Nativism is the new world order

Published by The i paper (16th January, 2017)

It is hard to think of a more miserable life than that currently endured by Yacub, a 16-year-old Afghan I met last week in Belgrade. The weather was freezing, dropping to minus 15 at one point, and he wore no socks as he wandered through thick snow. He ate once a day and washed outside, a friend pouring water from a plastic bottle in a makeshift shower.  He slept in a derelict rail depot, crammed with other migrants and choked with thick smoke from fires lit inside to keep warm. Police in Bulgaria had stolen what little money he had.

Like many others there, he had been sent by his father to find a better life away from the gangsters and jihadists fighting over his homeland. These boys – and that is what many of them are – feel under fierce pressure to get through the fences erected across Europe after their families spend huge sums funding escape. ‘I will never go back to Afghanistan unless forced,’ he replied when asked if he regretted the past six months of danger and degradation.

These are the people blamed for the current assault on precious liberal values: frightened teenagers from Afghanistan, young men fleeing poverty in Africa, families from Iraq and Syria. They are scapegoats for the populist surge that led to Brexit and Donald Trump’s triumph, easy targets for politicians who let down electorates by failing to manage public services, assist struggling communities, constrain corporate excess, tackle tax dodging, or understand technological change.

And this week we see the result as nativism corrodes the West’s two most influential democracies. In Britain, the Prime Minister is finally fleshing out her vision of Brexit. As Home Secretary, Theresa May showed she did not care about the cost of restricting immigration, whether restraining business, undermining success of British universities or using bogus evidence to transform genuine refugees from highly repressive Eritrea into ‘economic migrants’ who could be sent home.

So no surprise she interprets a slender referendum majority as support for tough immigration policies that inevitably lead to hard Brexit (or ‘clean’ break in the newspeak of Orwellian modern politics). Polling has found almost two-thirds of Britons – and more than half those backing Leave – are unwilling to pay anything to reduce immigration, despite undoubted concerns.

But Brexit will be hugely disruptive for the British economy. And those suffering most will be the poor, not those wealthy charlatans who promoted the cause so selfishly with false promises and glib assertions of ‘taking back control’. Already the falling pound is leading to rising food prices, hurting those at bottom of society more than others. Even in the most optimistic scenario of a benign Brexit, there will be significant shifts in economic activity and those hit hardest will be the sort of older, less skilled people that voted Leave.

Brexit is the first real retreat from globalisation in my lifetime, regardless of nonsense now talked about Britain becoming a ‘global player.’ Only a fool can believe we are really becoming a more open country to the rest of the world. Voters were persuaded to pull up the drawbridge and now we must feel the painful consequences. But at least we can be grateful our leader is not peddling protectionism and still proclaims the power of unfettered trade. And that she is not a bigoted misanthropic billionaire hypocrite like Donald Trump.

From reality television star to the terrible reality of Trump as President. This week he takes over as the planet’s most powerful man and our world enters uncharted waters. Given his flip-flopping, disregard for truth and readiness to resist usual checks on power, it is impossible to know how the next four years will pan out under this repellent man. But if there are any certainties, it is that protectionist walls will be thrown up around the United States.

Trump was not elected by the poorest in his nation, many of whom are minorities that bore the brunt of his nasty rhetoric. He won by tapping into the fears of the most pessimistic voters, such as those with most loans, stagnating incomes and sharpest declines in prospects. But as the rich celebrate likely tax cuts, shares soar and Goldman Sachs takes over Washington, these are again the sort of people who will be wounded by trade wars, ripping up trans-national deals and blocking borders. Free trade kept food prices low, the cost of clothes the same as 30 years ago, expanded choice and unleashed a technology revolution. And immigration made America great.

Who knows how many more Western nations will fall under the spell of false prophets? Yet in their panicked response we already witness European countries jettison core principles to stem the flow of migration, whether by bribing despotic regimes or restricting sanctuary for those fleeing chaos and carnage. Now watch the revolting ease with which politicians such as Boris Johnson condemn Trump as ‘unfit’ for office one moment, then proffer platitudes at his feet the next. And the Republican Party largely falls in behind a demeaning insurgent. No wonder the public has so little faith in politicians.

But the biggest losers as borders tighten will be the world’s poorest people – many already harmed by so many backfiring Western interventions over the years. In the past three decades there has been the fastest decrease in human deprivation in history due to capitalism, consumerism, technology and – to a lesser extent – remittances. Billions have been lifted from poverty, become better educated and are living longer lives. So both those backing the hate-fuelled demagogues and those blamed for all our problems will suffer most from this new world order. Such is the savage tragedy of nationalist populism.

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