This post is a response to a provocative piece by Anatole Kaletsky. He writes
“While the US has taken only 100 days to see through Trump’s “alternative reality” (though perhaps not through Trump himself), almost nobody in Britain is even questioning the alternative reality of Brexit.”
In other words, although both the US and UK succumbed to right wing populism, the US is strongly resisting while the UK has given up doing so. He contrasts the reaction of business to Trump and Brexit. “US businesses started lobbying immediately to block any Trump policies that threatened their economic interests” which has “removed Trump’s main protectionist threat.” In contrast “no major British companies have tried to protect their interests by campaigning to reverse the Brexit decision. None has even publicly pointed out that the referendum gave Prime Minister Theresa May no mandate to rule out membership of the European single market and customs union after Britain leaves the EU.”
One reaction that many will have is that while US elections are 4 year affairs, a referendum was meant to be ‘for a generation’. If the Leave vote had been 60% or more, I might have some sympathy with this view. But the narrow victory coupled with uncertainty about what Brexit actually entails means that the argument for a vote after negotiations conclude is compelling. But only around 30% of people support being allowed a second vote. In contrast, currently 56% of US voters disapprove of Donald Trump.
You could say this is because Donald Trump has done plenty of things for US voters to get angry about, whereas Brexit has not happened. I would put the point rather differently. The problems with Trump are visible to everyone. You just need to read his tweets! The costs of Brexit are economic and less clear to everyone. For example the depreciation immediately after Brexit was very visible, but you needed some knowledge of economics to know that this would mean lower living standards for everyone living in the UK.
This gets translated into how each are handled in the media. The New York Times and the Washington Post are in the front line against Trump, while if you want information on how Brexit is damaging the economy you will find plenty of it in the Financial Times. But that negative news does not normally make it into the broadcast media, because the broadcast media has decided that the Brexit debate is over. The reason it has done that is the real reason why the UK appears to have given in to Brexit, which is the Labour party.
It is difficult to get ideas discussed in a sustained way in the broadcast media unless one of the two major political parties is pushing it (see, for example, opposition to austerity before Corbyn). In contrast to the Democrats, who have been unified in their opposition to Trump, Labour have accepted Hard Brexit. It would be unfair to dump the whole responsibility for Labour’s Brexit U-turn on Jeremy Corbyn. Many Labour MPs pushed in the same direction because they thought it would gain them votes: austerity appeasement all over again. I think a strong leader who believed in EU membership could have overcome that, but Corbyn’s preferences were different.
As a result, we have had a general election supposedly about who will be best at negotiating Brexit without any discussion of Brexit itself. Despite the LibDems best efforts, there has been no discussion of all the events since the referendum which indicate bad times ahead, as outlined by Ian Dunt. There has been endless discussion about how taxes and spending might change under Labour or the Conservatives, but none about the elephant in the room: the cuts or tax increases that Brexit and lower immigration will require. There is a hope, expressed by Bill Keegan, that today’s vote may lead to a hung parliament, which in turn might just lead to a second referendum, but it is a very slim hope.
It may also be the only hope. George Eaton may well be right that Labour’s decision to back a Hard Brexit has helped them in this election. The danger is that Labour will draw the lesson that this will be true in 2022 as well, and their new leader (if there is a new leader) will also commit to hard Brexit. Again the austerity mistake will be repeated: assuming the electorate's attitudes will remain unchanged. If that happens, we may well see in four years time a rejuvenated US with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans routed because of their association with Trump, but a UK entering a long period of relative decline and isolation because it gave in to right wing populism.