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7 January 2017

The lesson of 2016? We were wrong to put our faith in democracy

As I reflect on the new year, I remember that democracy alone can't prevent dictators – but try to not become Eeyorish.

By Stephen Bush

I saw in the New Year in Shepherd’s Bush, the west London suburb that gave me my surname. In the 1930s, my great-grandfather feared that Adolf Hitler would cross the Channel, so he abandoned our Jewish surname of Shimanski and took on the name of the shop that he owned: Bush Stores. “Being Jewish,” the novelist Linda Grant observed, “does teach you that there isn’t always a happy ending.”

As it happened, for my great-grandfather, there was a happy ending: survival, grandchildren, eventually a great-grandson, a budgerigar that terrified the said grandson, and eventually, a death, of natural causes. But for other members of our family the story ended in extinction.

Perhaps that’s why the New Year message of one political journalist stuck in my craw. On his personal Facebook page, he condemned those mourning the events of 2016 for attacking “expressions of democracy”, and vowed that journalists, by holding power “to account”, could achieve a better 2017 than the doomsters predicted.

We should never forget that George Wallace and Indira Gandhi both won democratic elections – in Alabama and India, respectively – before engaging in acts of repression and undemocratic activity once they were installed in power. Vladimir Putin, too, came to power in a democratic election. And Hitler, whose rise necessitated my family’s rebrand, seized power by democratic means. All four owed their rise to popular discontent with the ruling class, yet none was or is particularly inconvenienced by journalists attempting to hold them to account. That America’s terrifying new president is the victor in a free and fair election doesn’t change the fact he may signal the end of democracy at home and the collapse of the global order abroad.


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Trump and Brexit

In the West, 2016 was marked by the deaths of many notable artists and actors, a side effect of our ageing society. We may not have reached “peak death” of well-preserved octogenarians and hard-living fiftysomethings, but we are not far off.

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However, something I hope does breathe its last in 2017 is the easy comparison between Donald Trump and Britain’s Brexit vote. Optimists hope Brexit will make Britain a more prosperous and contented nation outside the European Union; pessimists fear it will make us poorer and weaker. But the best-case Trump scenario is that he merely uses the fruits of the presidency to further enrich himself and his family. The worst case is global catastrophe.

The superficial attraction of the comparison has moved from irritating to dangerous: it is blinding large parts of the British establishment to the dangers of Trump.


Brexit at the Tate

What I like about the festive season is that the capital empties out, allowing canny Londoners to enjoy the city’s attractions without having to endure long queues or navigate thick crowds. Not this year, though: the collapse in the value of the pound has been a boon for the British tourist trade, with domestic holidaymakers staying here to avoid the punishing exchange rate and foreign visitors rushing to take advantage.

London’s busy streets show that Brexit is not without its winners. But they also point to the country’s destination if our exit is bungled: poorer and more dependent on the whims of tourism, with the off-season inflicting poverty on many of the locals. Anger at that experience powered Britain’s Out vote in coastal areas, and it would be a terrible irony if the result of that vote was to spread rather than diminish the sense of helplessness.

The liberal right has an alternate destination for Britain after Brexit: a haven of low-tax and low-regulation finance, Singapore with worse weather. Time is running out for the left to provide an alternative future.


Corbyn 2.0

That task is one that Team Corbyn believe its man can grasp, which is why 2017 will bring the relaunch of Jeremy Corbyn as a left-wing populist in the mould of Bernie Sanders, the defeated candidate for the Democratic nomination. The Labour leader’s allies, like much of the American left, believe Sanders would have secured a better result against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton managed.

The British political class is never happier than when learning from the United States, and the parallels between the two countries are usually wildly overstated. And yet Corbyn 2.0 makes sense: it plays to the Labour leader’s strengths and represents at least an attempt to tap in to the mood of the times without bending the knee to nativist sentiment. In any case, there is a healthy realisation in the Labour leader’s office that the real lessons to be learned from Sanders are to “hold big rallies and make great videos”.

The execution so far has been less inspiring, however. While Sanders talked in common cultural touchstones – Wall Street, Goldman Sachs and the like – Corbyn talks about “the establishment”, a phrase I hear a lot from people like me and have yet to hear from anyone who might decide the next election. The Labour leader should talk about “Westminster” instead.


Optimistic realism

It’s not quite “Bush 2.0”, but the challenge I’ve set myself in 2017 is balancing a clear-eyed appraisal of the dangers of Trump and the risks to our own government without becoming the New Statesman’s answer to Eeyore, the dour donkey who lives alone in Winnie-the-Pooh.

If the alarming right-wing drift of our politics is to be reversed and the dangers of Trump are to be survived, it is important for us to understand the scale of the challenge. But it is important, too, not to let despair paralyse us. My hope is that I will prove more adept at this resolution than I did at my one for 2016: to exercise more and to procrastinate less.

Peter Wilby is away

This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain