This last year has been one which proved the truth of Lord Melbourne’s dictum: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.” At the start of the year you could have obtained excellent odds against a Brexit win and a Trump win from any book-makers in the land; you’d probably have cleaned up monetarily if you’d double-up on that and gone for both. The puzzlement of the liberal elites in our society is exceeded only by their anger at the uneducated folk who brought about this unprecedented state of affairs. Very occasionally, one reads pieces which don’t take the view that the elite itself is a hapless victim, and which acknowledge that the sort of disdain being shown for ‘the people’ in some quarters is a part of the problem. Being lectured on ‘white, male privilege’ by a well-educated woman of colour earning thrice what you earn, may be something many can put up with, but it does not take an enormous amount of imagination to understand why a poor white man in a low-paying job might feel a little resentment at it.
Whilst ‘the system’ was delivering prosperity to large numbers of people in our society, its many flaws were tolerable and, to many, disguised, but when you reach a stage where an individual on an average income cannot afford to buy a house in most parts of the UK, and where ‘zero hours’ contracts are common, those defects are writ large: people work in order to have a decent life for themselves and for their children, and if work does not provide that, or the system does not provide work at all, then the problem is writ large. Add to that mix the anxieties caused by an economic slow-down and by large-scale immigration, and you get real problems; add to that a climate where to talk about such things gets you labelled as ‘racist’ and you get a toxicity which at some point was bound to infect the body politic, not least since its self-appointed physicians denied that the problems were real. When people feel ignored and scorned, they will look for redress – this is one of the things elections provide – and that this has now come to pass is clear. But, as in the UK in 1997 when a charismatic politician aroused great hopes, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating – and what President-elect Trump will have to deal with is a legacy not of his making, but which will restrict him in ways he will discover as he goes forward.
In the UK, it becomes ever clearer that our political class is so feckless that no one bothered to make any plans for what ‘Brexit’ would mean. Thus far Mrs May has been able to get away with the meaningless mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, but at some point reality is going to intrude and she is going to have to show what that really means. She is a fortunate politician in that her main Tory rivals self-destructed, and she is facing the most hapless leader of the Labour Party since the 1930s. She may decide to risk a General Election if parliament will not give her what she needs, and she may well win it – but the problems will not go away.
Our democracies stand on a precipice, not because of the electorate, but because the professional political class is failing to show that it knows how to deal with the problems which afflict us.