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Whatever you think of Farage, he understands something important: outrage pays

This week in politics, from Farage in New York to the new nationalism sweeping the West – and the problem of defining Trump.

The left likes to assume that if proportional representation replaced first-past-the-post as part of some grand constitutional reconfiguration, there would be a progressive majority at Westminster. As with so many of the fundamental questions of our time, the left should think again. Ukip won nearly four million votes at the 2015 general election but has only one MP. Under PR, the party would now have as many as 83 MPs, and just imagine what difference that would make to our already debased political discourse.

 

Big trouble in the Big Apple

Locked out of the House of Commons at successive general elections, Nigel Farage has instead been free to agitate and roam widely, an ever-welcome guest on flagship BBC current affairs programmes such as Question Time, which has become an unwatchable weekly shouting-fest. Even without the vote for Brexit, Farage would have been one of the most transformative politicians of these turbulent new times. He and his closest supporters, such as Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU and the so-called Man Who Bought Brexit, harried David Cameron into holding the referendum on British membership of the EU that will for ever after define him as a bungler.

Receiving a “lifetime achievement” prize at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards on 2 November, Farage abused and ridiculed the co-host George Osborne and then promptly turned on the audience, shouting that they wouldn’t be smiling “when Donald Trump is in the White House”. Not for the first time in recent months, Farage was on the winning side – and didn’t he and his entourage, lads on tour intent on taking a chunk out of the Big Apple, look delighted during their audience with Donald Trump at the gaudy oligarch’s palace that is Trump Tower?

 

Straight talk

Having a personal meeting with the president-elect was another coup for Farage, who Fox News calls the “UK opposition leader”. No matter what you think of his politics, he long ago understood something simple about our rancid political culture: outrage pays. Social media have empowered any number of loudmouth cranks and belligerents. Trump won without the endorsement of any serious mainstream publication in the United States, but he didn’t need it: he had the support of the “alt-right”, anti-truth propagandists who have their own well-funded media outlets. Now, one of their most vocal champions, Stephen Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the executive chairman of the far-right-wing website Breitbart News, is Trump’s chief strategist.

Like Trump, Farage has a gift for straight-talking populism that resonates with the kinds of voters who have long since given up on conventional politics, or who are weary of – or were never reconciled to – liberal decency. I interviewed him in November 2014 at his modest offices in Mayfair and, afterwards, he and his then senior aide Raheem Kassam invited me for a drink at a nearby pub. Kassam is now editor in chief of Breitbart London. Having pulled out of the contest to become the next leader of Ukip, he was one of the gang at Trump Tower.

Both he and Farage smoke, so we stood outside on a mild day, drinking London Pride. It was fascinating to observe just how many people approached Farage. “Keep it up, Nige!” they said. “Stick it to them, Nigel!” I was struck by how relaxed he was, how at ease in his skin, as he greeted his admirers. He later told me that Ukip could win 15 seats at the election. That did not come close to happening, of course, but now he is savouring greater victories as the new right-wing nationalism sweeps the West.

 

Battle of ideas

The academic Paul Stott has published a thoughtful blog on Lapidomedia, an online centre for religious literacy in journalism. “Explanations for the disillusionment of working-class voters with the Labour Party are fashionable and numerous,” he writes, then goes on to list some of them. “There is a further explanation,” he adds. “The left has embraced an Islam whose world-view is anathema to many working-class people in Britain, of any religion or none.”

I spoke to Stott. He is concerned not just about Islamism but about Islam. “All shades within the Labour Party are reluctant to recognise Islam as an ideology and as a rival ideology,” he told me. “Islam is presented as a design for living. But if you try to debate this with Muslims, people become uncomfortable. The Labour Party has a very passive approach towards religious actors who wish to claim space and claim territory.”

He says that the left is losing a battle of ideas because too many liberals fail “to realise a battle of ideas is going on”. In Britain, Stott says, “We have an increasingly secular majority and an increasingly religious minority – and that won’t end well.”

 

Out of the past

The Today programme’s Sarah Montague asked Bernie Sanders if he thought that Trump was a fascist. Sanders equivocated but it was an apposite question. Last week, writing in haste because of an absurdly early print deadline, I compared Trump to a “neo-fascist”. Stephen Brasher, our long-standing subscriptions manager, who knows as much about political history as anyone on the NS, disagreed. “He doesn’t have his own militia, for a start,” he said.

So what are the defining attributes of Trumpism? I’d say ultra-nationalism, populism, nativism, protectionism, hatred of immigrants and socialists, the cult of personality and chauvinism. Now ask yourself what defines neo-fascism. Both John Gray and the historian Niall Ferguson suggest that Trump’s “populism” recalls the late 19th century, another age of globalisation and mass migration, more than it does the 1930s. According to Ferguson, “In the 1880s, as in our own time, the political result of stagnation was not fascism but populism.” So if Trump is not a fascist, how should we describe him? 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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