An awful lot of economics boils down to demographics – the affordability of a modern welfare state being a prominent example – but a surprising amount of politics can also be linked to well-observed demographic trends. An ageing population, of the kind typically found in the West, and especially in Western Europe, is more likely to shift to the right and be more susceptible to the charms of nationalism than one that is young and, often as not, more ethnically mixed and recently arrived on the shores of the “host” nation. Thus it was that the middle aged and older voters – also invariably more prosperous and inclined to vote than their children and grandchildren – won it for Brexit, Trump and a whole car boot sale of radical rightists in elections throughout the Free world this year. With important elections scheduled next year in Italy, the Netherlands, France and Germany, 2016 should be remembered as the year the radical right, tinged sometimes with red or green strains of populism, started to mobilise in earnest.
If anything, it is the young, with smaller savings, renting their flats and looking forward to a tougher economic world of casualised employment, stagnating wages and living standards who have far more to lose from globalisation, leastways in the short term, than their grey-haired fellow citizens. And yet, voting for Remain in Britain, for Hillary in the US and for mainstream social democratic or conservative parties in Europe, they have supported an internationalism the old have grown weary of.
The generation of baby-boomers who enjoyed the best of economic growth after the Second World War, free higher education, rising property values and a generous welfare state and final-salary company pensions are the gloomiest about the state of their nations and the direction they are taking. The French are exceptionally glum, with hardly any rating their country as the best in the world in opinion polls, and overwhelmingly believing that it is going in the wrong direction.
Something, clearly, has gone wrong with the dynamics of democratic politics. It is for another essay another time to survey the wreckage of the social democratic left, especially in Europe, virtually irrelevant in so many places where it was, not so long ago, the natural party of government. Jeremy Corbyn, Francois Hollande and Peer Steinbrueck have led the march out of relevance.
At first glance, the prospects for the right in 2017 – a varied bag at the best of times – are not as rosy as they might be. In Austria the far-right Freedom Party candidate was prevented from becoming the nation’s ceremonial figurehead president, beaten by an avuncular environmentalist. In France all the signs are that Marine Le Pen and the Front National will be stopped by a grand alliance between the mainstream Socialists and Republicans uniting behind a single candidate for the presidency, most probably Francois Fillon or the centrist Emmanuel Macron. In the Netherlands,
Geert Wilders was recently convicted of a race hate crime and leads the most popular party in the country, though it has no chance of governing on its own in the Dutch splintered party system. Alternative fur Deutschland will no doubt make much political capital out of the terror attack in Berlin, but Angela Merkel is most likely to end the year where she began it, leading Germany, Europe and the West towards a safer, more liberal future.
So there will be many sighs of relief in Europe in 2017 as the right is, apparently, beaten back. Yet, hydra-like, the radical right is unlikely to give up and is capable of evolving to capitalise on popular worries about globalisation, economic change, de-industrialisation, sudden waves of migration and the fear of terror – always exaggerated in the minds of worried citizens. In fact, the astonishingly striking thing is how much progress the radical right has made in political life. Groups that a few years ago would be dismissed, as David Cameron once derided Ukip, as a motley crew of fruitcakes and closet racists have become mainstream. They seem authentic. They reflect back voters’ bar-room prejudices and simplicities. They are happy to blame others, especially outsiders and foreign powers, for their nations’ problems.
There is a pattern among so many leaders in democratic or semi-democratic states who have already come to power, or close to it, on a nationalistic agenda to “make their country great again”. The list is long, and in its way impressive: Donald Trump, soon, in the US; Narendra Modi in India; Vladimir Putin in Russia; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Recep Erdogan in Turkey; even Beata Szydło and her Law and Justice Party in Poland. One might even add Nicola Sturgeon and her own soft brand of nationalism in Scotland, as well as all the other separatist movements across the world gradually breaking up old nation states and federations. Even Theresa May had a wobbly moment in her conference speech when she patronised foreigners in Britain as “citizens of nowhere” (angering especially the governor of the Bank of England, an urbane Canadian). All have some degree of nationalism at their core, through it is fair to say that ethnic and religious identity is not always a strong feature of their platforms.
Elsewhere in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and across much of the rest of the world, leaders are happy to make the most of the patriotism, religious fervour and pride of people for their own agendas. ‘Twas always thus, but not so often in the past in such an unpromising economic environment as today.
The worry for the longer term must be – where will the disaffected voters go once they become convinced that the likes of Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin have betrayed them? Will they then reject democracy as a system? When so much ordure is poured over “corrupt” democratic politicians making unsavoury deals in the “swamp”, one should not be so surprised when the voters give up on the whole game. In the UK the resentments over the MPs’ expenses scandals – “duck houses” and the like – are still raw, and eroding faith in politics, almost a decade on from the revelations.
The pattern, then, is of mainstream parties in democracies giving ground, appeasing or losing power to parties of a populist, usually rightist and nationalistic stripe. In undemocratic states, from little Cuba and North Korea to mighty China and Iran, the same impetus is there, the panto villains usually being the Yankees (who may soon once again live up to the neo-imperialist stereotype). Even if the Five Star Movement in Italy (led by a former comedian), Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders don’t win their elections outright, their voices will be loud enough to distort and reshape conventional politics, and in particular attitudes to the EU, immigration and free trade. None can be counted as forces for good in the world; none can be counted out just because they didn’t win power outright in 2016 or 2017; none should be underestimated.
A world where it can be considered a mercy if a neo-fascistic party “only” wins 30 per cent or 48 per cent of the vote is not a world safe for peace and prosperity. If 2016 proved anything it is that the voters are getting tired and weary of old parties and old solutions. Dangerous stuff.
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