Stop the world – I want to get off


Donald Trump: Only in America could you attack the elite by voting for a billionaire

One of my favourite sayings is the observation that ‘it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the government always gets in’. The history of democracy is one of constant disappointment that votes for change at the ballot box result in more of the same once people get into power.

The classic example of modern times is the election of New Labour in 1997. Tony Blair swept to power on a tide of enthusiasm, and left office mired in scandal. Whatever his achievements in Ireland he will never shake off his association with a discredited American president and the shameful war in Iraq.

People here have seen precious little benefit from the shift to devolved powers. Chameleon like, the civil service has adapted to its new masters; while on the ground there is little evidence of a step-change in the quality of education, the delivery of an effective health system, or the establishment of an economy capable of addressing poverty and disadvantage.

Frustration with politics is showing itself across the globe. For now, the anti-establishment candidates for the US Presidency are in the ascendant. Donald Trump, the multi-billionaire, swept to victory in the New Hampshire Primary. On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton – former first lady and US secretary of state – had her progress to the White House checked by Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders.

Socialist is a trigger word in a United States that has never really got over McCarthyism. Although Sanders is not a socialist in terms we would know – he’d sit comfortably with the centre left here – his success is a kick in the teeth for the establishment.

In the United Kingdom austerity, and a sense of injustice that the bankers got away with the scandals that brought it about, has also fuelled the anti-establishment vote. UKIP’s jingoistic populism generated some four million votes at the last general election. Labour, still toxic after Blair and Brown, failed to break the Tory grip on power. But the subsequent election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader – with the attendant surge in Labour membership – is another challenge to the status quo.

The chattering classes like to joke about the prospects of a Trump presidency and a Corbyn premiership. But more worrying is the prospect of Trump in the White House and Cameron in Number 10. As Bush-Blair demonstrated, British prime ministers need a close association with the United States to maintain their prestige.

Corbyn has yet to prove he has the capacity to reach beyond his core support. If he does, and that requires an enormous stretch of the imagination, he has the spectre of Alexis Tsipras to contend with. Elected by the Greeks on a massive anti-austerity vote, he has had to kow-tow to Greek’s international bankers and implement the very austerity he was elected to overturn.

If my “the government always gets in” theory holds water, it should not matter if Trump wins through. There should be enough checks and balances in the system to limit any damage he might do. But there is always the exception that proves a rule. And Trump might well be it.

We are a long way from the final presidential showdown, and it is all too easy to over-emphasise the importance of a single primary campaign. President Trump is still a nightmare rather than a reality. But his current ascendancy – alongside that of Sanders, Corbyn, the SNP in Scotland, and the leftist Potemos movement in Spain, among others – is a clear signal that conventional politics is no longer fit for purpose.

It might seem perverse that Americans are turning to a multi-billionaire property developer to challenge the ‘elite’ in Washington, but that’s the crazy world we are living in today.

Democracy is a blunt instrument. Ordinary voters don’t have many ways to influence the decision-making process, and we only have the undivided attention of those who govern us every four or five years.

We are at a stage in human history when there is a real desire for change, and a recognition that we cannot go on the way we are going.

We put our faith in the market and in materialism. But it has fallen short.

Consumerism does not bring us happiness and is not sustainable. The earth’s resources are being depleted, wealth is increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer people, the world is being torn apart by conflict – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt… the list goes on.

We know from history what happens when politics fails. Nature abhors a vacuum, and totalitarianism flourishes. Stop the world! I want to get off.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on February 12 2016