The parallels are striking. Bothw were global and political giants. Now both must adjust to their loss of influence.
June 14, 2017
Events last Thursday on the two sides of the Atlantic were at once momentous and in some ways connected. In Washington the former FBI director James Comey used his open hearing before the Senate intelligence committee to call the president of the United States a liar – an astonishing act of lese-majesty. Meanwhile, at Westminster, Theresa May squandered her majority.
As a result, on both sides of the pond, there has been rejoicing on the left, and adjustments on the right. Donald Trump, who failed to win a majority of the popular vote in the presidential elections, now describes himself as a man under siege. As for May, she never possessed an electoral mandate for her initial climb to the top of the greasy pole. For all her hopes, she has not unambiguously secured one now. Both Republican power-brokers on the one hand and many of their Conservative counterparts on the other are busy investigating how and when they might drop these compromised leaders without also falling themselves.
Yet current transatlantic political similarities go well beyond this. Some of the reasons for this are suggested by other recent events. Over the last couple of weeks, Kenya has inaugurated a new mega-railway, constructed and funded by the Chinese. During the same period, and despite Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, China reaffirmed its role as a leading supporter. It used to be imperial Britain that built and financed African railroads, while its successor empire, the United States, proclaimed itself the world’s indispensable nation. No longer.
The UK, manifestly, and also, to a degree, the US are visibly losing ground, partly as a result of a resurgent Asia. It is these deep processes of global change that account for some of the political parallels – and political problems – evident in the so-called Anglosphere.
At one level, both Trump and May owed their accession to power to substantial numbers of people in their respective countries craving an end to perceived decline and loss of direction. A vital part of Trump’s appeal was his promise to make America emphatically great again, staunching the haemorrhage of jobs and investment to China and Mexico, and cutting back on handouts to Nato and illegal migrants.
By the same token, May’s initial success was very much a byproduct of Brexit, and this again was sold to the public in part as a solution to immigration and as a salve to the UK’s persistent drift and decline. Many Britons who backed Brexit believed – and believe still – that a UK “freed” from “Europe” would be able to recover and re-establish its historic destiny as an independent global trading nation.
It should go without saying that both this latter idea and the notion of “America first” bespeak a strong sense of entitlement. Britain in the past, like the United States now, was used to command; and it is hard for states and populations to let such pretensions go.
Moreover, in both the UK and the US, unhappiness about lost or imperilled greatness has been the result of more than shifting power ratios. It derives too, in each case, from long-standing political complacencies. America is the proud possessor of the oldest extant written constitution in the world, which was for its time – 1787 – a highly innovative and important document. By the same token, although it still lacks a written constitution, Britain nonetheless pioneered an influential system of parliamentary government, which it exported to many parts of the globe.
In the case of both of these polities, acting in different ways as constitutional role models for the rest of the world has made the loss or decline of international influence even harder to bear. It has also made it difficult for many people in Britain and the US to accept the degree to which their respective political systems are in fact now faltering and in dire need of substantial reform.
On both sides of the Atlantic, then, sections of the right have been made deeply unhappy by the pace and nature of global change, and have sought out solutions, often coming up with the wrong ones. Yet both in Britain and the US, the left has little cause to feel complacent, because it too can exhibit a sense of entitlement that unhelpfully obscures rather than successfully addresses the harsh realities of a shifting world.
Many Democrats, for instance, are impatient with Trump’s brand of isolationism and want the US to revert much more to its self-appointed postwar role of global policeman. Yet it is far from clear that the United States can afford to attempt and maintain such an ambitious foreign policy posture any more, or that China, India, and other rising states will allow it to do so.
Opponents of the Tories here in the UK also suffer from blind spots and wishful thinking. Jeremy Corbyn’s calls for an end to austerity, with more public spending on the old and the young, schools, hospitals, students, local authorities and more have proved immensely popular and powerful. But again, such ambitions can suggest a degree of freedom of manoeuvre on the part of the UK that – in its diminished state, and given current challenges – it no longer has a realistic chance of possessing.
Any future government of Britain, of whatever political complexion, will need to cope with a resurgent and interfering Russia, an ever-shifting terror threat, an unstable Middle East, a likely marked retreat by the US from propping up Nato, and much more. Like it or not, responding to all this – given Britain’s shrinking economic power – will inevitably leach money away from domestic programmes. The best that can be hoped and worked for may have to be the least worst option: an abandonment of Trident, say, in favour of a substantial upgrade of more conventional armed forces. But even that will soak up money.
In Scotland the SNP too may well, as recent events suggest, have to settle for the least worst option. There is a respectable intellectual and ideological case to be made for Scottish independence. But Scotland too has no choice but to confront a fast-shifting and uncertain world in which the power, wealth and initiative of all western powers is under growing pressure. Settling for a more federal future may be the better, more prudent and only practicable course for it – and the rest of the UK – to pursue.
Historically, the least worst option has been the best that almost all states and peoples in the world have had to settle for; many nations have not even been able to do that. Since Britain and the US have each at different times been paramount global powers, however, their politicians have for a while been able to indulge in higher ambitions, and sometimes get away with them.
But for Britain, that time has long passed. Its politicians need now to talk and think and plan not in terms of a transformative, glowing Brexit or a new, modern socialist millennium, but to put their minds together to establish what the least worst options are that they can feasibly and usefully pursue. So do impatient UK voters