This is a post about the political situation in 2016 and it’s root causes. It is written from the perspective of a UK citizen.
It’s been a strange year. We have experienced two major political upsets – Brexit and Trump, and there is almost certainly more to come. In the weeks following the US election, the Italian Prime Minister lost his job in a referendum vote, and Marine Le Pen is expected to make major gains in the French elections in April.
It seems that collectively, we’ve had enough. People say they’ve had enough of listening to experts, enough of unelected bureaucrats and enough of all our jobs going abroad or being taken by immigrants. In the UK, we were told that leaving the EU would hurt us financially but we did it anyway. In the US, Hillary Clinton was the most qualified presidential candidate ever, having already spent eight years in the White House alongside her husband, and another four years as Secretary of State. But a vote for Hillary was also a vote for the status quo, so she lost to business man and TV celebrity with no political experience at all.
There are many different causes behind these events, but I believe the biggest part of it is that the concerns and needs of the public have repeatedly been ignored in favour of other interests, and it’s been going on for too long. As a result of this, there are major issues of trust and engagement between the public and the political system.
In 2003, the UK went to war despite the largest public protests seen in decades. To try and make the case for war, the Government published intelligence that led us to believe that Saddam Hussein was developing chemical weapons and was a direct threat to the UK and the rest of the world.
Many people were suspicious of the intelligence at the time, but we didn’t quite live in an era where we knew we could be lied to or misled. An official inquiry examined the evidence and found that one part of the intelligence described chemical weapons made up of glass spheres. No chemical weapons have ever been made like that, except in the well-known Nic Cage and Sean Connery thriller ‘The Rock’. The thought of inaccurate intelligence being used to justify a war is obscene, but 10 years later no-one seems to care. The media report on it, but everything goes on as before.
Then came the 2008 financial crash. Enabled by Clinton-era deregulation, bad maths and cocaine-fuelled greed, a chain reaction of bad debt crippled global banking organisations. The situation was so bad that countries had to bail out their banks with unthinkable sums of money.
Once again, people took to the streets in protest. In the US, the Occupy movement set up camp in cities across the country. Their slogan was “We are the 99%”, highlighting the rising inequality between the ultra-rich 1% who control large corporations and exert enormous influence on our political system.
In the UK alone, our bank bailout cost £500 billion, doubling the national debt and pushing it past the £1 trillion mark. And just like having too much personal debt, we are now struggling to pay off what we owe because of the size of the interest payments.
Following the financial crash, things got really interesting. Internet activists like Aaron Schwartz took on the establishment, trying to free up information and prevent profiteering from publicly funded research. Julian Assange took things even further and started to serve up classified communications between governments and the military. With the Arab Spring, countries used social media to organise protests and overthrow regimes.
It was a bumpy ride. Many felt people felt that Wikileaks was damaging and destabilising, but whichever way you feel about it, it can’t be denied that we now know more about what goes on behind closed doors, and have a clearer picture of the difference between what the public gets told and what is actually taking place. And underlying it all was an optimistic sense that the public might get some power back, and bring society back into a true democracy.
So where are we now? The people who brought about the Iraq war are no longer in power. Tony Blair was heavily criticised in the Chilcot Inquiry, but that is as far as it went. War has spread from Afghanistan to Syria, and caused the worst devastation yet.
The bank bailout is now old news. No-one wants to hear people complaining about it any more, despite the fact that it’s caused massive national debt. Economies are so fragile that Governments have cut taxes and interest rates down to the bone, hoping people will continue going to the shops. At the same time, the need for austerity means significant public spending cutbacks. Against a backdrop of increased need from an ageing population, the UK now has major NHS problems and a social care crisis.
Even worse, nearly a decade after the crisis, none of the banking safeguards have been restored. It could all happen again. There should have been global coordination t fix this, but apparently we don’t have a mechanism for that. Or, perhaps it wasn’t even seriously attempted. In the US under George W. Bush, the Treasury Department was controlled by investment bankers. And other countries who wanted to regulate were faced with a problem – if they did it and others didn’t follow, they would be disadvantaging their own financial institutions against the rest of the world.
Internet activism has been almost completely destroyed. Aaron Schwartz committed suicide while under heavy pressure during a prosecution brought for theft of information. Julian Assange is a wanted man and is in limbo in the Ecuadorian embassy. 4Chan are still around but are less focused and coordinated.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that democracy has broken down in my country, there are major problems. The last 15 years has made it very clear that we are not being listened to, or told what the real agenda is behind events. Every now and then a speech is made that says “we are listening, and we will build a society that works for everyone”. Theresa May did this, and threw in a few ideas like putting workers on company boards. Then quietly it was all pushed under the carpet, deemed to be impractical or too heavy-handed. So we’re now faced with a population that isn’t prepared to tow the line any more. The relationship has broken down on both sides. Protest votes are now very common and set to continue.
Not only are governments out of touch with the public, they are out of touch with the changed world, having been overtaken and sidelined by global finance, military and technology corporations that are now extremely powerful, and play a major part in all of our lives. No government will admit it, but their powers are greatly diminished, sometimes simply by the rather obvious limitation of being an entity from a single country compared to corporations that span the globe.
People are punishing governments for failing to prevent their jobs from moving abroad or being automated, but governments are almost powerless to prevent it. We have embraced Capitalism in it’s purest form – neo-liberalism. Decades later, the absolute minimum of rules or regulations now stand in it’s way. Globalisation is here to stay.
In part 2 of this series, I’ll look into how the British political system can adapt to the modern world and suggest how to restore faith and re-engage with the public