The last six months have been extraordinary for the UK and the US. The narrow vote in favour of Brexit and the triumph of Donald Trump carried with them the hopes and fears of millions on either side of the Atlantic.
Much of New Labour’s early electoral success owed a great deal to the idea that Britain was able to leverage advantage from a pooling of interests within the EU, and develop areas of market advantage such as financial services. A financial crash, coupled with rapid immigration from Eastern European member states, dented that sense of Britain profiting from this engagement, and for many UK voters the referendum was a chance to reflect on alternative futures with or without the EU.
Voting patterns suggested that many parts of England were not persuaded by the adage ‘more of the same’, expressing dissatisfaction with traditional political parties and their agendas. Since the 1980s, many of the places that would vote ‘leave’ had been ravaged by deindustrialisation and the spectacular growth of uneven development, resulting in a two-tier Britain. Some were angry that social and economic mobility was sclerotic, others discontent with the vision offered up by EU elites, especially if at the expense of British sovereignty. The past was critical in shaping visions for the future.
“Trump’s nostalgia for a ‘Great America’ played well with working-class voters seeking reassurance in a golden era of past achievement”
Strikingly, after the Brexit vote, the government used #GlobalBritain to conjure up a new world of alternative possibilities of a trading nation unburdened by EU bureaucracy and constraints. A new entrepreneurial Britain would flourish. Geopolitically, #GlobalBritain would capitalise on Commonwealth ties and the ‘special relationship’ with the US. The vision being proposed is modest, namely to better protect UK sovereignty and develop bespoke trading relationships leveraging where possible Britain’s ‘soft power’.
In the US, voters who opted for Trump were seen to be a vanguard of the disaffected – angered by wage stagnation, the loss of secure employment, rising living costs, reduced public services, and more and more people chasing jobs, however poorly they paid. For many, the American dream was now a nightmare even to the extent of registering a loss of ‘white privilege’. Women, ethnic minorities, and immigrants bore the brunt in terms of expressions of anger from others, mainly white Americans and their supporters. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain as a slogan attracted support from across the political landscape. Trump’s nostalgia for a ‘Great America’ played well with working-class voters seeking reassurance in a golden era of past achievement.
Looking backwards is one way of exploring alternative futures. Restoring Britain’s parliamentary sovereignty and resuscitating the American dream still retain tremendous appeal but fundamentally they mask a dilemma – how to reconcile a world of flows with a fixed world of territorial states?
Governments tell us that they can control ‘the economy’, but we know instinctively that this is very difficult in a world where the market rules supreme. Far easier to imagine a future, by way of contrast, where they promise tighter regulation on the movement of people.
The biggest barrier to articulating alternative visions is inequality. Market mechanisms may promote efficient production and distribution, but they are less able to help when it comes to promoting fairness, justice, and equality. Neoliberal globalisation has been very good at generating wealth, but without strong government/legal intervention the distribution of such wealth is not likely to be even. If you continue to reduce the regulatory burden on business then it is unlikely to resist such a prevailing trend. Free trade is not often fair trade and nor is it likely to be ecologically sustainable.
Inequality touches all our lives and blights futures. The migrant who flees the Middle East and North Africa and travels to Europe might do so because local inequalities coupled with rising food prices due to crop failures make it desirable to do so. State failure and regional conflict merely compounds the desire to move elsewhere. Inequalities persuade citizens to take to the streets and demand that others recognise that their often precarious lives matter.
“Any alternative vision needs to embrace the realities of rising inequalities, ongoing global warming, population increase, and resource exploitation”
Inequalities plague the life-chances of many citizens and strangers alike, all of which can disenfranchise and deter a public commitment to a shared polis. Putting up borders, sending paramilitary forces into the streets and regaling citizens with stories about making countries ‘great again’ might be reassuring to some, but ultimately can only be palliative.
Any alternative vision needs to embrace the realities of rising inequalities, ongoing global warming, population increase, and resource exploitation. The promotion of fair trade, new labour-capital relationships, higher environmental standards, stronger corporate accountability, and clear-cut commitments to fund and support public services are fundamental. As is the commitment to speak openly about past and present treatment of marginalised peoples and countries. Britain and the United States owe a great deal of their wealth to colonial exploitation and slave labour, and patterns of inequality are often deep-seated. Our visions about where we might promote more fair, humane, and just geographies and geopolitics need to flourish, and in so doing we will begin to think about how we can imagine alternative worlds less tied to the dictate of unfettered markets and nativism.
This was published in the January 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.