Thursday 27 October 2016

Political winds of discontent cast a chill across the globe

Published 12/05/2016 | 02:30

THE winter of our discontent. The torrent of Shakespeare to commemorate his 400th anniversary is full of reminders of how many of his phrases have come down the centuries into everyday use .

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But Richard wasn't talking about the season; he was talking about the mood. Present global discontents are casting a chill indeed; unwarmed as yet by any son of York. Instead, we have Donald Trump.

And Marine le Pen, Alternative fur Deutschland and, some would say, Jeremy Corbyn. As for ourselves, what about Mick Wallace, Pearse Doherty or, as they are becoming known, the Healys-Rae? Well, maybe not.

That's the trouble with the discontent. There is no doubt that it exists and is widespread. But "discontents" might be a better word. There are many different kinds. The key question is whether they all have the same causes.

You may have seen last week's analysis by Wolfgang Munchau in the 'Financial Times', about the troubles besetting Europe's grand coalitions - a subject bound to catch any passing Irish eye.

There are several of these arrangements where the two largest parties, with or without others, coalesce to secure a majority in parliament. In Austria, they have done it for decades.

Germany's is more recent, although not the first of its kind. Mr Munchau notes that the loss of popularity for these grand coalitions means that the total vote of the largest parties is falling. In some cases, they risk not being able to command a majority in future, even together. It is also the case that the smaller of the two parties tends to lose the most.

All very relevant to our own situation, of course. There was something a bit glib about the common assumption that a grand coalition between the two major parties was the best option. The combination of a large Dáil majority and the parties' terror of losing popularity might well have threatened weaker, less responsible government than even the new, admittedly shaky, arrangements.

The situation in the USA, where a two-party system seems to be set in the stone of Mount Rushmore, is different again. Americans have the best political language and I liked the comment of a Trump supporter that the country needed "a junkyard dog". More alarming perhaps is the evidence that the discontents are causing whites to move to the right, as represented by Mr Trump, and non-whites to the left, whether Clinton or Sanders.

There is no denying that the discontent is widespread. Economists are trying to identify common causes. The once untouchable icon of globalisation is coming under increasing scrutiny as to who are the winners and the losers.

One of its early critics was Prof Kevin O'Rourke of TCD and Oxford university, who points out that, while globalisation has brought enormous benefits overall, there is no automatic, or even obvious, mechanism for compensating the losers out of the gains of the winners.

This may explain some of the eruption of concern about corporate tax avoidance. Multinational companies are the big winners from globalisation but the same process makes it more difficult for governments to extract some of their gains for distribution to the losers.

Likewise, the intense debate about the proposed EU/US trade deal known as TITP. Much of the criticism concentrates on the uncertainty about the actual gains which would accrue.

But in the current climate, those who believe there will be major gains may have to identify the losers, and what will be done for them, if they are to have a chance of getting such a deal through.

Other, often related factors include the loss of trade union power, the casualisation of labour and, ironically enough, the rise in household debt in recent decades. All this, with the biggest threats from technology still to come.

But discontent does differ from place to place. In the Eurozone, it has much to do with the feeble recovery, which has barely restored pre-crash incomes in the less indebted countries and left those in the most indebted still suffering greatly reduced standards of living. The activities of the overstretched monetary union, beyond what the democratic system can process, adds to feelings of unease and powerlessness.

Germany, which came through the Crash so well, ought to be an exception, and so it is to some degree. The Social Democrats have suffered from being the junior partner in the grand coalition but also because Mrs Merkel has moved her party to the left, onto their turf. German discontents are not mainly economic at all, but centre on worries over the country's role as leader, and possibly banker, of Europe. Plus, of course, the refugee crisis.

This is the black swan event which could not be anticipated or even planned for.

It goes without saying that healthy economic growth and consensus over monetary union would make it easier to manage - not because more money would be available but because governments would be better placed politically to deal with the crisis.

Irish discontent is different again, and not that easy to define. Refugees do not come into it - yet - and the economic recovery is remarkable. If one looks back at the ESRI's medium-term review of 2013, its forecasts for 2016 are commendably accurate - with one exception.

That is unemployment, which the recovery scenario put at 10.6pc in 2016. Instead it is below 9pc on the latest figures. (It also thought that 25,000 houses would be under construction).

The jobless rate should be a key indicator of well-being, so why is the mood so sour?

The reason seems to be the after-effects of the Crash. Paradoxically, those who kept their jobs can be more surly about the drop in disposable income than those who lost their jobs and had to adjust to a whole new life.

Hence the promises of political parties to make the losses go away. But that will be a slow business and it is small comfort that history says it could have been even slower.

There is also little attempt to distinguish the winners from the losers in the upheavals of recent years. That can leave both feeling sore.

Winners include those in secure jobs, those with no mortgages or trackers, pensioners and folk living in pleasant well-spaced housing in city suburbs.

The losers number those who cannot get work, are heavily-indebted on variable loans, or who cannot find housing where they need it.

The resulting discontent is so wintry that heaven help any party which tries to transfer some of the winners' benefits to the losers.

Everywhere, the Humpty Dumptys of consensus politics are falling off their walls, but who will put them back together again?

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