Wednesday 21 August 2019

The year the world turned upside down

From Brexit to Trump to water charges, 2016 was the year when populist emotion won out over pragmatism. Voters gave the political class a good kicking, but will their new leaders disappoint them?

Donald Trump on the election trail
Donald Trump on the election trail
Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the election trail. Photo: Fergal Phillips.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny pledged to keep the recovery going, but his message wasn't well received in parts of rural Ireland. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The Fine Gael message of keeping the recover going wasn't well received in rural areas, as this sign in Listowel, County Kerry shows. Photo: Stephen Power
Boris Johnson during the 'Brexit' campaign
Hillary Clinton at an election rally
Italian Eurosceptic Beppe Grillo
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It was the year when ordinary voters gave the establishment a good kicking, and the received wisdom among the political class was blown to smithereens.

Enda Kenny went to the polls as Taoiseach on February 26 with the reasonable hope that the Irish electorate would be grateful to him and Fine Gael for pulling the country back from the brink.

The Fine Gael narrative was that reassuring Enda had rescued the country from bankruptcy - and that voters would repay him.

In Britain, at the start of the year, David Cameron would have hoped that the little Englanders and Eurosceptics supporting Britain's exit from the EU would be vanquished.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the election trail. Photo: Fergal Phillips.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the election trail. Photo: Fergal Phillips.

Brexit, we were told, would be defeated because, ultimately, in the quiet of the polling booth, enough Britons would vote in their own economic self-interest and common sense would prevail.

And in the US, although Donald Trump had created a flurry of excitement with his off-the-wall sound bites about building a wall at the Mexican border and "draining the swamp" in Washington, by election night on November 8, Hillary Clinton - the quintessential Washington insider - was expected to win. But this was a year when the world was turned upside down and the unexpected happened, defying the expectations of pollsters and pundits.

Voters didn't buy Enda's message of economic recovery; David Cameron was defeated in the Brexit referendum; and Trump defied the pundits by emerging victorious.

These events were portrayed as a voter uprising by those who felt they were left behind by metropolitan elites. Whether it was the Brexiteers in Britain, the Independents in Ireland, or Trump's backers, they all claimed to sweep away systems that didn't work for ordinary punters. In 2016, their promises proved to be seductive.

Both the hard right and the hard left had simple messages: to the populist right, virtually any problem could be solved by shutting out foreigners, especially those in burqas; to the populist left, nothing has to be paid for through hated charges, because the money could simply be seized from a mythical money tree.

Read more: Copycat strikes led to big pay rises for workers

The Fine Gael message of keeping the recover going wasn't well received in rural areas, as this sign in Listowel, County Kerry shows. Photo: Stephen Power
The Fine Gael message of keeping the recover going wasn't well received in rural areas, as this sign in Listowel, County Kerry shows. Photo: Stephen Power

With the anti-immigrant hard right growing in popularity in the Western world, and the hard left also winning significant support, commentators were reminded of the line from Yeats poem 'The Second Coming': "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

In the end, Enda, despite massive losses in his party vote, managed to be re-elected Taoiseach, relying on his most obvious political skill - a sheer resilience and talent for survival. But it never felt like a victory.

With his party representation down from 76 to 50 seats, his internal Fine Gael opponents may have hoped to unseat him; but he was trying to manage the difficult birth of a new government, from the spring through to the early summer, and could implore his fellow Fine Gael parliamentarians not to attack him while he was holding the baby.

In the annals of political electioneering, the rallying call to voters to "keep the recovery going" will surely go down as one of the great flops of all time. It just did not resonate in Middle Ireland.

When I talked to the Athlone boatman 'Viking Mike' McDonnell soon after the election, he expressed amazement that Enda and his handlers were so out of touch with public sentiment when they coined the phrase.

Boris Johnson during the 'Brexit' campaign
Boris Johnson during the 'Brexit' campaign

"This so-called recovery is very fragmented," he told me. "Is it really happening? It depends on what part of the country you're in and what business you're at."

'Viking Mike' likened the slogan urging voters to "keep the recovery going" to the notorious marketing campaign for Guinness Light back in the 1970s - when the brewers tried to flog a watery version of our favourite stout brand.

The tone of the Fine Gael campaign seemed to work in some of the more prosperous parts of Dublin, where there really had been a recovery.

But mandarins in Fine Gael's central office should have known that across vast swathes of the country, particularly beyond the Pale, recovery was, at best, modest - and, at worst, non-existent.

Across many parts of the midlands into the west, along the Border and in Munster, Fine Gael was hammered by voters, who had not felt the recovery to any great extent, and may even have been offended by the slogan.

The aftermath of the floods in many parts of the country made talk of a recovery singularly inappropriate. But the Fine Gael handlers did not want to change a template, approved by focus groups, that seemed to work for the Conservatives in the previous year's UK general election.

Italian Eurosceptic Beppe Grillo
Italian Eurosceptic Beppe Grillo

When I travelled through the midlands in March, I heard many voters express anger that Kenny took many days to react to the floods that dominated the headlines during the early weeks of the year, and had only appeared fleetingly on the scene in his Wellingtons. Voters turned to Independents such as Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, who was rewarded for his heroic work trying to save Athlone from the deluge.

The Fine Gael bloodbath was even worse as you headed west into the Roscommon constituency which takes in parts of east Galway.

In 2011, Fine Gael had won two seats in Roscommon, but in February it drew a complete blank as voters defected to Independents - plain-speaking no-nonsense turf cutter Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten (who was previously FG but fell out with the party over the scaling down of the local hospital).

In the mart in Roscommon Town, manager Maura Quigley told me: "I don't think people are feeling the recovery because they have to pay so much extra in charges - there's water charges, Universal Social Charge and property tax. Every time you turned around there was a new charge."

Nobody captured this mood of economic struggle in the face of Fine Gael 'recovery' more eloquently than Marie Hanna Curran, a letter writer to the Irish Independent from Ballinasloe, Co Galway.

As she put it in a letter to the editor in March: "The majority of working people in Ireland are struggling to provide for their families: people who leave their homes early in the morning and return late in the evening, having worked and paid taxes, are finishing each month one pay cheque from being broke.

"These same hard-working people can't afford private health insurance and are reliant on a health system that's broken.

"Those same hard-working people have mortgages, some of which are in negative equity, and some mortgage holders are in arrears. Then there are those who are renting from private landlords and have watched rents rise over the last five years."

On paper, during this year, Ireland was actually enjoying economic recovery. Unemployment continued to fall and by the end of the year, economic growth was expected to be steady at 4pc.

Read more: Sixteen stories that defined 2016

But the accommodation crisis - increased homelessness, soaring rents and unaffordable house prices - proved to be just as intractable at the end of the year as at the start. The dedicated minister, Simon Coveney, will be fortunate if any of his measures - from offering incentives to house-builders to limiting rent rises - prove any more effective than a sticking plaster.

Having championed water charges as a pragmatic way of upgrading our crumbling water infrastructure, the Government finally had to raise the white flag of surrender and all but abandon the tax after an enormous show of people power.

Many of those involved in the protest campaign had little involvement in political movements before, and Labour was a casualty of their success, returning to the Dáil with just six TDs.

The economy may have continued to grow during 2016, but right through the year, there was little evidence of any kind of feel-good factor.

This was borne out in the recent Aviva Family Finances survey, showing that almost half the Irish workforce were afraid of losing their jobs, and 40pc were concerned that they might get a pay cut.

On May 6, 70 days after the election, Enda Kenny was finally elected Taoiseach with the support of Independents, and the abstention of Fianna Fáil TDs.

Kenny became the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected for two terms in succession, but there was certainly no time for a second political honeymoon.

Any sense of an economic recovery was further dampened when Britain voted by a margin of 52pc to 48pc to leave the EU. The supporters of Brexit portrayed it as a hammer blow to the political, business and media elites of Europe.

It not only heralded a new era of British isolationism, it also threatened the very future of the United Kingdom. While England and Wales voted to leave the EU, both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for the Remain side.

Brexit has heightened fears that the physical signs of a Border that had become invisible in this country will eventually have to return, and this could undermine the Good Friday Agreement. We do not yet know how Brexit will affect the 30,000 Irish people who travel between North and South for work every day. Will they be stuck for hours in traffic jams at customs posts?

Brexit didn't just create uncertainty about the long-term trading relationship between Ireland and the UK. It also had an immediate economic impact with the collapse of sterling.

Read more: The year the music died

The food industry, which relies on exports to Britain, immediately came under threat, and a number of mushroom farmers went out of business. Shoppers flooded across the Border in search of bargains.

At times, the claims of the leading Brexiteers to champion the little guy against the European elites seemed absurdly fanciful. The Leave campaign was led by old Etonian Tory Boris Johnson and former investment banker Nigel Farage.

While the leadership was more blue-blooded than blue collar, the campaign to exit Europe attracted support beyond the Tory heartlands in the working-class post-industrial enclaves of the Midlands and the North.

In Stoke-on-Trent, dubbed the "Brexit capital of Britain" because of its huge vote to Leave, I found that for many, it was all about immigrants and the strong conviction that foreigners had changed their city beyond recognition.

Others simply saw a vote for Brexit as a timely kick up the backside to the powers-that-be, regardless of the consequences.

I talked to Mike Jones, an ex-miner who lives in Stoke. For him, voting Leave was an act of simple rebellion. Jones lost his job in a coal mine back in the 1980s, and said he went to jail fighting for his rights.

"I am not into politics now, but I voted for Brexit because I want to see change."

While the Leave campaign would not have won without huge support in areas of the South outside London, including millions of middle-class voters, it was striking how it also hoovered up votes in poorer areas of the Midlands and North, which traditionally gave their allegiance to Labour.

Among voters classed in the D and E social brackets, the vote for quitting the EU was 64pc across the UK.

Jenny Philimore, professor of migration at Birmingham University, said there was a hankering among voters to turn the clock back to a time before Britain joined the EU.

"There is a belief that things changed because of Europe, but the changes were caused by globalisation, and it is happening everywhere."

The anti-Europe brigade repeated the refrain: "Give me my country back."

To the journalist AA Gill, who died of cancer a fortnight ago, the hankering to have the country back was all about nostalgia.

"They mean back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink, back from the future," said Gill, "back to bosky hedges and dry stone walls and country lanes and church bells and warm beer and skittles and football rattles and cheery banter... Back to vicars-and-tarts parties and Carry On fart jokes, back to Elgar and fudge and proper weather and herbaceous borders and cars called Morris."

In America, Trump was emboldened by the victory of the British Leave campaign and described his own movement as "Brexit plus-plus-plus".

Brexit campaigners declared their intention to take their country back from the meddling bureaucrats in Brussels, and Trump vowed to "Make America Great Again".

As with Brexit, Trump's central message was that uncontrolled immigration was hitting the little guy, and his compelling campaign, which frequently descended into insult and name-calling, resonated with large sections of the population, including the white working class.

In old industrial towns in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where jobs had been lost, Clinton lost out to Trump.

But it would be wrong to suggest that the Brexit and Trump victories were exclusively a white, working-class phenomena. The Republicans would not have won without massive support from more affluent sections of American society. Up to 49pc of voters earning over $50,000 chose Trump, against 47pc for Clinton. If large sections of the dispossessed working class in Britain and America now hope that the Brexiteers and Trump will improve their situation, they may be bitterly disappointed. The Economist described the leaders of both movements as "privileged demagogues deft at manipulating the public's worst fears and instincts".

The Brexiteers promised that a successful campaign to quit the EU would mean £350m (€414m) a week extra for the National Health Service, but that pledge has already been abandoned. If Brexit hits British industry, it will inevitably lead to job losses across all regions.

Trump's claims to be a champion of those left behind by globalisation look equally threadbare.

Since his election, he has put together a ruling team described by the Washington Post as "the wealthiest Cabinet in modern American history" - a bevy of bosses of giant corporations, millionaires, billionaires, heirs and heiresses. It includes the nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, daughter-in-law of the co-founder of Amway Corporation, whose family has a net worth of $5.1bn (€4.9bn). Industrialist Wilbur Ross, Trump's nominee for commerce secretary, has a fortune estimated at €2.5bn (€2.4bn).

Economists have warned that Trump's pledge to impose tariffs on goods coming in from abroad will inevitably lead to a trade war, rising prices and increasing unemployment. The Republicans are also likely to cut health and social-welfare benefits to the less-well-off.

Voters' tendency to raise the two fingers to the political establishment this year did not end with Brexit and the election of Trump.

Towards the end of the year, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned after his constitutional reforms were rejected in a referendum. Instead of giving their backing to Renzi, voters chose to take their lead from the Eurosceptic politician Beppe Grillo, a former clown.

Grillo built his reputation by socking it to pillars of the Euro establishment such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, painting them as heartless Scrooge-like figures.

"They have a kind of illness, it's called alexithymia, which means difficulty recognising the emotions of others: pain, pleasure, joy," he said. "They don't care if they have to put tens of millions of people into hunger to balance an account, it's collateral damage. We've entrusted our lives to people who know nothing about life."

Grillo's diagnosis may have a ring of truth to it, but the Western world may soon find out whether they are better off entrusting their futures to pragmatists such as Merkel, or these populist messiahs such as Trump, the Brexiteers and a clown.

In summing up 2016, one is again drawn to Yeats poem 'The Second Coming':

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity."

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