantly been authoritarian-dictators, most prominently Russian President Vladamir Putin, giving us a good indication of his world view.

On top of the catastrophe in America the liberal-democratic order also took a battering in Europe. In parts of Eastern Europe, namely Poland and Hungary, authoritarian-nationalist governments continued to weaken liberal-democratic institutions. In Western and Central Europe parties of the radical right continued to make gains, and most dramatically the Austrian Freedom Party came close to winning the countries Presidency in May and December. Moreover the key institutions of the European liberal-democratic order, the European Union and NATO, were both weakened. Britain voted to leave the EU in June, becoming the first significant entity to do so. Also in December the Italian people voted against a proposed constitutional reform, leading to the resignation of the competent Matteo Renzi and a renewed threat from populists.

Authoritarian nationalism made further gains around the world. The Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte in May, who has pivoted his country away from its traditional alliance with America in favour of warmer relations with China and threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the United Nations. In addition following an unsuccessful coup attempt in July Turkish President Erdogan launched a massive crackdown on opposition, destroying much of what was left of the country’s civil society and open opposition to the regime. 

Russia has become increasingly assertive, with its hackers intervening in America’s Presidential election to help Trump (and showing how contemptuous Russia was about any response from Obama) whilst victories in Syria have re-established the country as a significant player in the Middle-East. The country’s economy continues to suffer due to Western sanctions, and ending these will doubtless be one of Putin’s top priorities for 2017. Meanwhile China continued to see impressive growth in both its economy and international standing, and as a successful state run along nationalist-authoritarian-capitalist lines offers a plausible alternative for developing countries to the liberal-democratic model. Moreover the country became increasingly assertive in promoting its territorial interests, most prominently in the South China Seas, increasing tensions with the United States.

So what do I predict for 2017? This is, of course, a perfect opportunity to make a fool of myself, and not one I’ve got any intention of missing. To retain some possibility of being credible I’m going to keep my estimations general, more about themes than specific events. The key developments in 2017 will, I believe, be the end of the post-Cold War international order and the continued decline of liberal-democratic values and institutions. For both these developments the single most important factor will be Donald Trump’s accession as President of the United States. Since the end of WWII America has played a crucial role in promoting liberal-democratic values, and in protecting the liberal-democratic world and the stability of the world order more generally. This is likely about to change. Trump is the first President since WWII, and perhaps even the first ever, who doesn’t at least pretend to believe in liberal-democratic values. He has made it clear that he intends to pursue a nationalistic foreign policy, possibly forging alliances with authoritarian powers such as Russia, and not necessarily defending traditional American allies including NATO members. America will probably cease to be the primary force for global stability, and the anchor of the existing world order, and may even become a destabilising force.

Another likely outcome of Trump’s Presidency will be increased political instability in the United States. Trump’s domestic policy is more traditionally Republican than his foreign policy (which is truly revolutionary). However when you combine it with Trump’s confrontational personal style, his authoritarianism and his past exploitation of white identity politics and racially provocative sentiment, it’s not hard to imagine how significant unrest could be triggered. Doubtless many Americans won’t think Trump has a mandate for radical change as he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes after all. However it’s very unlikely that Trump, or the Republican Party in general, will share this position. I would expect a powerful anti-Trump movement to develop, combining liberals, ethnic minorities, leftists and certain cultural figures. There will be large anti-Trump protests, some of which will turn violent, and a serious possibility of racial unrest. Obama as president has done his best to pour water on various disputes between black communities and the police. Trump may well choose petrol instead. Unless the Republican Party turns dramatically on Trump, and possibly even then, I’d expect America to be more politically and racially polarised by the end of 2017 than it was at the beginning.

In Europe I anticipate the key stories of 2017 to be the gains made by the radical right, and the corresponding weakening of the European Union and Eurozone. The current European order looks relatively unlikely to survive in the long-term, and whilst 2017 may not see it collapse I’d expect it to be badly shaken. There is an argument that the withdrawal of the American security guarantee by Trump will bring Europe closer together. Alas I suspect the EU is too divided and fragmented for this to happen, though close alliances between groups of European states could certainly form.

A toxic combination immigration/cultural concerns, Islamic fundamentalism and relative economic stagnation makes 2017 look very attractive for the radical right. The Freedom Party in the Netherlands, who’s leader wants to outlaw the Koran, has a decent chance of becoming the biggest single Dutch Parliamentary party in March, though it’s unlikely to end up in Government. Merkel will probably be re-elected in October, and then continue to form the core of the European order, though the radical right AfD party will likely enter Parliament for the first time. In Italy Parliamentary elections are possible following Renzi’s referendum defeat, and will likely see gains for both Beppe Grillo’s populist anti-Euro 5 Star Movement, and the anti-immigrant Northern League. If these forces hold the balance of power it could cause a crisis in the Eurozone as a whole, especially if it looks like Italy will hold a referendum on Euro membership. Even if this doesn’t happen fresh elections, should they take place, will put a lot of pressure on the Italian banking system.

The most significant European election in the next year, the one that could truly explode a stick of dynamite under the existing European order, is the French Presidential election in April/May. If the nationalist Marine Le Pen wins it’s hard to imagine either the EU or Eurozone surviving in the long-term in their present form. Even a victory for Le Pen’s chief rival, the centre-right Francois Fillon, will have major implications for European politics as he favours warmer relations with Russia. Last Autumn I argued that there is a greater than 50% chance that a revolutionary event would happen in the next year, by which I meant either Trump getting elected in America or Le Pen in France. I never really expected Trump to win, whilst I always thought a Le Pen victory very possible.

France’s economy has been stagnating for the past few years, she has a problem with Islamist terrorism which borders on an insurgency and she has clearly become a junior partner in European politics after Germany. Moreover some on the left may find it difficult to vote for Francois Fillon, a strong free marketer, in order to stop Le Pen, whose economic policies are closer to their own. All the European parties of the radical right are likely to gain from the worsening relations between the West and the Islamic world under President Trump. If Le Pen wins the post-WWII order in Western Europe is truly finished, and France and Germany could plausibly become rival powers for the first time since 1945. In addition the other key European power, Britain, is already planning to destabilise the European order by leaving the European Union. This, combined with the almost inevitable EU/UK clashes during exit negotiations, will reduce the UK’s influence in Europe and ability to assist liberal-democratic partners.

2017 is also likely to see a significant increase in tensions between America and China. Under Obama’s Presidency these two powers were essentially hostile, but with a stable relationship. Under Trump this hostility is likely to intensify, and the stability will be removed. Trump has been deeply critical of Chinese policy. He has accused the country of stealing American jobs through unfair trade practices, whilst Trump has violated America’s longstanding ‘One China’ policy by speaking to the President of Taiwan. It will be particularly difficult for Chinese President Xi Jinping to show weakness this year, due to ongoing internal issues related to his leadership. There are a number of potential flashpoints between the two powers, including trade, the South China Seas, North Korea and Taiwan. A trade war or military build-up between the two powers is certainly possible.  

Correspondingly Trump looks likely to improve American relations with Russia, considering his behaviour during the Presidential election and his personal warmth towards Putin, and might weaken or withdraw American sanctions. This, combined by the reluctance of European powers to confront him, may well lead to an increase in Russian involvement in European politics, with a particular focus on increasing Russian influence in Eastern Europe. Russia already has good relations with Greece and Cyprus, whilst candidates sympathetic to Russia have recently won Presidential elections in Bulgaria and Moldova. There is some risk of a confrontation emerging from a misunderstanding. Under Obama/Bush it was clear that Russia could intervene militarily in non-NATO member states (Ukraine and Georgia), but that an attack on a NATO state would trigger conflict. As a result of Trump’s friendship with Putin, and questionable commitment to NATO, it is no longer clear what the red lines are. Thus the potential for a misunderstanding is greater, though I’m not sure Putin will want to trigger a crisis during Trump’s first year. In addition Russia’s economy has suffered significantly due to Western sanctions, so Putin may well prioritise good behaviour in an attempt to get these sanctions lifted.

2017 may also see increased Indian regional assertiveness. The Indian economy is estimated to have grown by over 7% in 2016, a spectacular figure, and similar success is anticipated for 2017. Increased Indian influence in South Asia, provided it doesn’t lead to conflict with Pakistan, would be no bad thing. India is the world’s largest democracy, with developed liberal-democratic institutions. The country is governed by a Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi, but thus far there are no indications that he is trying to undermine Indian democracy. As long as this continues India could become an increasingly important liberal-democratic power in South-Asia, perhaps counterbalancing the authoritarian-nationalist power of China. Considering India’s size, human capital and economic growth rate developments in Indian politics could be crucial to the future of liberal-democracy as a system of government, probably second in importance only to what happens in the United States.

So to sum up if you didn’t like the key political developments of 2016, and I certainly didn’t, I suspect you’re unlikely to think much of 2017. America looks set to step away from her post-WWII leadership of the liberal-democratic world, and adopt a foreign policy based around self-interested nationalism and protectionism. This is likely to result in increased tensions between America and the rising world power, China. Without guaranteed American protection European security with be greatly weakened, and it’s unlikely the EU has the unity or ability to pick up the slack. Moreover parties of the radical right look set to make significant gains in Europe, especially if (as seems likely) the current wave of Islamist terrorist attacks continues. This, combined with tensions inherent in the Eurozone (and the fact that populists are pushing in opposite directions in Northern and Southern Europe), means the European project will probably weaken and could start to disintegrate. The latter is particularly likely if Le Pen wins the French Presidential election, and if this happens Britain will be the only remaining permanent member of the UN Security Council which isn’t ruled by an authoritarian nationalist. In short I’m not saying you need to get digging yet but, if you’ve got a bit of spare time, it probably wouldn’t hurt.

If you found this interesting you might like to follow me on Twitter: @JBickertonUK

P.S. If you've made it this far then congratulations. I wrote way too much!


Sunday, 1 January 2017

Len McCluskey’s Marxist case for reduced immigration

Recently, the Morning Star published something interesting and original. Improbable for the in-house journal of the British far-left, a group whose usual conception of an original idea is a slightly new reading of Trotsky, but true none-the-less. And no I’m not referring to the publications recent unhinged decision to describe the carpet bombing and wholesale destruction of Aleppo as a ‘liberation’. Stranger still the piece was written by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union, whose biggest contribution to British politics to date has been his efforts to facilitate Jeremy Corbyn’s disastrous stint as Labour Party leader. The piece presented the Marxist case for tightly controlled immigration. Considering the difficulty the Labour Party has been having connecting with its working-class base on immigration and associated issues of identity, its surprised this argument hasn’t been made more assertively before.     

McCluskey asserts that, at some point in the future, people will be able to ‘move freely across the world and live or work where they will’. For this to happen apparently ‘international economic planning and public ownership’ will be required, which sounds like a great way to #MakeEarthPoorAgain but there we are. Alas this workers utopia is apparently some way off, as always seems to be the case, meaning that short-term compromises are required.

MsCluskey asserts that ‘the free movement of labour is a class question’. His argument is as follows: Capitalists have been utilising globalisation to undermine the bargaining position of the British working class, either by using the threat of exporting jobs to the third world to undermine pay and working conditions or importing overseas workers who are prepared to work for less. McCluskey is blunt, and surely correct, when he points out that the immigration of workers from poorer countries, who are prepared to work for less, undermines the bargaining power of British workers. This is particularly likely to be the case in relatively unskilled professions, as poorer migrants are less likely to have the education/training to compete in higher professions. This creates a difference in class attitudes to migration between the working-class, who disproportionately loose out, and the wealthy who tend to gain. Or, as McCluskey puts it, the benefits of migration ‘are easier to see in Muswell Hill than they are in Middlesbrough’.

Regarding the outsourcing of jobs McCluskey asserts that ‘Anyone who has had to negotiate for workers…knows the huge difficulties that have been caused by the ability of capital to move production around the world’. Essentially because capital is more mobile than labour, as is generally the case, the capitalist enjoys a comparative advantage when negotiating with the worker. This is combined with ‘the elite’s use of immigration’, which ensures ‘a plentiful supply of cheap labour…for those jobs that can’t be exported elsewhere’. Thus employers use a combination of the threat of outsourcing jobs from the UK, and their ability to hire overseas workers with relative ease, to reduce wages and working conditions in certain UK industries, generally those which are low skilled and so can be relocated/re-staffed without difficulty.

Now I’m not sure McCluskey’s proposed solution will resolve the problem. He thinks UK employers should only be able to recruit foreign labour ‘if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining’. But what really matters is that he’s recognised the strength of concern over this issue. I would argue that one of the most dangerous facets of politics in the UK, and the wider Western world, in the past few decades has been the extent to which the political establishment, both right-wing and left-wing, have ceased to represent majority opinion on immigration. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of the British population want immigration to be either dramatically reduced, or stopped altogether.

Yet the centre-right remains pro-immigration as it’s useful to business, whilst the centre-left holds the same position due to internationalist principles. As a result a significant section of the population of Western countries has felt ignored, and is now striking out. This partially explains Brexit and Trump, and the probable gains which the European radical right is expected to make this year. The gulf between elite and public opinion on the issue of immigration is starting to do a lot of damage, and is undermining the current Western political order.

Thus it’s refreshing to see an argument for migration policy reform coming from the left, even if it is from a Marxist angle. I don’t agree with McCluskey on much, but his arguments here are logically coherent and I dare say rather more in tune with the majority of Labour voters than those of the Labour leadership. I’m in the somewhat unusual position of being broadly pro-immigration for centre-right reasons. I think it’s been good for British business, and hence for the economy in general. Yet I’ve become very concerned about the extent of the divide between public and elite opinion on this issue, and about the associated backlash which is happening across the Western world. It’s reassuring to see that some on the left share my concerns.


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Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Trump/Putin bromance is based around shared values, not interests

The foreign leader who President-elect Donald Trump has done most to befriend and defend, both during the Presidential election and afterwards, is Russian dictator Vladamir Putin. This, like so much of what Trump has done, is unprecedented for a senior American politician. However it’s never been in his short-term interest to do so. Trump has been prepared to associate himself with Putin despite the hostility of the mainstream Republican Party, the American security establishment and the majority of the American people. This indicates that to Trump, this relationship matters, and matters enough to be worth taking a political hit for. In short Trump is allying with Putin not because it makes strategic sense, or is a geopolitical necessity, but because he sees in Putin a kindred spirit who shares his world view. This tells us a great deal, little of it comforting, about Trump’s likely foreign policy and attitude to governing.  

Trump’s admiration for Putin goes back a long way. In October 2007 he told CNN’s Larry King that Putin was ‘doing a great job rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period’. In June 2013, ahead of a ‘Miss Universe Pagent” he organised in Moscow, Trump asked his followers on Twitter whether they thought Putin would be attending, and ‘if so, will he become my new best friend?’ The relationship developed after Trump became a serious contender for the Republican Presidential nomination, blossoming into one of mutual public praise. In December 2015 Putin described Trump as the ‘absolute leader in the Presidential race’ and ‘talented without doubt’. Trump swiftly showed his appreciation, stating that it was ‘a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond’ and later in the month defending Putin from accusations he had murdered political opponents.

During this time evidence that Russia was giving practical assistance to Trump’s campaign mounted. In particular security sources began suggesting that Russia was behind the hacking of internal Democratic National Committee emails, which were subsequently released by Wikileaks. Trump responded not by voicing concerns about a foreign power potentially interfering in the American electoral process, but by calling on Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton’s emails as well. Even after his election, when it became clear that both the FBI and CIA believed Russia was behind the hacking, with the explicit intention of helping Trump, the President-elect continued to deny Russian involvement. When President Obama responded to the hacking allegations by expelling Russian diplomats, Trump praised Putin for the ‘Great move’ of not responding in kind, stating ‘I always knew he was very smart!’

Trump’s warm relationship with the Russian leader becomes starker still when we compare it to his attitude towards the leaders of a number of America’s closest allies, leaders who clearly adhere to liberal-democratic values. In December 2015 he accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of ‘ruining Germany’, and Trump went on to tell Piers Morgan that he was unlikely to have a good relationship with then British Prime Minister David Cameron after he criticised Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering America. Trump’s rows with American allies show that his warmness towards Putin can’t be attributed to his unusually diplomatic nature, nor to some friendly and personable nature.

Trump’s friendly relationship with Putin has undoubtedly been politically damaging to him, showing how determined he has been to maintain it. It is one of the issues which has most strained his relationship with traditional Republican leaders, and especially the party’s foreign policy hawks. Indeed until recently Trump was virtually the only significant Republican advocating a closer relationship with Putin, whilst most of the party, and especially its right-wing, criticised Obama for being too weak in response to Russian aggression.

Putin is also unpopular amongst the American public, and until quite recently this overwhelmingly included supporters of the Republican Party. Trump has pretty much single-handedly affected a major change in attitudes to Putin amongst Republican support. Until recently he had a met approval amongst Republican voters of -66. Now it’s down to just -10, whilst the proportion of Republicans with a positive view of Trump has increased from 10% in 2014 to 37% this December. What’s clear is that it’s never really been in Trump’s interest to be so friendly towards Putin, showing that he’s done so for reasons of ideological conviction rather than self-interest. Trump’s relationships with the Republican leadership, and the American media and security establishment, have all been damaged by his affection towards Putin. Moreover it remains an unpopular position amongst the public, and despite a dramatic improvement in his ratings even a majority of Republican voters continue to hold negative views of Putin.

Trump has gone out of his way to praise Putin, despite the political damage this has caused him, because they see the world in the same way and share a similar value system. They both, in summary, subscribe to broadly the same ideology. Trump and Putin are both anti-liberal authoritarian nationalists. Both men believe that the culture and power of their respective countries is threatened by a combination of social liberalism and foreign influences (linked in America to immigration and in both countries to Islamic fundamentalism). Both wish to restore their nation to match an era of past-greatness, reflecting some combination of the Russian Empire and the USSR for Putin and the post-WWII period for Trump. In addition Trump and Putin both share an innate authoritarianism, a belief in their own indispensability to their respective nations and a questionable or hostile attitude towards democratic institutions and norms.

Putin and his allies have undermined Russia’s democratic institutions, which were admittedly already weak, to the point where democracy in Russia is clearly no more than a sham. Similarly during the Presidential election campaign Trump attacked or disregarded many of the norms of American democracy. He stated that his opponent should be imprisoned, argued that the election was rigged against him when it appeared he might lose and launched aggressive and continuous attacks on the media. His rhetoric was that of the standard demagogue, and if you change a few key words his speeches could have been delivered by a Latin American strongman or Central Asian dictator.

In summary Trump’s friendly attitude towards Putin isn’t the result of shared interests, or real politic, but because they share similar values. The two men have a very similar understanding of how power works, and how the world ought to be run, and as a result Trump has been prepared to associate himself with Putin despite the political damage this has caused him. This doesn’t necessarily mean Trump and Putin will always get on. 
Authoritarian nationalists have a tendency to fall out badly when their interests become incompatible.  But it does mean we should be wary of Trump’s intentions and sceptical of his interest in defending liberal-democratic values or America’s constitutional principles. I’ve advise American defenders of democracy to spend the next four years sleeping with one eye open.  


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