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Trump And Farage Own The Globalisation Backlash. They Shouldn't.

13/11/2016 17:36
Jonathan Bachman via Getty Images

In 2003, as a press officer with a development charity, I arranged a trip for Patricia Hewitt, then Blair's trade secretary, to visit small-scale farmers in Honduras on route to world trade talks in Mexico.

I stood with political advisers and journalists as Ms Hewitt went from farm to farm, in each case hearing two recurring stories.

The first focused on the removal under World Bank and IMF strictures of price and import controls on staples like rice and maize, leading to an influx of cheaper - often subsidised - products from the US and far east.

The second were the tales told by almost every family in every small village of fathers, brothers and sons making, or failing to make, the trip to the US. Better off households and villages invariably were living off remittances sent back by family members or neighbours working illegally or on poverty wages in the land of the free.

These two stories - stagnation and loss of hope due to the imposition of global trade liberalisation and immigration - have now both come home to roost. Peel back the racist, sexist and xenophobic layers with which Trump surrounded his campaign and the kernel that remains is the dehumanising dimension of globalisation.

Of course Trump - or Farage in the UK - acting as a conduit for these malcontents is preposterous. They are both products of the most twisted and mutated end of the globalisation spectrum. They are footloose, wealthy and able to capitalise on those upsides that are only available to their ilk. To paraphrase Richard E Grant's character in Withnail and I, the benefits of globalisation have been cheap to those who can afford it and very expensive to those who cannot.

In fact, if you believe in conspiracy, you might be forgiven for thinking that placing such figures at the helm, adept as they are at getting globalisation's losers to turn on one-another, is a good preservation strategy for the winners.

But even if there are some banking gnomes or global industrial captains who practice such strategies, one question remains staggeringly, inexplicably unanswered. It is the question to which those who feel like the EU referendum and the US election have resulted in outcomes they do not own or recognise must demand an answer.

How on earth have liberal politicians - especially those on the left - allowed extremist who threaten to divide societies and undermine democracy itself to own the answers to economic globalisation's painful downside?

Blair's ministers of trade and development - Hewitt, Short, Benn; all sympathetic people in their own right - had all also graduated from the political school of neo-liberal globalisation. They defended liberalisation to the hilt and, with a few caveats for the very poorest nations, supported sweeping away most national trade policy in favour of globally-agreed rules.

In fact, the central, Faustian pact at the heart of new Labour saw constraints on finance removed, and the economy essentially financialised, in return for large tax remittances; these were pumped into health and education. But there was no industrial strategy. No government before or since has even tried to deal at the national level with impact of global economic restructuring. Ditto in the US.

For sure it's complicated. The religious right may well have pushed Trump over the line in the Electoral College and some parts of his message may have resonated with some socially conservative non-white Americans.

Pure, unadulterated racism cannot be discounted and once permissioned is hard to stop. Trump and Farage are both masters of holding the gaze of the media.

But the point that the global freeing of trade and finance has manifestly not benefited enough people enough of the time - or at least they don't feel it has - stands as perhaps the single most significant factor; access to cheap stuff seems not to have compensated for stagnant or lost livelihoods and the stripping away of working class identity.

Back in 2003, as I stood with the secretary of state's advisors in various Honduran maize fields, the concern was for the poorest people in the least developed nations. But in the ensuing 13 years, there have been many more losers than just the world's subsistence farmers.

Until mainstream politics gets to grips with this and ditches its ideological commitment to neo-liberal economics in favour of something a lot more pragmatic, we seem destined to have to stomach extremists, false prophets and demagogues and all the nastiness and further misery for globalisation's losers that they will bring.

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