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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

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”