A cold January week has brought the West a chill new-year reality check. First British Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that Britain really is closing the door on the European Union (EU) — not lingering by its fireside. Now, the stage is set in Washington for President Donald Trump to usher America over the threshold and into the unknown.
Later this year, similar thresholds may be crossed in other lands. A Dutch general election in March, in which the nationalist anti-immigrant Freedom party (PVV) may outscore all rivals and double its representation. A French presidential election in April and May, which the Front National’s Marine Le Pen may even win. A German election in the autumn, where the anti-immigrant AfD, one of whose regional leaders condemned Berlin’s holocaust memorial in a speech last week, is expected to make gains. When future historians look back at these times they will not search for long before they discover that many in the West believe they are facing a general crisis, not an aggregate of local problems.
The current level of United Kingdom media interest in French politics, for instance, is without recent precedent. It will doubtless have another spurt when the French socialists choose their presidential candidate. But the reason it is occurring is that observers sense there may be some connection between events in the UK and the US and the coming contest in France. In normal times, the British mind is shamelessly insular about European politics. Until recently, the only country that interested Britons was America, which the British think is like Britain even though it isn’t. But that’s all changed. It’s an irony, as Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, may say, that it has taken leaving the EU to make Britain more interested in Europe. But it’s true. That’s because all these events — Brexit, Trump, the coming contests in Europe and not forgetting Scottish and Catalan separatism either — appear to be shaped by common origins from which no country seems immune.
Globalisation, migration, inequality, stagnation, social media and disillusion know no borders. Opinion in the West seems launched on an age of rage. Historians — or at least people who studied history when I did — are familiar with the theory of a general crisis. One such theory was about 17th-century Europe. Events like the 30 years’ war in what is now Germany, the civil wars in Britain and the Fronde in France all seemed to speak of a social and economic crisis with shared roots, in which inflation and religious disputes were specially important. Historians like Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper differed about the extent to which the 17th-century crisis was economic or political, but not about whether it was an important question. In the end, though, the argument about any general crisis can only take one so far.
In the 21st century, just like in the 17th, there are common factors that cross boundaries and there are echoes from one situation to another. Yet, the differences also matter enormously. Why was there a revolution in 1640s England, but not in 1640s France, when many of the same arguments and stresses were common to both? Because England and France sing their histories in different keys, that’s why. The same caution about borderless generalisations is needed today. This is true in spite of the fact that we clearly live in a period where democracies in many countries are failing to deliver sufficient fairness in the face of global economic and technological change. But they are doing so in their own distinctive national ways, too.
The use of the term “populism” to explain this has become so loose that it actually explains less and less. It should perhaps be pensioned off. The Brexit vote is an important example of why this is so. The referendum was not called because of controversies about immigration, political elites or factory closures. The then British prime minister David Cameron conceded it because he faced an obsessive generational concern on the Tory Right, in the right-wing press and in some pretty prosperous parts of England, about UK sovereignty. The referendum was called for the reason that it said on the tin — the wish to leave the EU.
When it finally came, of course, other issues such as migration and dislike of Westminster attached themselves with great force and opportunism to the Leave campaign. That’s why May said what she said last Tuesday. Yet, even so, there was a very distinctively British and English complexion to the Leave victory that has few real equivalents anywhere else. It’s simply not true, for instance, that Euroscepticism is carrying all before it in European politics at the moment, as Brexiters and parts of the UK press sometimes like to pretend. If that were so, Italy would never have survived the collapse of Matteo Renzi’s government following December’s referendum, Le Pen would be racing ahead in the French polls, Geert Wilders would eclipse all comers in Holland, while the right-wing Norbert Hofer would have swept to victory in the Austrian presidential contest last month. In reality, none of these things have happened yet. Renzi’s successor Paolo Gentiloni’s main problem is his own health — he has just had a heart operation — not the immediate survival of his government.
Both Le Pen and Wilders are polling strongly, but no more strongly than a few months ago. Le Pen, indeed, is in some danger of slipping into third place behind the centre-left’s Emmanuel Macron in the race to the Elysee. In some ways it looks as if Europe’s democracies are managing to absorb these angers in their different ways, not succumbing to them like a row of dominoes. None of this is to predict that Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement has peaked in Italy, or that Le Pen and Wilders won’t shake up their respective countries when the elections come. But it is to warn against the tendency to extrapolate from one country in the facile way of too many.
Yes, politics is changing and yes there are parallels. But, no, this is not a general crisis. That’s still partly the way to look at Trump, too. Trump is a thoroughly American phenomenon. His only remote recent peer in Europe was Silvio Berlusconi, who can only be understood within Italian conditions and because Italy is a much more right-wing country than many like to pretend. No European leader of importance, not even May, truly embraces Trump’s ideas.
Yet, Trump matters. He matters because America matters. Since 1945, the US has been, as the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens wrote on Thursday, “Europe’s pre-eminent power”. Yet, on every issue of international importance, from trade to Russia to climate change to international law, Trump’s views are at odds with those of European nations and people, Britain included. It is another irony that it may ultimately take Trump to make Britain take Europe more seriously. It is also another reminder that most crises, like most politics, are local.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Martin Kettle writes on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music.