Without openness the west cannot thrive, but without equality it cannot surviveby Bill Emmott / May 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
It has become fashionable to express regrets for being a liberal, especially if the adjective “metropolitan” or the noun “elite” are added. Or to anguish about, as those terrible twins Theresa May and David Goodhart have put it, being disconnected from “somewhere” by being a citizen of nowhere. It is time for this nonsense to stop. Liberals do have reason to apologise, but not for that. Instead they should bow their heads in shame for having betrayed their own principles.
The reason why so many voters are rebelling against mainstream parties in the western liberal democracies is that those democracies have become, over the past two decades, both less democratic and less liberal. This wasn’t deliberate: it happened largely by neglect, by taking for granted the basic principles that have made the west so prosperous, stable and secure.
We need focus on only one episode in our recent history, both because it had a wide impact and because it was devastating: the 2008 crash. Perhaps because governments and central banks worked so successfully to prevent the worst financial crisis in 80 years from causing a new Great Depression, its significance often seems to be downplayed.
This is a mistake, potentially of historic proportions. There are plenty of other, deep-seated stresses and strains in western societies, caused by ageing populations, job-disrupting technological innovation or the impact of China’s entry into world markets; but all of these could have been adjusted to or dealt with if 2008 had not happened.
Without the Lehman shock, Donald Trump would not be in the White House, Britain would not have voted for Brexit, and the far right would not be so evident in current European politics. The euro, as it approached its third decade in existence, would have been muddling its way towards stability. Immigration would have caused grumbles, as it always has, but would not have become such a hot political issue.
The 2008 crash should be studied by future historians not just as a financial episode, nor even just for its economic ramifications, but as a political event, one that illuminated a dangerous trend in many liberal democracies. This trend was the subversion of public policy and democracy by the overweening power of the financial sector and of the extraordinarily wealthy individuals connected to it.