"Populism is not crushed by empathy or understanding or cuddles. It is killed by brute force."by John McTernan / April 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
The biggest cheers at the Trump rally in Ohio I attended were for the USA. Whenever the Donald lost his train of thought he’d lean forward and say “Shall we do the USA chant?” and the audience would enthusiastically respond “USA! USA! USA!” The biggest jeers were for Mexico: “We’re gonna build a wall! Where?” “Mexico!” “Who’s gonna pay for it?” “Mexico!” “Damn right!” As a guy I chatted to outside, a former journalist, explained: “That’s an anti-NAFTA crowd.”
The NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area) treaty was signed nearly a quarter of a century ago and it remains not just controversial, but a genuine political grievance—the issues of jobs, immigration and Mexico are intertwined in US politics. This despite the fact that between 1993 and 2011 US trade in goods and services with Canada and Mexico more than tripled, from $337bn to $1.2 trillion. This is an unalloyed good given that trade is the rising tide that lifts all boats. It is, after all, globalisation—or as we called it in the 1970s “international finance capital”—that has done the most in recent decades to rescue billions of people in developing countries from poverty.
Free trade is the only game in town. And it’s a not a zero-sum game—both sides win. So why does it seem to be in retreat everywhere you look? This is the paradox of populist politics—there are a lot of angry people out there, but the world is definitively better than it has ever been. Disagree? Then answer CS Lewis’s waspish, donnish question—”Which era in history would you rather live in? One without penicillin, for instance?”
The anger is magnified, multiplied indeed, not just by traditional media and by social media but by politicians themselves. Populist politicians—whether Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Nicola Sturgeon—will grandstand against the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) or TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). That’s their job, ignoble though it is—polishing and embellishing a grievance. The problem is not them—there are always nattering nabobs of negativity. The real issue is the believers, the mainstream politicians who know that free trade works. Why are they silent? That goes to the heart of the matter—has there ever been a generation of political leaders so craven, so weak in defence of the right thing?
Populism is not crushed by empathy or understanding or cuddles. It is killed by brute force. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom today because risk—and brute reality—are powerful and persuasive. Wallet and purse beat heather, tartan and shortbread. They always will. As long as the argument is put. That is what is currently going by default. It is not as if it is difficult. Most voters work in the private sector—and when you add in family members few are untouched or unattached to the market. They know the truth—you have to compete and when you do it is worth your while. No one wants to have to go the local council office for bread, meat and vegetables. We are hard wired to the market—we are social animals.
In the absence of political leadership who then stands for sense, reason and prosperity? It should be business, but too many communications advisers tell their bosses or clients to keep their heads down. Don’t pick this fight, they reason, the caravan will move on soon enough. Well, as Unionists learnt in Scotland, an argument not made is an argument lost. “If not you, who?” as the partisans said, “If not now, when?” The answer is clear—business leaders must speak out. They employ the majority of workers and generate our wealth. What we need to hear is: “Global policies should support free trade. Without it the world does not develop as quickly or efficiently.”
Simple, straightforward and right. Said by Alan Davies—CEO of Rio Tinto mining company—publicly and privately. Backed up by the analysis and intelligence that a global Chief Executive can bring. Now, you won’t have heard that unless you have come across him—which is my point. We need more than one voice to stand up for free trade. Politicians should do—but they are scared. Unions should do because of the benefits to their members—but too few understand this, let alone have the courage. It’s up to business leaders—they have the knowledge and the expertise, all they (and we) need is the numbers.