The future of liberalism in an age of terror

Published by The i paper (5th June, 2017)

Six weeks ago I was in South Korea as parties finalised pitches in a presidential election. Over dinner one night I asked a friend who she was supporting? ‘I don’t know yet,’ she replied. ‘I have not finished reading their platforms.’ Others at the table nodded in agreement. It was a salutary reminder of the serious nature of voting, something I have seen around the globe in fledgling democracies and among those risking lives and liberties for freedoms we take so freely in Britain.

Now we have the culmination of our own contest following terrible terrorist attacks. Such assaults underscore the importance of our values. Even as blood and broken glass was swept from the streets London’s mayor Sadiq Khan reminded us how voting is among things the assailants most hate. Another is a city such as our fabulous capital, bristling with successful diversity, in which bars, homes, offices and shops are packed with people from different countries, cultures and communities.

The election must go on. Britain faces a big decision, picking a leader to negotiate exit from the European Union. This foolish act, born from a breach in trust between Westminster and the wider public, will shape our country for decades. Yet what a miserable campaign we have endured: evasive politicians mouthing glib soundbites and chucking cheap slurs at each other while ducking matters of immense national importance. How does that restore faith in politics?

Do you have a better idea today of how either main party leader plans Brexit? They demand ‘the best deal’ yet avoid discussion of a bad one. They pledge a ‘stronger, fairer and more prosperous’ Britain, yet our economy is slipping alarmingly. They talk of ‘managed immigration,’ but refuse to say who they would keep out. Such an approach as we stand on the brink of seismic disruption could scarcely be more contemptuous of voters – especially as the union shakes, wages stagnate, public services stagger and fanatics carry out slaughter that defiles a great religion.

The electorate must choose between a woman who stumbled and looked weak after promising stability and strength or a man whose avuncular charm hides destructive hard-left dogma and hypocrisy on human rights. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn – so disingenuous and obviously ill-suited to high office – is causing jitters highlights the dreadful Tory campaign. Dreary and robotic, it demeans the prime minister. ‘You can only deliver Brexit if you believe in Brexit,’ she intoned last week, ignoring how she herself opposed leaving just last year.

This ballot is the second part of a drama that began playing out last year with that daft referendum. Britain is leaving the EU because older people, largely opposed to Brussels, turned out to vote while not enough younger citizens, more open to the world, bothered going to the ballot. The Tories still have backing from their bedrock of pensioners, roughly two-thirds sticking firm despite the social care flip-flop. But Labour has seen a strong surge in support from younger people.

The public want reassurances on security and policing, not spur-of-the-moment four-point plans. They know our actions abroad have consequences. Some will shudder at Corbyn’s previous fraternisations. But Britain, especially its great cities, has lived through bloody horrors before and we must keep even these atrocities in perspective. We have learned that laws made in anger and haste often backfire. Above all, outrages should not be abused at the fag end of an election campaign.

Arguably one issue remains key to the result: Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees. This is a typically profligate Corbyn policy, costing £8bn a year. Yet more than any other Labour idea, it cut through to voters, encouraging the young to desert the Liberal Democrats despite their firmer opposition to Brexit. The introduction of fees by a Labour government nearly two decades ago, however, counter-intuitively aided those from poor families.

Last year nearly one in five 18 year olds from the most deprived parts of England reached university – the highest on record. The gap in higher education attendance between rich and poor students has narrowed even since the coalition tripled university fees five years ago. This shows the shallow nature of Corbyn’s talk of social justice. The big question sending pollsters into flux is whether his young fans are motivated enough to get out of bed and wreak revenge for Brexit. Our nation’s future depends on the answer.

Regardless, liberalism seems certain to be the loser. Our continent is cursed by nationalism, a nasty creed that feeds off and fuels division. Even in Britain support for values that transformed our nation so successfully, especially in London, has been eroded. Politicians across the spectrum have flirted with populism and turned away from globalistation, depressingly for those of us who do not seek return to some mythical past and boundaries erected between communities.

This has been a strange election struggle held in often fraught circumstances. The prime minister failed to press home her advantage after going to the polls, offering zero inspiration to an electorate weary of austerity and anxious over the future. She has fuelled doubts over her ability to handle something as huge as Brexit. But she remains likely to triumph. And whoever wins must think deeply about how to bind our country together with courage, hope and optimism in these tremulous times. Not just words and empty rhetoric but deeds and real leadership, so missing during this dreadful campaign.

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