2016 has turned out to be quite a year politically. The move towards what is loosely referred to as ‘populism’, evident in the surprise (to some) referendum vote for Brexit, the even more surprising (to some) election of Donald Trump as US president and the less-surprising rejection of Matteo Renzi’s attempt at Italian constitutional reform, seems set to continue. This may have far-reaching consequences for society and political priorities.
The old categories of Left and Right have to a large extent been turned on their heads. The British Labour Party, set up to champion the rights of the working class, now represents a constituency composed to a large extent of the prosperous urban middle classes and young idealists. Meanwhile, what remains of the working class are increasingly attracted to UKIP, decried as reactionary, right-wing and racist.
In France, the unions continue to flex their muscles against any government that threatens the privileges of the cossetted minority in secure, well-paid jobs, while the less well-off flock to vote for the Front National; the Socialists once again are becoming electorally irrelevant. And in Italy, there is the possibility of power being wielded by a professional clown rather than a mainstream politician.
More and more the distinction is between the prosperous, socially-liberal, internationalist, soft-Left elites and the mainstream of more traditionally-minded citizens who have borne the brunt of the post-2008 economic and social turbulence. Of course, these are broad categories and disguise the nuances and range of views held by individuals, but they are useful as alternatives to the traditional Left-Right divisions. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them Populist and Elitist.
Since the once-unthinkable has now happened on both sides of the Atlantic, this is a good time to think both of the likely consequences arising directly from the Brexit decision and the election of President Trump and the possibility of further shocks to the status quo next year.
Being parochial for now, disentangling the UK from the EU and forging a new relationship (which may turn out to be surprisingly similar in practice, although probably sufficient to satisfy the more moderate Brexiteers) will totally dominate political life in Westminster and, to a significant extent, in Holyrood. There can only be so many priorities at any one time and, from now on, these will in effect be Brexit, the economy, the NHS and any crises that arise. Anything else will effectively have to take second place.
In the case of environmental policies, this is effectively going to be business as usual, with the added dimension that most policies are currently made in Brussels. This leaves open the possibility in a couple of years’ time of the UK making some of its own policies in this area rather than being obliged to comply with Regulations and implement Directives into national law. Contrary to the fears of many environmentalists, this is very unlikely to result in a significant weakening of regulations designed to protect the environment. However, over time, it will allow the government of the day to make evidence-based decisions without the constraints of qualified majority voting by other more ideologically-inclined member states.
The most obvious consequence could be on the thorny issue of genetically modified crops. The UK has taken an evidence-based position when dossiers have been submitted for approval, in contrast to the automatic rejection by some other countries. If approvals are made on a national basis, we could see UK farmers growing GM varieties denied to their French, German or Polish competitors.
Also in the agricultural area, the UK’s attitude to pesticides may be somewhat less restrictive than across the Channel. British government scientists see little justification for the continued banning of neonicotinoids, for example, on the flimsy evidence of their impact on the mortality of bees. The question then is what knock-on effect this might have across the rest of the EU which, if 2017 continues as 2016 finishes, could see the bloc in a deep existential crisis as populism surges in the Netherlands, France and even Germany.
One of several policy areas where the UK has actually been ahead of most of its partners has been climate change policy, with the Climate Change Act of 2008 committing the government to follow the emissions reduction pathway set by the independent Climate Change Committee. As the costs of this and the inadequacy of the technology available for the task become increasingly apparent, we can expect to see more vocal opposition and, potentially, some backsliding by ministers as the all-consuming priority of Brexit has to take first place.
The other really big influence on this is, of course, America over the next Presidential term. No matter that Hillary Clinton won in terms of the popular vote, the voters who provided the unassailable Electoral College lead for Donald Trump are far more interested in jobs and the (fossil fuel-based) economy than in the priorities of President Obama and the current EPA.
Even under the Clinton/Gore Presidency, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol proved impossible, and American exceptionalism will once again be the order of the day from January 20th. Barak Obama could only commit the USA to the Paris agreement by presidential decree; overturning that just requires the Donald’s signature. America will continue to fiercely defend its own perceived interests not just in this way but by rolling back free trade agreements. The current round of globalisation has peaked and it may be some time before the wheel turns again.
What this means across the rest of the world is unclear, but we seem set for a period of change in which many things will be up for question. Another consequence may be that the influence of the environmentalist lobby may have reached its high-water mark. Important things such as air and water quality and conservation efforts are unlikely to suffer, but some of the wider ambitions of the green movement may be thwarted, at least for now. Time will tell.