After five decades of stability across the developed world, a new era of insecurity is emerging. Values and institutions that were considered sacrosanct are now being questioned or rejected. Nationalism is rapidly emerging as the new political force driving change, with right wing politicians emerging in many countries to challenge the political status quo.
As 2016 draws to a close we have just witnessed the world’s most powerful democracy elect a demagogue president. Donald Trump has made it clear he rejects globalisation as unpatriotic, wants to pare back America’s role as a global peacekeeper and has made public his xenophobic views. Deep divisions, suspicion and fear are now haunting the US. Europe is similarly under threat. Brexit continues to be a painful reality for those in the UK who believe in the European Union and its contribution to an unprecedented era of peace and stability. Meanwhile, the surge in nationalism is likely to continue, with French, Dutch and Italian politicians preparing for elections where populist support is edging far-right demagogues ever closer to power.
These are not coincidental events. They reflect a developed world struggling to come to terms with an unprecedented period of upheaval and change. A combination of post-industrial decline, technological innovation and globalisation has exacted waves of creative destruction on developed economies. The Internet, manufacturing automation and outsourcing are re-structuring society and work. There have been both winners and losers. Some of the most creative and brightest minds are upending entrenched business models and replacing them with internet-based zero marginal cost businesses that operate globally and maximise their revenue and tax accordingly. Digital businesses have not been the only ones to benefit. Globalisation has enabled manufacturers to outsource and cost-optimise their production, providing consumers with an unprecedented level of choice at lower cost. We seemed to be entering a brave new world of digital prosperity.
However, globalisation and technology also has a dark side. For the past decade, it has been the winners from globalisation and technology that have dominated our attention and the media. While the brightest and best have been flourishing, the semi-skilled have languished. Wages have been stagnant for decades with the prospect of long-term secure employment fast receding. Previously vibrant centres of production such as the north of England and the rust belt in the US now lay idle with manufacturing having fallen prey to the ravages of global competition. Decades of decay and an erosion of hope have hardened attitudes, created a distrust of foreigners and left a legacy of resentment that has not been addressed. That is until now.
The EU referendum and US presidential election have given a platform for the disaffected and those left behind. An opportunity to call on politicians to slam the brakes on globalisation, re-focus on political priorities at home, take a tough line on immigration and deal with the rampant inequality. It has been a wake-up call for the political establishment. However, the populist leaders taking power and their proposed policies will do little to address these issues and will further fuel the current wave of nationalism.
Those currently celebrating the election of their new demagogue or the impending EU divorce are likely to be become increasingly disenchanted. Nationalism rarely achieves its objectives of economic growth or decreasing inequality. Instead, it looks to attribute blame to minorities and assert the importance of security as a smokescreen for the restriction of freedom. History has taught us some painful lessons. The consequences of unrestrained nationalism and ethnic resentment in Europe gave rise to some of the worst atrocities seen this century. This is surely not the time to be repeating the mistakes of our less worthy forefathers.