Remaking the Western world

One of the problems with writing a blog is that it’s hard to avoid making predictions. One of the problems with making predictions is that they’re frequently wrong. Earlier this year, I wrote (blog of 14 May): ‘Despite all assertions to the contrary, the centre ground is alive and well enough – if not entirely thriving – to prevail in most cases. As it has in the Netherlands and now in France, and as it surely will in the UK and then in Germany.’  

Well, just about. This was meant to be the year of the 3Ms: Macron, May and Merkel. It has turned into the year of the 3Ys. Why so unpopular so soon? Why so embarrassing a result? Why so bitter a victory?

For those of us who have been quite impressed by Emmanuel Macron so far, it is sobering to find that he is less popular in France than François Hollande was at a comparable stage in his Presidency. But not so surprising when one realises how few people wanted him to be President in the first place.

In the first round of the French elections, Macron was supported by 18.7% of the electorate. Analysis of opinion polls has shown that, if the election had been decided by younger voters alone, he would not even have made the run-off: that would have been between the candidate of the far Right, Marine Le Pen, and the candidate of the far Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Perhaps, in that case, his current approval rating of about 30% is not bad going. But as he has only just started on the difficult bit, after a lot of talking, the omens for his future are not good.

In the German election, Angela Merkel was supported by 25.1% of the electorate. Not surprisingly, the headlines have focused on the far Right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won the support of 8.8% of the electorate and now has 94 seats in the Bundestag. It may be an exaggeration to call AfD a neo-Fascist party, but the dividing line is uncomfortably thin. Its leader, Alexander Gauland, told supporters that if Britons can be proud of Winston Churchill, then Germans can ‘be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars’. Skeletons one hoped were long buried are now being exhumed.

In the UK, Theresa May was supported by 29.2% of the electorate, but lost her overall majority. She has since been the lame duck leader of a weak, divided government, attempting to conduct the most important negotiation for a British government since… well, since the negotiations that took us into the EU.

In terms of electoral support, however, May did better than either Macron or Merkel, not that anyone would think it from the current perceptions. She did better still in terms of the support of those who voted. But she has done worse than either of them in terms of advance expectations, which is what counts. She and Merkel now head minority governments. Macron alone has a strong governing majority, but it remains to be seen what good that will do him.

In Britain, it was not the 18-24 year-old vote that propelled a doctrinaire Socialist, backed by an undemocratic and anti-semitic faction, to within a whisker of power, despite what was thought at the time. It was, however, a young vote – roughly, the 25-40 age group – that did so. Young voters are now said to be attracted to the idea of another ideologue, the reactionary Jacob Rees-Mogg, becoming leader of the Conservative party. This echoes what has happened in France, with the youth vote going mostly far Right or far Left in a deluded search for certainty. Only in Germany does the result appear not to have shown a rush to extremes among younger voters.

However, despite parties of the broad centre squeaking home in all three elections, I would certainly not now be writing the words ‘the centre ground is alive and well enough’. On the contrary, the centre ground is crumbling and looks set to crumble further.

There seems little doubt that the main cause of this is globalisation in its various guises, and the fact that the political Establishments of the Western world have not found a way to quash populist fears or ensure a continued rise in living standards. As I argued in a series of six blogs recently (23 July to 27 August), the economic means to address these problems do not appear to exist. Since the intellectual framework for a resolution does not exist either, it seems inevitable that the drift to extremes will continue.

The Trump Presidency, rather than being an aberration, may yet come to be the norm. The difference is that future Trumps, at least in Europe, are perhaps more likely to come from the Left than from the Right. However, as the French elections showed, the political platforms of these extremes are not necessarily that different from one another. They both offer the politics of impotence and anger. Power, impotence and anger make uncomfortable bedfellows.

I think we can now say goodbye to the ‘post-war’ world. When my generation has gone, there will be no-one whose parents fought in World War II. It already belongs to ancient history, as does the political system to which it gave birth. For all its faults, it was a system that brought peace and prosperity to much of the world. What this portends for the EU, goodness only knows, but it may yet prove to be a good time for us to be out of it, and to be navigating our own course solo.

I hope that the new system, whatever it turns out to be, will be good for the world, but I doubt that it will be, at least for a while. Each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of past generations. Lessons will need to be learned all over again.