On both sides of the Atlantic, strong anti-establishment feeling currently prevails. Electorates have grown resentful of perceived ‘elites’, both economic and political. In Britain, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn followed simmering resentment in the Labour Party; a perfect storm of an election defeat in a party where activists believed they had been victims of a Blairite takeover. The Liberal Democrats have been virtually wiped off the British political map, having been seen as part of the political establishment during the coalition government. Nowhere is this truer than in the south-west of England, where there is no longer a single Liberal Democrat MP between Bristol and Land’s End. Here, in particular, the Liberals, who had long paraded their credentials as outsiders and the “anti-London party”, paid a high price for five years of ministerial office.
Meanwhile, In the United States, Donald Trump has ridden a wave of angry Americans voters who feel let down by Washington, while Hillary Clinton has watched much of her natural base turn to embrace Bernie Sanders in protest at what they perceive as the sense of entitlement from the Clinton family and the Democratic elite.
On the Continent, discontent with the European Union has boiled over into direct action, with a grassroots movement in the Netherlands organising (and winning) a referendum to reject the EU’s extension of free trade to Ukraine.
Back in Britain, we may be about to see the same phenomenon manifest itself on the major constitutional stage of the EU referendum. I have regularly referred to “the people’s revolt” to describe the resentment increasingly being felt across the country towards the elite; those supposed by many to be a rich, metropolitan, Euro-centric, liberal coterie, out of touch with vast sections of British society.
Outside the lens of the Westminster bubble, the fact is that people see the Remain campaign as being supported by the Government machine, the big banks, oil companies and industry, funded by Goldman Sachs and buttressed by the European bureaucracy. In these circumstances, it is easy to see why the perception of Remain as the ‘elite’ viewpoint is increasingly pervasive. In contrast to this traditional “top-down” political campaign, the Leave side is viewed far more as a grassroots movement, driven by those who have been denied a voice on the issue for decades and finally have a chance to be heard.
The reality is, of course, far more nuanced than this but perceptions matter, especially in elections. Many feel that their legitimate concerns around issues such as immigration have been dismissed out of hand by politicians as uncouth or racist. Herein lies the real disconnection with the electorate; they believe that politicians, bankers and business leaders cannot truly care about such issues because they never experience them. Such people will never wait weeks for a GP appointment, or struggle to find a school place for their child.
All of this has played into an unstable political environment. Hard-left socialists have seized control of the main opposition party, and their leader is surrounded by MPs who neither want nor support him. Uncertainty abounds in British politics, and while it is true that we don’t know where this will lead us, I would be dishonest if I did not say that I feel increasingly comfortable with the growing number of Conservatives who seem to regard themselves as part of “the people’s revolt”, demanding, and finally being given a chance to regain control over our lawmaking, our borders and our money. We live in interesting times!
(Image: Sebastien Bertrand)