Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The revenge of history

In an age of reaction, it is tempting for liberals to lapse into defeatism. They should not.

A quarter of a century ago, liberalism appeared to have triumphed. After decades of division, the Cold War officially ended. In Europe, a dozen countries founded the European Union through the Maastricht Treaty. In the United States, after 12 years of Republican rule, Bill Clinton was elected president. “What we may be witnessing,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, “[is] the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

That was long before the 11 September 2001 attacks and the resultant “war on terror” inaugurated a new era of global insecurity. Seven years later, the financial crisis ended the illusion of perpetual growth. Yet progressives were little prepared for the political humbling they have since endured.

In defiance of its allies, the UK voted to leave the EU. It did so after a Leave campaign that shamelessly exploited fears over immigration. Many sorrowfully remarked that the UK was not the country they thought. In a state historically hailed for its tolerance and respect, racist and religious hate crimes rose by 41 per cent. Ministers floated the idea of forcing companies to publish a list of their foreign workers. Immigrants old and new testified that they no longer felt welcome.

Brexit was part of a Europe-wide revolt against both free-market and identity liberalism. In France, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, rose to become a potential winner of the 2017 presidential election. In Germany, the increasingly xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland challenged the country’s postwar norms. In Austria, the far-right Norbert Hofer was only narrowly denied the presidency. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) repeatedly led opinion polls. Amid the tumult, the eurozone and refugee crises remain unresolved.

For Europe’s liberals, the US presidential election was supposed to provide consolation. Instead, it delivered the greatest reversal of all. Donald Trump, an unashamed racist, miso­gynist and authoritarian, defeated Hillary Clinton. Under Mr Trump’s rule by generals and billionaire businessmen, the US will retreat from its postwar role as the guarantor of the international liberal order. Like an increasing number of Western politicians, he regards the malevolent Russian president, Vladimir Putin, not as a foe but as a potential ally.

In an age of reaction, it is tempting for liberals to lapse into defeatism. They should not. Both the EU referendum and the US presidential election were marginal victories. Leave won the former by 52 to 48 per cent. In the United States, Mrs Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million and was thwarted only by an anachronistic electoral college. Liberals and progressives should not deny their defeats, but nor should they connive in exaggerating them.

Progressives must, however, reckon with the discontent so plainly displayed. Across the West, voters have long endured falling or stagnant living standards. Open borders and mass immigration have destabilised many communities. As John Gray wrote in our New Times special issue last week, “By pursuing the ultra-liberal project of a borderless continent in which national identities count for little, Europe’s ruling elites are bringing the opposite into being.”

And yet, too often, mainstream politicians have cast themselves as powerless in the face of global forces. In the absence of adequate solutions, electorates have been ineluctably drawn to the extremes. Voters desire greater control over their lives and recognise the state as a mechanism for that ­purpose. Rather than ceding this territory to reactionaries, the left must reclaim it.

However, in an age of public distrust and defensive nation­alism, technocratic social democracy will not suffice. Politicians must combine a reinvigorated public sphere with radical devolution and transparency. They must craft a progressive patriotism that neutralises the exclusivism of the nationalist right. And they must speak a language that brings them closer to the public, not one that takes them further away.

Just as it was premature to declare liberalism’s triumph, so it is premature to speak of its demise. But the old platitudes will not work. A left that is simultaneously more reflective and more ambitious can begin to regain the ground it has lost.

We wish all our readers the very best for Christmas and a happy and peaceful New Year. 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496