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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The iron law of oligarchy

Donald Trump’s victory has changed politics irrevocably. The age of unchecked globalisation and armed missionaries for liberal values is over. And we are entering a new age of great-power rivalry.

The election of Donald Trump is the second act in a play that began on a smaller stage. The vote for Brexit was never a peculiarly British event, but it could be seen as such for as long as the abrupt dismissal of established elites that it involved was confined to a single country. Now, having demolished the dynastic order embodied in the Clinton and Bush families, Trump is bringing a changing of the guard to the most powerful country in the world. A profound shift that began in Britain has become an international movement. Democratic politics is in a revolutionary upheaval.

Having won out against the US media while deploying far smaller resources of money and organisation than those of his opponents in both parties, Trump is not going to be quietly assimilated into the elites he has dislodged from power. No doubt he will be constrained by American institutions. Though it will no longer be grid-locked, he will need the co-operation of the Republican-controlled Congress in some areas – if he goes ahead and withdraws from the Paris climate accords, for example – and elements of the old ruling groups will retain some capacity to curb him. Others will throw in their lot with the new regime. Lobby groups will be quick to form profitable links with Trump’s transitional team. Having no strategic plan, Trump himself may find it easier to modify existing policies – as he seems about to do with “Obamacare” – than scrap them altogether.

Inevitably, there will be many continuities in the pattern of government that develops. But the disruptive manner of Trump’s rise to power precludes his continuing with the policies that defined the regime he has overturned. He cannot avoid disrupting the order that has prevailed since the closing years of the Second World War. His world-changing impact will be magnified by political shocks in Europe, where the third act of the play seems poised to begin.

Trump’s victory has overturned the belief that an international order established over 70 years ago could persist and shape the future. In a worst-case scenario, Nato could be destroyed if the president-to-be reneges on America’s commitment to Article 5 of the organisation’s charter, first invoked following the 11 September 2001 attacks, which requires any member to defend any other that is under attack. The result would be an existential threat to the Baltic states, a problematic future for Poland, and enhanced Russian influence throughout the continent. If European countries show themselves ready to accept substantial increases in defence spending, this prospect might yet be avoided. Even so, there is no chance that the US will return to a global role of the kind it had before Trump was elected.

Maybe the international order that was built after the Second World War could have been renewed in some amended form if Western ruling elites had offered a more realistic response to the changing global landscape. Instead, they reacted to the end of the Cold War by creating an enemy in Russia, which paradoxically, during the early post-communist period, was one of the world’s most pro-Western countries. They imposed neoliberal dogmas of price decontrol and privatisation that impoverished much of the Russian population, ensuring that the difficult transition to a Western-style market economy was bound to fail. Then they proceeded to launch wars promoting regime change in the Middle East and, later, in Libya, which succeeded only in empowering jihadist forces and creating failed states from which flows of desperate migrants poured into Europe. Part of the popular revulsion against established elites comes from their record of serial incompetence. As for the elites themselves, they seem bewildered by what they have done.

A spin-off of their confusion has been a revival of conspiracy theory. While Julian Assange, holed up in his embassy bunker in London, assured the world that Trump would “not be allowed to win”, Hillary Clinton and her media legions were asserting that Trump was serving as the instrument of a foreign power. It would be rash to discount any Russian involvement in this dirty and murky US election. The function of conspiracy theories, however, is not to understand the world but to give sense to the lives of those who believe them. Paranoia is often a protest against powerlessness and a sense of insignificance. These symptoms are visible today in the liberal elites, which, against all their expectations, have been brusquely dismissed from power. In a post-election interview with Dutch television, Sidney Blumenthal, a long-time Clinton ally, described Trump’s victory as “a coup d’état”, orchestrated by “right-wing agents of the FBI”. Paranoid thinking of this kind shows a refusal to learn from experience.

The same is true of the blind moral panic that enables liberal elites to avoid facing up to their own role in their downfall. Those who talk of a triumph of racism and miso­gyny point to aspects of Trump’s campaign that were real enough. Yet it is impossible to imagine these familiar disorders propelling him to power without the decades of neglect and disdain displayed in both main parties for those Americans who have been consistent losers from globalisation. Liberal democracy cannot function when much of the middle class – along with the abandoned remnants of the working class – gains no perceptible benefit from economic growth. Real wages in the United States fell sharply during the global financial crisis, continued to decline for three years in a row, and then stagnated. Although median household income grew by a record 5.2 per cent year on year in 2015, as recently as September this year it was still 1.6 per cent lower than in 2007. Trump grasped this, and so did the Democratic insurgent Bernie Sanders. Liberals such as Hillary Clinton and her supporters continued to ignore it.

The economic policies that have so far emerged from Trump’s team are eclectic, featuring New Deal-like infrastructure spending, Reagan-style military Keynesianism involving a large increase in defence spending, and tax-cutting supply-side economics. If a programme along these lines is implemented it will amount to a huge stimulus and could spark a spectacular US economic boom. Whether it would bring back jobs and regenerate declining industries as Trump has promised is another matter. Fiscal stimulus on this scale risks inflation, rising interest rates and higher levels of US national debt. Full-scale protectionism may be less of a danger. Since Trump’s election, Mexico and Canada have intimated that they may be open to tweaking the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But, however calibrated, trade barriers of themselves cannot remove the threat to livelihoods that comes with new technologies, and neither will the wholesale deportation of illegal immigrants that Trump seems bent on implementing. The prospects for Trumponomics are cloudy.

The president-elect’s fuzzy economic programme is being used to support the claim that voters can no longer be trusted, by now a liberal commonplace. It is droll to see liberals adopting the language of Gustave Le Bon, the reactionary French critic of democracy whose 1895 study, The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind (long used as a bible by those who believe in the irrationality of voters), was one of the intellectual inspirations for European fascism. In fact, there was nothing irrational in voting for Trump even while having no strong belief that his policies would work. As I wrote here in September, unknown numbers of voters were “ready to roll the dice and opt for Trump, simply in order to impose change of some sort on the entrenched oligarchies and rigged political system that Clinton represents and embodies to them”.

These voters achieved their main goal, which was to inflict a powerful shock on the existing political classes. Clinton may have been aware that this section of the electorate posed a challenge she could not directly counter. So, unable to deny the part she had played in a generation-long social disaster, she chose to focus on prosecuting America’s culture wars. Leaving out those (such as working-class white women) who did not feature among the group identities she promoted, it was a strategy that left many feeling they belonged to an excluded majority. The hysteria that surrounds Trump’s victory stems in large part from a refusal by his opponents to admit their part in bringing it about.

 

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If Trump’s presidency inspires such horror in so many people, one reason is historical parochialism. There is dark talk of isolationism, and a rerun of the Smoot-Hawley Act 1930 that raised US tariffs, triggered a world trade war and supposedly precipitated the Great Depression; some see a revanchist Russia as a repeat of Nazi Germany. But the world we are entering is more like that of the late 19th century than that of the interwar years of the 20th, and in this regard as in others, Trump must count as a strikingly contemporary figure. Viewing relations between states in transactional terms of cost and benefit, he may be better suited to deal with 21st-century realities than the ideologues who preceded him.

The ideological clashes of the 1930s, which made an anachronistic reappearance in the neoconservative 1990s, have been displaced by old-fashioned geopolitical rivalries. No longer divided by contending secular belief systems, world politics is dominated by religion, nationalism, ethnicity and struggles over resources. At the same time, information war has moved to the centre of human conflict. Putin’s Russia is a modern authoritarian state equipped with hypermodern media technologies, which it uses to shape perception at home and abroad. It is this unequivocal modernity that makes it so hard for Western observers to understand Russia. Especially when they are ideological liberals, they cannot help seeing the country as an example of atavism and regression. This is dangerously complacent, because it implies that the Russian state will cease to be threatening if only the country can somehow be nudged back on to a more “normal” path of development.

Russia is abnormal only in ­embodying modern contradictions to an extreme degree. More autocratic than the Soviet state during most of its history, Putin’s dictatorship is also weaker and less predictable. Allowing greater freedom in private life than the Soviet Union ever did and more popularly legitimate than the Soviet state was in peacetime, Putin’s Russia is also more of a threat to its neighbours. Having renounced an ideology that promised to bury the West, Russia has a greater capacity to undo what remains of a liberal international order. There is no reason to think this would change if Vladimir Putin were to step down as president, as some reports about his health suggest he might. What if his successor is less intelligent, more volatile and more anti-Western?

It is too soon to talk of Trump having any fixed stance towards Russia. But there can be no doubt that, in this regard, the future will be quite different from the recent past. The shift could bring a more realistic view of dangers and opportunities. When she proposed a no-fly zone in Syria, Hillary Clinton forgot that a no-fly zone already exists, but it is Russian-operated. Western policies in Syria have left Putin able to veto any Western initiative that does not serve Russia’s strategic interests in the Middle East.

In any case, Western policies in Syria have never had realistic goals. When it pressed for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, the West did not consider the likely consequences: the collapse of the Syrian state, another jihadist-infested zone of anarchy and a larger influx of migrants into Europe. Several times during his campaign Trump proposed withdrawing US support for the Syrian rebels, many of whom are affiliated to jihadist groups, and adopting a scorched-earth policy towards Islamic State. Comments he has made since the election indicate that he is sticking with this view.

As was made clear in a provocative tweet last month by the Russian embassy in Washington, DC comparing the destruction of Grozny 16 years ago with the bombing campaign in Aleppo, and celebrating “the peaceful, modern and thriving city” that the Chechen capital has become, Putin does not share the belief that there is no military solution to terrorism. Trump’s joining with Russia in imposing such a solution on Syria would not be isolationism. But it would mark a major reversal in US policies and could lead to a breach with Britain, which seems still wedded to regime change.

 

 

***

 

Beyond the Middle East, Trump has to decide how to approach China. Confident predictions of confrontation may be wide of the mark. Given that China is the only global power that has consistently implemented a rationalist foreign policy – in other words, one with clearly defined and achievable goals – its leaders may be inclined to approach Trump in the pragmatic, deal-making spirit that he invites. So far, they seem to view his demands for high trade barriers against Chinese exports as campaign rhetoric.

In Europe, the impact of Trump’s election can only be to accelerate disintegration. Contrary to any who imagine that a more detached US attitude to the continent will spur the European project to new heights, political momentum is driving a process of rapid balkanisation. Trump’s success in effectively bypassing the US party system demonstrates to Europe’s disaffected voters that they, too, have the ability to turn politics upside down. As a result of her misjudged and inept handling of the migrant crisis, Angela Merkel may well be gone after the German federal elections next September. Opening the next act of the insurgency against entrenched doctrinal liberalism, Trump’s victory will boost the fortunes of fringe parties in many European countries.

Attention will be focused on Italy, where a constitutional referendum called by Prime Minster Matteo Renzi for 4 December could strengthen Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which is pressing for a referendum on Italian membership of the eurozone. In the Netherlands, parliamentary elections on 15 March next year could bring Geert Wilders’s far-right Partij voor de Vrijheid nearer to forming a coalition government. On the same day as the Italian referendum there will be a rerun of the cancelled second round of Austria’s presidential election, which could produce the first far-right European head of state since the Second World War. Norbert Hofer of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria) has proposed setting up a union of central European nations that would enforce a policy on migrants independent from the one mandated in Brussels.

In May 2017, Marine Le Pen could come within spitting distance of the Élysée Palace in the run-off of the French presidential election. (For whatever comfort it may give, experts have predicted that she would be defeated in a second round.) Faced with these political landmines, financial markets could decide that the euro – which has been stronger in recent weeks – is the next big short. Any one of these events could pose a life-threatening risk to the EU.

For the UK, Trump’s election points to a clean break with the EU. All the wrangling about hard and soft Brexit is history. A few years from now, the sacrosanct single market may have been altered beyond recognition, or may no longer exist. Whether the high court’s judgment is upheld or overturned on appeal, its challenge to invoking Article 50 without parliamentary consent is a speck of froth in an unstoppable torrent. British withdrawal from European jurisdiction is the inexorable logic of events.

The referendum on the terms of Brexit that is being touted by the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Tim Farron, will not happen. If a determined attempt is made in the Commons to block the government triggering Article 50 or to attach conditions to this, the result will be a vote of confidence and a general election. It is unlikely that Labour will support any such move. As long as Labour remains the anti-capitalist protest movement that Jeremy Corbyn has built, it faces electoral meltdown. Moreover, MPs with large pro-Brexit majorities, such as Ed Miliband, will not want the job of explaining to their constituents why their express wishes are being ignored and overridden. If an election does have to be called, the Conservative majority is likely to increase fivefold or even more. Remainers – not least Conservative relics of the Cameron era – will be left marginalised and powerless.

In the Scottish National Party – the biggest loser from Brexit aside from Ukip, even before the US election – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will soon be forced to put up or shut up with her demand for another referendum on Scottish independence. With the EU rocked by after-tremors from the Trump earthquake, the single currency vulnerable, Europe’s banks fragile, and with European leaders vetoing negotiations with the Scottish government for fear of their own separatist movements, how many Scottish voters will opt to cut themselves adrift from the UK? It might be argued that most Scottish voters will choose national independence over economic self-interest. Yet that is not how politics is working in this age of insurgency. In the election for the US presidency, economic deprivation and despair trumped the politics of gender, culture and race; in the case of Brexit, voters who opted for Leave did not fear economic disaster. If Scotland leaves the UK, on the other hand, it will be a proper leap into the dark. In these conditions, the risk to the Union is minimal. Incessantly attacked as archaic and obsolete, the British state will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

A Britain that has removed itself from EU jurisdiction need not be less involved in Europe. Despite its depleted defence capacities – a legacy, like anarchy in Libya, of David Cameron’s strategic mastery – the UK continues to be a leading military power. Acting together with European nation states, Britain could build a counterweight to expanding Russian influence on the continent. With world trade arrangements in flux, there is also an opportunity to forge new economic relations with the United States. Dickering with a paralysed and dying EU may not be the most productive way in which to spend the two years once Brexit has been set in motion.

 

 

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In some ways the new world we have entered is not as novel as it looks. In reducing its global role, the US is returning to the more historically normal position it held in the 19th century as one of several great powers. Donald Trump’s domestic regime may also turn out to be more familiar than most expect. The family-influenced transition group that is assembling the new regime suggests an attempt to found a new dynasty to replace the ones he has overthrown. An iron law of oligarchy may already have begun to operate, allowing a new ruling group to redivide the spoils of office.

But Trump’s victory has changed world politics irrevocably. The age of unchecked globalisation and armed missionaries for liberal values is over. A little cool reflection might be useful in the circumstances. Liberals who wail and rage at the passing of the old order show little interest in realistic thinking and resolutely resist what it demonstrates. What many seem to want, at ­bottom, is to relieve themselves of the need to understand the world by shedding the burden of power. If so, they are on the right side of history.

John Gray’s latest book is the new and enlarged edition of “Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” (Penguin)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

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