BoJo's victory heralds nationalism on the march

15 December 2019 - 00:00 By The Sunday Times

Boris Johnson's thumping UK election victory this week will send shivers down the spines of moderate political leaders facing the growing threat of populism in their countries. Once again, the polls got it wrong. By the time British voters went to make their marks, a hung parliament was being predicted, even if a Tory win always seemed likely. Looking at the results, it is understandable that there was a significant "lie factor", as especially traditional Labour voters turned their backs on the party led by Jeremy Corbyn.To his credit, Corbyn did not hide his ultra-left credentials. If anything, he paraded them, promising voters a radical green agenda, wholesale nationalisation of utilities and free internet access for all. Yet Labour's position on Brexit, which has come to define political identity in the UK, cost it dearly. In particular, in its worst electoral showing since the 1930s, Labour appears to have misread the voters' mood. And left them behind.The wholesale conversion of the lower-middle and working class in Western societies, from traditional trade union-inspired left-leaning politics to radical populism, represents a grave threat to established democracies around the world. No leader is safe now. Nationalism is rampant, and with it xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and economic protectionism. There can be no rational explanation for Britain's leaving the EU, especially as the next few years will keep Johnson busy trying to forge a trade deal with the EU, which will remain the UK's biggest trading partner. That's a matter of geography, not politics.The attraction of simple, right-wing emotional slogans (Get Brexit Done!, or Make America Great Again) appears irresistible. All devil, no detail.In the US, President Donald Trump is presiding over an economic boom that will make it very difficult for him to lose in 2020. The impeachment drama will only strengthen Trump's hand, especially when impeachment comes unstuck in the Senate, as it will. Granted, Johnson is not as repellent as Trump, even if they do share hairstyles. But populists will take courage from the Johnson victory, and will be fishing around for the simple slogans that seem to be the sure ticket to high office nowadays.

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