Will 2019 be the year of the liberal backlash?

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As I finally overcome the effects of flu and Christmas celebrations, it is a moment to reflect on 2018 and what 2019 might bring. In common with most liberals (I hesitate to say all…), I am not feeling cheerful. But surely there is hope?

The anti-liberal wave continued through 2018. I will come back to Donald Trump and Brexit in a moment, but the trend has been visibly much more widely. In Europe we had the rise of anti-establishment parties in Italy and Germany, with the former achieving power (though to be fair the 5-Star movement does have some liberal elements). Anti-liberalism is well entrenched in Poland and Hungary, and the one apparent liberal bright spot, France, has now hit a big bump in the road with the gilet jaune movement. Outside Europe things look no better, with Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia and Assad in Syria all looking unstoppable. And then there was the election in Brazil. At least the kleptocrat Jacob Zuma was finally thrown out in South Africa.

So the soul-searching amongst liberals continues. Critics from left and right attack a liberal establishment that just doesn’t get it. To those on the right, what liberals don’t get is patriotism and standing up for national interests in a wicked world. From the left, with its love of abstract nouns, liberals don’t get that “neoliberal” economics and “austerity” are total failures. And, of course, there is something to both critiques – though right’s answer of crony capitalism, and the left’s of extending the central state’s reach, both leave liberals as sceptical as ever. Liberals are clear about elements of a new narrative – environmental sustainability and internationalism, for example – but can’t string it together coherently.

The biggest surprise to me over 2019 has been the success of Donald Trump. I had assumed that his regime would collapse into incompetence. The incompetence is there, evidenced by its inability to deal with anything complicated, like healthcare, but there is method in Mr Trump’s madness. He is slowly developing a coherent narrative and a government team that believes in it. This includes the pursuit narrow US interests (and maybe Israel’s too…) abroad, an attack on free trade, stimulus to the US economy, and stirring the pot on immigration. He is getting some grudging credit even from critics for his robust handling of China, for example. His claim that he is keeping his promises has currency and, through rose-tinted spectacles, it is possible to accept his claim of a transformative administration. Then you remember the growing healthcare quagmire, the roll back of environmental protection and the malign effect of tariffs on the domestic economy, and a more realistic assessment beckons. 2018 has been a fortunate year for Mr Trump. His trade war has been well-timed, and the tax stimulus too.

Brexit played out closer to my expectations. The government has been forced into a deal that keeps a customs union going for the time being at least. I am taken aback, though, by the strength of resistance from hard Brexiteers. I would have thought a tactical retreat was in order: get past 29 March 2019 and into formal exit with relatively little dislocation, and then start work on dismantling the hated compromises. We have taken back control after all. This is clearly the calculation of those still in the cabinet, like Michael Gove; but many others seem happy to contemplate a no-deal Brexit instead. But Theresa May is rapidly making that option untenable. Bexiteers like to talk of a “managed” no-deal, with a series of side-deals to handle the bigger problems, like air flights and medicines. They assume that the EU would play ball because, after all, they export so much to us. But we are rapidly running out of time, never mind goodwill. Others seem attracted to the idea of a hard landing, in order to bring out a “Blitz spirit” in plucky Britons. I get fed up with Remainers jumping on every scare story that gets dreamt up, but the shear delusionality of the more extreme Brexiteers is unbelievable.

Still, with the current tactics of both Mrs May and Jeremy Corbyn the chances of a no-deal crash are much higher than they should be. There is, alas for my Lib Dem friends, almost no chance of a further referendum. If Mr Corbyn supported the idea it might have been feasible, but he clearly doesn’t. He wants a bad Brexit that can be blamed on the Tories to Labour’s advantage.

So what hope in this dismal picture? I am waiting for the backlash (against the backlash, if you will). This liberal backlash is based on two things. Firstly that younger people don’t hold with the anti-liberal movement. For them global warming is a real threat, and diversity a real asset. This needs qualification: less educated youngsters are picking up on the right-wing attack, and indeed they are behind a lot of the associated violence. But they form a lower proportion than they used to, and are prone to apathy. Meanwhile a large part of the original backlash comes from older people. This gives the potential for the pendulum to swing back. Time may be on the liberals’ side.

Secondly, it is clear that the anti-liberal populists don’t have long term solutions for the main problems afflicting society. In fact, beyond the headlines, their solutions involve the breaking down of democratic institutions to provide cover for crony capitalism in league with a crony state. Where those institutions are relatively weak in the first place, they may succeed in entrenching themselves well enough to head off any backlash (look at Venezuela for an example of where things can go). But in most developed countries, including the United States and Britain, I think the institutions are too strong.

How might the backlash play out? In the US the most obvious way is for a full Democratic victory across all branches of government in 2020. We had a hint of this in the mid-term elections in 2018, but the backlash has to develop further for this to happen. And yet Mr Trump’s end could be hastened if senior Republican politicians and donors start to panic. Trump’s confrontational, insurgent game has produced brilliant success but it does not make for secure political alliances. This could happen in 2019.

In Britain? Things are harder to call. Labour are currently trying to combine a liberal backlash with an anti-liberal left backlash. This is creating a lot of stress, and a well-led, well-prepared and well-funded Conservative party (to say nothing of the continuing appeal of the SNP), could well be enough to keep them at bay. And the impact of Brexit on our politics is unknowable. A wider realignment is possible.

That is my hope and maybe 2019 will see the turn of the tide. But one thing is clear about any liberal backlash. It will not be led by reheated liberal politicians from the past. It will depend on appeal to younger voters, and that will need something fresher. And that is something all the mainstream political parties, in Britain anyway, are struggling to do. There will have to be changes at the top. Happy New Year!