The direction that Britain and the world has turned in the last six months has been a shock to many. We can’t let this become the new norm.
The feeling of irony with which Sinclair Lewis’ classic read It Can’t Happen Here has sky rocketed towards the top of best-selling charts this week, has been matched only by a sentiment of soberness. Soberness that events such as Donald Trump’s Muslim ban are no longer the work of dystopian fiction and have instead become a far too regular norm in our society.
The last six months have left us in a state of flux, witnessing events that many people thought unimaginable in the 21st century. The age of post-truth? Or the re-emergence of populist identity politics? However you label it, we are facing an extremely worrying time.
If you are a citizen fleeing war in Yemen and having the doors shut on you by the bastion of immigrant success, America, do you feel safer? If you are European citizen working in Britain and witnessing a rise in hate crime and a government refusing the promise you right to remain, do you feel more secure? Sadly, the answer is no.
Both the Brexit decision and the events of Donald Trump’s rise to power have left us second guessing established norms that have traditionally given people such stability and security in their everyday lives.
As a liberal and a progressive, it has undoubtedly been an extremely difficult time. Liberalism has been under attack, with the politics of fear and division coming to the fore with a ferocity that even Nigel Farage could not have expected.
We are undoubtedly facing a number of very real crises both domestically and intentionally. Yet rather than seek mature and proportionate responses, those in the business of identity politics have irresponsibly pointed the finger of blame at those other than us, in order to ride a populist wave of support to electoral success.
This has been seen most evidently in the election of Trump to the position of Commander-in-Chief. With a campaign so consistently vulgar and provocative, the possibility of Trump actually winning the election was largely dismissed. Even as he stocked up win after win through the primary campaign and Hillary Clinton failed to escape her own vulnerabilities as a candidate, this was never supposed to happen. And yet it has and we are now seeing the terrible results.
Should we be surprised? After all, Trump’s campaign promised the building of a wall along the Mexico border, a Muslim ban, the downgrading of environmental protections and the return of torture. Perhaps we presumed that the established power structures would be able to safeguard citizens’ rights, or we were too complacent that, in the end, good would triumph bad. But as Trump continues to ignore court rulings and sack non-partisan figures such as his Attorney General, it is clear that nothing is off the table anymore.
What we must ensure is that actions such as these, which were completely unimaginable so recently, are not allowed to become the established norm. Those who believe in the principles of openness and tolerance must continue to advocate for these values against the vitriol of alternative facts and the scathing of experts.
After all, closer to home and across Europe, can we really say that the politics of populism has been less prevalent and had less success? The established regimes in France, Germany and the Netherlands are all in the clutches of strong anti-immigrant opposition, as the narrative of isolationism as a solution to global problems such as the refugee crisis gather pace.
And here in the UK, it has become increasingly apparent that we have a Government unwilling to stand up for British values that have been a vital component of our society for so long.
Already, during Theresa May’s first months as Prime Minister, she has shown herself to be beholden to the Farage vision of the world and the UK’s relationship with it. Not just casting to one side the hopes and aspirations of over 16 million people who voted in favour of Remain last June, but by setting a dangerous narrative for Britain around the world that completely undermines everything that has made us great.
In the aftermath of the referendum, May has pursued a vision of Britain that is completely out of keep with both our best values and vital interests. Regardless of which side you supported in the referendum, it should be incredibly worrying to see the division in our country that we have witnessed in the months since.
Only this month, Polish community leaders informed Parliament that Poles and other eastern Europeans living in Britain fear that there will be a fresh spike in hate crime when Brexit is formally triggered.
The PM has completely shirked the responsibility of even attempting to heal such divisions, instead offering the divisive rhetoric that ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. This is not the vision of Britain that I recognise and we must not allow the unelected May to high-jack British identity in such a way.
Yet, as we have turned our back on our closest neighbours in Europe, we have cosied up to dangerous regimes around the world. Liam Fox appears to have finally found a role in flying around the Middle East to pursue trade deals with regimes such as Turkey, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Not only does this do potentially irreparable damage to our standing around the world, but also proves to authenticate practices such as the denial or human rights and the locking up of journalists without due process – contributing to a more dangerous and less stable world.
No doubt the image of the PM hand-in-hand with the new American president will prove to haunt her in years to come, as Trump’s presidency tumbles into increasingly shocking territory.
However, not satisfied just with shamelessly jumping at the first opportunity to rush to his side, May then offered to roll out the red carpet to the president to visit the UK later this year. The fact that it took an impassioned response by Sir Mo Farah to truly articulate the implications of Trump’s Muslim ban speaks volumes. This is a shameful policy, that completely undermines the vital role immigration plays in a successful society and it is time that the invitation of a state visit was revoked.
What the last six months must remind us is that ‘it can happen here’. We must not allow the politics of fear to succeed. We must not allow this, precisely because we know that simple populist messages provide absolutely no real antidote to the serious issues we face in this increasingly globalised world.
When May ‘patriotically’ tears us out of our the European Convention on Human Rights, what will happen to the Northern Ireland Peace Process that has helped lay the groundwork for peace there? When the NHS faced a crisis this winter, where was the £350m that was promised to us with such regularity during the referendum campaign?
Populism is no substitute for thorough evidence-based policy and there is no path to a stronger society without liberalism at its heart. The recent mobilisation of millions of people around the world speaking up for these values proves just this and we must engage this feeling to form the basis of opposition.
Retreating into isolationism may give the hollow impression that we have greater sovereignty. But in reality it does just the opposite. The great mantra of the Leave campaign was the promise to ‘take back control’, but people understand that it is only by working together that we will have the ability to control our fate more fully.
Putting faith in our neighbours and global institutions will show that we are stronger and more able to take control of the circumstances that affect our everyday lives.
Because of this, it will be with an openness, tolerance and unity that the Liberal Democrats move forward. While Labour falls into line behind a Hard Brexit and May cosies up to Trump, the Lib Dems will continue to spend every minute fighting for British liberal values and ensuring that religious intolerance, division and fear do not become the norm.
Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats