Bill Jamieson: Has 2016 set off a runaway train?

Donald Trump's election as US President was further evidence of a populist insurgency which could run and run. Picture: Getty
Donald Trump's election as US President was further evidence of a populist insurgency which could run and run. Picture: Getty
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The loss of trust that sparked momentous political events this year has a momentum that will be hard to stop in 2017, says Bill Jamieson

The People’s Revolt, a popular Insurrection, a Quiet Revolution: whatever label we apply to the momentous events of 2016 and the upturning of so many predictions about politics here and abroad, what follows now?

Little wonder pundits are so cautious about forecasts for 2017 after the failure of so many over the past 12 months. But there is a deeper reason for apprehension. History suggests the omens are not good. Popular uprisings and revolutions, quiet or otherwise, are rarely resolved so quickly - and they seldom live up to the heady expectations they unleashed.

Whether it is the UK vote to leave the EU, the Trump insurgency in America, the downfall of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi or the resignation of Francois Hollande ahead of humiliation in next year’s French presidential election, few dare to predict how far this populist insurgency will run and what now lies ahead.

Populist uprisings are catalysts of great events. But they have no iron grip on the future of peoples or nations. Indeed, their hold on subsequent events can be tenuous. Uprisings promising radical change, or a new order are often followed by more vehement upheaval – and in time by reaction: the New Dawn followed by Darkness at Noon.

The most vivid example is the very one that promised the most. Those with a keen eye to history will soon be marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The bloody uprisings in the streets of St Petersburg in February and October of 1917 promised a new era of bread and freedom. Many in the West hailed the downfall of the Tsarist regime and cheered the popular Duma, this brief chaotic interlude of Alexander Kerensky crumbling before the People’s Soviets and these in turn giving way to the one-party Bolshevik state. Then came the rise of the Cheka, the crushing of opposition, the tortures, disappearances, the exile and murders of opponents. And just when there seemed no more enemies left to destroy, the era of the Stalin purges saw the deaths of millions: Brave New World succeeded by the Reign of Terror.

We may dismiss this as an extreme example, of no relevance to the modern age. But more recent events offer little comfort. Post-Communist euphoria across Eastern Europe in the 1990s has faded before the rise of Vladimir Putin and the reassertion of Russian nationalism. More recently, with what hope and optimism the Western world cheered the events of the Arab Spring – only for the confident predictions of parliamentary democracy across the Middle East to give way to tribal conflict, armed uprising, terrorism and war.

How can the Brexit vote possibly compare? Was it not a demonstration of representative democracy, a plebiscite of the very type liberals have championed to advance their demands? In this upsurge of populism, no guns went off, no riots erupted, no barricades thrown up - therefore it has none of the counter-revolutionary consequence of which history is replete.

But an insurgency it certainly was, and a rejection of the warnings that poured forth from a well-entrenched and encompassing elite: not just the European Commission but the UK Treasury, the Bank of England, the IMF, the Prime Minister, the CBI, all manner of business and civic institutions - and the adopted positions of all major political parties and their leaderships. By the end of the campaign one feature was glaringly evident and it is one that has characterised other populist eruptions both in Europe and the US: a marked and widespread breakdown of trust. A majority of voters ceased to believe what the establishment elites and their mass of pundits and polling experts were telling them.

And look at the casualties once this loss of trust set in: President Barack Obama and his heir apparent, Hillary Clinton; Prime Minister (as was) David Cameron; France’s Francois Hollande and Italy’s Matteo Renzi; and almost the entire previous leadership of the UK Labour Party. Yesterday they were the masters of all they surveyed, confident that they were “on the right side of history”. Cameron was confident that the people would trust him. Wrong. Hillary Clinton was confident the people would trust her. Wrong. Eurozone leaders are confident that public trust in the single currency will save them. Right?

In America a recurring theme in J D Vance’s best seller Hillbilly Elegy – hailed as the most eloquent explanation of why so many working class voters in traditional strong Democrat states deserted to the Republicans, and Donald Trump in particular – is the loss of trust.

Writing about some of the wilder conspiracy theories and anti-establishment assertions on social media, “this isn’t”, he writes, “about some libertarian mistrust of government policy… This is deep scepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream.

“We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society.”

Trust has been the first casualty. Those who rail against “populism” – typically those on the losing side of the US presidential election and the Brexit vote – may dismiss this as the triumph of myth: indiscriminate, simplistic, ill-informed. Others describe it as a howl of anguish, a scream of pain from victims of globalism. But that is to admit a pain suffered not just by an aggrieved minority but by a majority of the voting population. Really?

The question now is whether an elite that has been so rebuked can regain the confidence of the public. For once that has evaporated it is hard to see how the centre and centre Left can recover their previous ascendancy.

More immediately there is a worrying vacuum of trust at the heart of Westminster. No-one is confident of where the Brexit process will lead, or even whether the government itself has a clear view. Proceeding to Brexit even assuming Article 50 is invoked is under challenge in Scotland where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has set the SNP administration against any development that would take Scotland out of the EU single market. Activation of Article 50 is already under challenge in the courts and in the Commons. And if the House of Lords turns against the government, we could even see an explosive campaign for sweeping reform – with the Conservatives leading calls for Lords reform and the Left seeking to maintain a block on the government’s Brexit intentions.

Seldom before will there have been a more polarised division across the UK, with a liberal elite determined not to give way and millions of Brexit voters increasingly frustrated and angry that the referendum result is being ignored. Acquiescence is unlikely.

Who dares to predict the outcome - whether Theresa May’s Article 50 timetable will prevail, or whether she may be driven to holding an early general election. What we do know is that a great wheel has been set in motion – and with a momentum beyond anything we imagined in 2016.