Saying that 2016 has been a bad year for liberalism is a huge understatement. From Britain voting to leave the European Union to the election of Donald Trump; illiberal forces are rising around the world. Across continental Europe the populist right continues to gain support from France to Austria, from the Netherlands to Hungary. All of these examples have at their heart a wish to undermine liberal freedoms and equal rights, as well as a determination to oppose internationalism and immigration.
In Britain, Brexit triumphed on the back of dog whistle politics, fear, mistrust of political elites and communities who felt left behind. Theresa May appears to be sliding towards a hard Brexit, while at the same time indulging in a touch of populism that is only surpassed by the incoming President of the United States. Trump’s campaign was blatantly misogynistic, xenophobic and even disablist. Despite this, he still triumphed, primarily due to the quirks of the Electoral College system. The result was met with members of the so-called ‘alt-right’ hailing Trump’s victory with Nazi salutes. But the worst may not yet be over, as the French Front National seems likely to make it to the second round of next year’s Presidential Election.
In the aftermath of Brexit, Theresa May and several right wing commentators have developed a dangerous discourse attacking the so-called metropolitan middle class liberal elite. This is dangerous because it implies that liberalism is for the elites and not for ordinary people. By extension it also implies that liberal values such as civil liberties, internationalism and minority rights are elitist and regressive concepts. Nothing could be further from the truth; working people have benefited immensely from the rights and democratic freedoms that liberalism has brought. It has strengthened workers’ rights and it established the pillar of 20th century social justice – the welfare state.
The belief that a liberal elite is running Britain is a fallacy. In truth, a right wing nationalist elite is now in the ascendancy on both sides of the Atlantic. May, Farage, Trump and Le Pen are now engaged in a clear ideological battle to push back against liberal values. From attacks on the judiciary to creeping authoritarianism and a clear enthusiasm for Brexit; Theresa May's government is no friend of liberalism.
The age of Brexit and Donald Trump embodies a reaction against globalisation. The Western world is becoming more nationalist, more populist and more protectionist. There are many problems with the economic policies that have underpinned globalisation, but right wing nationalism is making the situation even worse. This revived nationalism is of great concern for all liberals and progressives in Europe and America.
Liberals can no longer go on pretending that everything has been fine during the last 30 years. There are communities in Britain who have never tasted the fruits of globalisation. While much of the country has benefited from the economic growth that globalisation has brought, many places outside the South East of England have been left behind. It was in these communities, the rural areas and struggling towns of England, where the Brexit campaign triumphed.
It no longer appears inevitable that countries in the West will become increasingly liberal. Liberals must win the battle of ideas that is raging on both sides of the Atlantic. We cannot allow a flawed model of globalisation to be replaced by anti-liberal nationalism. Democracy and the economy must serve the interests of the people, not just the wealthy and the powerful elite. People who are hopeful for the future are going to be more inclined towards liberalism. People who are fearful for the future have the potential to be swept up by a tide of populism and nationalism.
Liberalism cannot thrive without social justice and democratic empowerment. Liberals must reclaim the mantle of anti-establishment politics that we have carelessly handed over to our right wing opponents. We must again champion radical ideas such as electoral reform, workplace democracy, regional federalism and land value taxation. In the spirit of William Beveridge there must be a new progressive consensus that can deliver real social justice for the 21st century. Inequality, social hardship and disempowerment are the foundations upon which liberalism falters.
A hopeful future can still be won, if liberals have the audacity to provide a positive alternative to the political and economy status quo of recent years. UKIP, Theresa May and Donald Trump offer nothing in regard to radical reform, social justice or equal opportunity. Liberals must show that another kind of anti-establishment politics is possible; and in time we will draw the populist poison from the wound of our unequal society.