Of course globalisation and inequality are important in explaining the proximate causes of Brexit and Trump. But neither event is an aberration: a moment of madness in an otherwise sea of rationality and evidence based policy making. And after each of these events, you do not find those from the political right doing all they can to return to political sanity. History is often as much about those who let things pass as about those who made them happen.
Only one Conservative MP voted against triggering Article 50, even though probably a majority of Tory MPs support remaining in the EU. Forget having to respect the ‘will of the people’. These MPs were not just agreeing to leave the EU, they were also agreeing to a hard Brexit which meant leaving the Single Market and giving up any say in how we leave the EU. None of that was on the ballot paper in the referendum. If they had wanted to, they could have joined with Labour in voting for amendments that put some limits on the power of the executive. An executive that has openly speculated about going for the hardest Brexit possible. But almost all chose not to. It is also no accident that the only Conservative MP to stand up to the Brexit bandwagon and vote against triggering Article 50 was Ken Clarke, a Conservative of bygone days.
In the US, once Trump had been elected, the Republican party largely rallied round ‘their man’. This might be normal behaviour, but Trump was no normal candidate. If ever there was a man temperamentally ill-suited for the office and totally unprepared for it, this was Trump. Yet their attitude before the election and in his few weeks in power seems to be that as long as he passes substantial tax cuts for the rich and deregulates banks, they are prepared to keep their fingers crossed that he does not do anything stupid like start a war with Iran or China.
The acceptance of Trump and Brexit by the political right is not surprising because they have laid so much of the groundwork for these events. The reason why nearly all Republicans could never bring themselves to say to voters that Trump was too dangerous and that they should vote for Clinton was because of what that party had become over the last few decades. It has been the Republican party that has steadily abused the machinery of government to get their own way, whether it involves nominees to the supreme and other courts or refusing to extend the deficit limit (but only when a democrat is in the White House, of course). It is they that have started acting as a unified bloc in Congress, with the only aim of stopping a democratic president doing anything. Thus a health care regime original put together by Republican Mitt Romney became evil when Obama essentially adopted it. A party that had done nothing to limit the power of a propaganda machine that they helped create, a machine which would eventually become a cheerleader for the outsider the party did not want. A party that started post-truth or alternative facts by backing climate change deniers, among other things.
The drift of the Republican party from being liberal to illiberal, from being secular to Christian, from being environmentally aware to climate change deniers, from supporting minorities to attacking ‘welfare queens’, did not happen all at once but has been a steady process. Of course there were key moments in that process, such as Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’, Reagan’s adoption of tax cuts for the rich that would ‘pay for themselves’ and neoliberalism more generally, to the Tea Party most recently. But the process has been all one way with few attempts to stop it.
The same is true for the UK, except perhaps less obviously so because the UK media too often hype the rhetoric and not the consequences of actions. We typically think of Margaret Thatcher as representing a clear break from more traditional conservatism. But this is not the whole story. For a start, although Thatcher changed the way Prime Ministers started talking about the EU, Thatcher in office was no Eurosceptic, and helped create the single market and the expansion to the east. Second, Thatcher did not lead a party of Thatcherites. Her successor, John Major, was a compromise candidate between the Thatcherite and more traditionally conservative factions. Major was a committed European, who would never have offered the Eurosceptics a referendum even though they plagued his time as PM. I doubt very much that he would have been prepared to lead his party out of the EU, yet nowadays it goes almost unremarked that Theresa May would take the country on a course that she earlier said would do it harm, just for the sake of power and the party. May whose flagship policy is to undo the work of Thatcher and replace comprehensive schools with the 11+, and who admirers compare to Enoch Powell. Not to mention Boris Johnson, who so obviously led the Brexit campaign he didn’t believe in only so he could become PM. From a Prime Minister whose father owned a couple of grocery shops and became first a chemist and then a conviction politician, to another Bullingdon boy born to wealth who will say whatever gets him power. We have moved well beyond Thatcher.
Although the 2010 Conservatives posed as ‘not the nasty party’, in reality they took policy even further to the right than Thatcher had done. Cameron may have hugged a husky, but his policies told a different story, and he even appointed a climate change denier as Environment minister. The 2010 government embarked on needless austerity, taking resources from everyone and causing acute harm among the poor. It was a Conservative chancellor who encouraged viewing benefit claimants as lazy skivers. It was a Conservative minister and Brexit supporter that imposed a sanctions regime and other welfare reforms that caused suffering previous Conservative ministers would have thought shameful. They tried to deflect blame for all this by hyping the evils of immigration, setting targets they had no intention of keeping because it would cause too much damage to UK business to do so. But these targets were maintained to appease the hard right, embarrass Labour and deflect criticism of austerity. The effects of starving the NHS could be blamed on the health tourist. Imagine what more they would have done if they hadn’t been in coalition. And above all else (as far as Brexit was concerned) they continued to court newspaper owners despite their obvious hatred for the EU.
In the UK the demonisation of the immigrant was not just the work of the Tory tabloids, but also given the stamp of official approval by a Conservative government. Cameron couldn’t warn of the dangers of cutting back EU immigration during the referendum when a large cut in immigration was government policy. The scarring of whole parts of the country was something this increasingly right wing party had done nothing about. Both were critical in allowing Brexit.
We can say, in both the US and UK, that this is about neoliberalism, implying this has replaced the principles of traditional conservatism. However I suspect in many cases that creed is simply a cover to disguise a far simpler motive of protecting and increasing the wealth of the rich. What we have seen is the steady replacement of principles with policies solely designed to gain votes and power to achieve that end. The decline of principled politics and the rise of politics for the rich is not unique to the right, but it is much more obvious there. It was not the Democrats who gave Trump a path to power, and it was not Labour who offered a referendum, or are leading the UK out of the EU.
All this does not go unnoticed by the electorate. They become justifiably cynical about Washington or Westminster. This lays the groundwork for either outsiders who seem to have so much of their own wealth that they are incorruptible, or a protest vote led by a politician whose main virtue is that he makes people laugh. It leads to MPs so desperate for power that they would leave their liberal principles at home and support what is bound to lead to an isolated Britain at the coattails of Donald Trump. A country that seems to be effectively run by a group of 59 MPs whose hatred of Europe dominates all else. And Republicans who stand back while their President cosies up to Russia, threatens trade wars and undoes years of hard work by trying to enact what he described as a Muslim ban.
Of course politicians have always compromised principles to some extent to achieve power. But for the politicians on the right who let Brexit or Trump pass unchallenged, it is not clear what principles remain beyond their own career. Why this seems to have happened so completely on the right in the UK and US is not clear. Is it, as Roy Hattersley suggests, the availability of instant polls and focus groups which make it so easy just to follow popular opinion in order to get elected. Or is it the growing influence of money. Or perhaps even the gradual death of the empathy for others created by WWII. Whatever it is, it is about time we recognised and lamented the passing of conservative principles and their replacement with whatever policies they can get away with to make the rich richer and to keep power. Unfortunately we are all about to reap what this death has helped sow.