General election 2019: There is no winner in a deadlocked democracy

 A close result on Thursday would be a disaster for Boris and for Britain

In elections, we expect there to be a winner. At some point in the early hours of Friday 13th, we assume, either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn will hoarsely address a crowd of exhausted but exhilarated supporters, declaring victory and promising — depending on which of them wins — either to get Brexit done or to do in the bourgeoisie.

But what if it’s a draw? This may seem an absurd question, but I don’t think it is. A lot of things in life are draws. In the English Premier League last weekend, four out of 10 matches were draws. Last season’s frenzied Calcutta Cup game at Twickenham was a draw. Why are elections never draws?

This one could be. Yes, I know, according to the poll of polls, the Conservatives are 10 points ahead of Labour. Johnson may be a bluffer who can’t face another grilling by Andrew Neil, but Corbyn is irreparably tainted by association with anti-semitism. This should all end with a nice, fat, double-digit Tory majority.

Yet here are a few reasons why Tories should curb their optimism, aside from the well-known unreliability of British opinion polls. First, history. If you count the general elections of 2010 and 2017 as wins — in the sense that the Tory leader became prime minister after them, despite lacking a Commons majority — the Conservatives have won the past three elections.

The last time the Conservatives won a fourth election in a row was in 1992, when John Major only just scraped home with a majority of 21 (a result not predicted by the polls). There is no other example of four consecutive election victories in British political history — not even in the days of Lord Salisbury.

Here’s another reason. Voters can’t resist bad policies. According to Deltapoll, the public approves of Labour’s pledge to deliver free broadband for all by a margin of 47% to 41%. Other terrible ideas are even more popular: voters support raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 58 points and nationalising the railways by 26 points.

Finally, a third cause for Conservative concern. For reasons I cannot fathom, most British journalists pay next to no attention to social media data, despite the evidence that a rising share of voters follow politics on Facebook and Twitter. Two of my former students have done some online digging. The results are sobering.

Across social media platforms, Corbyn leads all other political figures in terms of followers and engagement. On Facebook, Corbyn has almost 1.6m followers, compared with less than 800,000 for Johnson. On Facebook and Twitter, Nigel Farage has more followers than Johnson. Indeed, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has nearly as many Facebook followers as the prime minister.

What’s more, Corbyn posts to Facebook more often than Johnson, and his page’s posts — especially his videos — are far more widely shared. The Labour leader’s following on Instagram has increased dramatically during the election campaign. From November 11 to December 5, his follower count rose 28%. In the same period, Johnson’s followers grew by just 9%. In short, this ain’t over, despite what financial markets think (the pound is up to $1.31) and prediction markets imply.

So what if we don’t get a decisive result this week? What if the Tories come up just short of a majority? I, for one, don’t expect a repeat of 2010, when the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg signed up for a coalition with David Cameron within a week of the result. The dilemma for Clegg’s successor, Jo Swinson, will be an agonising one. How to choose between Brexit-loving Boris and Jew-baiting Jeremy?

If you want to know what a deadlocked democracy looks like, visit Holland, where it took 208 days of negotiation after the March 2017 general election to cobble together a coalition. Or take a trip to Israel. After April’s election was in effect a draw, the country had to have another vote in September. Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party emerged slightly ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but neither leader was able to form a government. Last month, Netanyahu was indicted on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud. He’s still clinging on as prime minister, but it looks increasingly likely there will need to be . . . another election.

Now ask yourself what the consequences might be if something similar happens next year in America. What if the result in November 2020 is as close as it was in 2000? Remember those nail-biting days? George W Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. Everything hinged on who won Florida, with its 25 electoral college votes. On the night, the networks called it — first for Gore, then for Bush, then for neither. The returns showed that Bush had won the state, but by such a slender margin (just 537 votes) that state law required a recount. A 36-day legal battle culminated in the Supreme Court, which decided by five votes to four to end the recount.

Despite the strength of an economy juiced by tax cuts and easy money, Donald Trump is not a popular president. Recent polling by The New York Times gave the Democratic candidate Joe Biden a tiny edge over Trump in the key swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — but gave Trump an equally slim advantage over Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Meanwhile, independent voters seem more displeased by the president’s Ukrainian skulduggery than they were by the former FBI director Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 US election. In short, this could be another close one.

In 2000, Gore ultimately accepted defeat with a modicum of grace, grew a beard and went off to save the planet. But two decades have changed American political culture for the worse. I find it hard to imagine Trump and the Maga-hat-wearing faithful being so stoical if he is denied a second term by hanging chads or their equivalent in Michigan — especially as there is every reason to fear more foreign meddling in 2020, including direct interference with the far-from-secure voting systems in the various states.

Conversely, many Democrats would lose their minds if this Supreme Court, with its two Trump appointees, voted to give him four more years.

“I’ve never played for a draw in my life,” my fellow Ferguson, Sir Alex, once said. Wise words. May Johnson — and all voters who care for this country — heed them on Thursday. It’s not just Britain that needs a win. Democracy does.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

The New Cold War? It’s With China, and It Has Already Begun

 Turning Point: The United States and China intensified their trade war in 2019, plunging global markets into uncertainty.

When did Cold War II begin? Future historians will say it was in 2019.

Some will insist that a new Cold War had already begun — with Russia — in 2014, when Moscow sent its troops into Ukraine. But the deterioration of Russian-American relations pales in comparison to the rise in Sino-American antagonism that has unfolded over the past couple of years. And though the United States and China can probably avoid a hot war, a second Cold War is still a daunting prospect.

Pedantic scholars may say the new Cold War actually began with Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, or his initial imposition of tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels, many of which are made in China, in January 2018. Others will suggest early October 2018, when Vice President Mike Pence denounced Beijing’s use of “political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence,” as a plausible starting point.

Yet it was not until 2019 that the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to China was effectively embraced by members of the policy elite on both sides of the partisan divide. With remarkable speed, Mr. Trump’s hostility went from foreign policy idiosyncrasy to conventional wisdom. Even Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, began calling for a tougher line toward Beijing.

Public opinion made a similar shift. A Pew Research Center survey showed that the percentage of Americans holding an unfavorable view of China jumped to 60 percent in 2019 from 47 percent the year before. Only 26 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the country.

Something else changed in 2019. What had started out as a trade war — a tit for tat over tariffs while the two sides argued about the American trade deficit and Chinese intellectual property theft — rapidly metamorphosed into a cluster of other conflicts.



Surveillance cameras at the annual Huawei Connect conference in Shanghai in September.Credit...Aly Song/Reuters


In short order, the United States and China found themselves engaged in a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei in 5G network telecommunications and an ideological confrontation in response to the abuses of Uighur Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as a classic superpower competition for primacy in science and technology. The threat also loomed of a currency war over the exchange rate for the Chinese yuan, which the People’s Bank of China has allowed to weaken against the dollar.

Older readers will probably regard another Cold War as a bad idea. Their memories of the original might include near-Armageddon experiences, such the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and multiple conventional wars fought in countries from Vietnam to El Salvador. But there is no obvious reason Cold War II should feature nuclear brinkmanship or proxy wars.

For one thing, China is so inferior to the United States in nuclear weaponry that any confrontation is much more likely to occur in cyberspace, or in space itself, than with intercontinental ballistic missiles. The People’s Republic does not have the same approach to global expansionism as the Soviet Union either. Chinese money goes into infrastructure projects and politicians’ pockets, not foreign guerrilla movements. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative — Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature overseas investment program — does not aim for world revolution.

If Cold War II confines itself to an economic and technological competition between two systems — one democratic, the other not — its benefits could very well outweigh its costs. After all, the economic spinoff from research and development operations associated with the original Cold War were part of the reason American growth was so strong in the 1950s and 1960s.

Back then, there was also a political benefit. Once the spasm of McCarthyism had passed, as Americans came to a consensus that they all faced a common foe, domestic divisions decreased notably. It is telling that one of the biggest sources of political and social strife in the Cold War era was a war against communism that the United States failed to win — against Vietnam.

If Americans are now waking up to a new external enemy, might it not reduce the notorious internal polarization of recent times, which we can see in the decline of bipartisanship in Congress as well as in the vehemence of discourse on social media? It is possible.

Maybe the notion of an external enemy could persuade politicians in the United States to devote serious resources to the development of new technologies, such as quantum computing. Evidence of Chinese espionage and influence operations in American academia and Silicon Valley is already pushing the government to reprioritize national security in research and development. It would be nothing short of disastrous if China won the race for quantum supremacy, which could render all conventional computer encryption obsolete.

The one big risk with Cold War II would be to assume confidently that the United States is bound to win it. That is a misreading of both the first Cold War and the present situation. In 1969, an American victory over the communist enemy seemed far from inevitable. Nor was it a foregone conclusion that the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union would be so free of bloodshed.

Moreover, China today poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union ever did. Historical estimates of gross domestic product show that at no point during the Cold War was the Soviet economy larger than 44 percent of the economy of the United States. China has already surpassed America by at least one measure since 2014: G.D.P. based on purchasing power parity, which adjusts for the fact that the cost of living is lower in China. The Soviet Union could never draw on the resources of a dynamic private sector. China can. In some markets — notably financial technology — China is already ahead of the United States.

In short, 2019 is not 1949. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed 70 years ago to counter Soviet ambitions; nothing similar will be set up to contain China’s. I do not expect a second Korean War to break out next year. Nevertheless, I do expect this new Cold War to get colder, even if Mr. Trump attempts a thaw in the form of a trade deal with China. The American president might have been the catalyst behind the big chill, but it’s not something he can just undo when he pleases.

In 2007, the economist Moritz Schularick and I used the term “Chimerica” to describe the symbiotic economic relationship between China and the United States. Today, that partnership is dead. Cold War II has begun. And, if history is any guide, it will last a lot longer than the president on whose watch it started.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of 15 books, most recently “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power From the Freemasons to Facebook.”

Donald Trump’s coming to the UK, Nato’s going nowhere

 His interest in our election matters less than his lack of interest abroad

Tomorrow is the day it could all go wrong for Boris Johnson. It is bad enough opinion polls have him on course to win a handsome majority when Britain votes in 11 days’ time: that alone is enough to make me want to bet on a hung parliament. Worse, President Donald Trump is due to arrive in London within 24 hours.

To say that Trump is unpopular in the UK would be an understatement. Earlier this year, a YouGov poll showed that two-thirds of Britons had a negative opinion of Trump, compared with just 11% who felt that way about his predecessor, Barack Obama.

A month ago, YouGov asked 3,729 British adults: “Do you think getting President Trump’s endorsement is helpful or unhelpful for British politicians?” One in 10 thought it would be “fairly helpful” or “very helpful”; 15% said “fairly unhelpful” and 39% “very unhelpful”.

The last time Trump referred to the prime minister was on Nigel Farage’s LBC radio show on Halloween, when he called him a “fantastic man”, adding that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would take the country “into such bad places” if he emerged as prime minister. Trump went on to say that “under certain aspects” of Johnson’s Brexit deal, “we can’t make a trade deal with the UK”.

As Corbyn licks the wounds inflicted on him last week by Andrew Neil — whose style of interrogation makes a half-time “hairdryer” bollocking by Sir Alex Ferguson seem humane — the Labour leader can only hope Trump delivers more of the same tomorrow. In Corbyn’s dreams, Trump not only endorses Johnson but also proposes the privatisation of the NHS as part of a US-UK (pronounced “You suck”) trade agreement.

Trump’s reason for being in London is not to salvage Corbyn’s campaign, but to attend a Nato meeting. Now, if Trump is unpopular in Britain, he is positively detested on the Continent. The overwhelming majority of Germans had confidence in Obama; just 10% feel that way about Trump, according to Pew Research. His numbers are even worse in France and Spain.

“Whose side should your country take in a dispute between the United States and Russia?” asked the European Council on Foreign Relations in a poll published in September. In every Nato member surveyed, with the sole exception of Poland, the majority — ranging from 53% of Danes to 81% of Greeks — favoured neutrality.

Since running for president, Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the future of the Atlantic alliance. Last week, as if to fuel the fire, CNN ran the headline: “Trump administration to cut its financial contribution to Nato.” This was, as Trump would say, fake news. In reality, a deal had been reached between Nato members to reduce America’s contribution to Nato’s small ($2.5bn, or £1.9bn) central budget and to increase the contribution of the Europeans, especially Germany.

This is a sop to Trump, whose reason for resenting Nato is the decades-old and entirely justified American complaint that the Europeans don’t pay their fair share of the cost of defending their own continent. Fact: despite repeated US protests, only six European Nato members (among them the UK) spend more than 2% of GDP on defence, while America spends just over 3.4%.

Last month, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, gave an interview to The Economist in which he referred to “the brain death of Nato”. Asked for his view of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which binds members to regard an attack on any member as an attack on all members, Macron replied: “I don’t know, but what will article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”

If this question does not get answered one way or another in 2020, it seems very likely to be answered within the next four years should Trump be re-elected president on November 3 next year.

Second terms are rarely triumphant. After Ronald Reagan won re-election, a senior adviser told The New York Times that his 1984 state of the union address was the road map for his second-term policy agenda. “What you’ve seen is pretty much what you’ll see,” the adviser said. Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Obama all followed the Reagan playbook. Most had relatively unsuccessful second terms, achieving little domestically and focusing on foreign policy.

Clinton intervened in Kosovo, enlarged Nato and tried to broker peace in the Middle East; Bush ordered the troop surge in Iraq; Obama negotiated the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement.

Trump might seek new measures of fiscal stimulus if the US economy slows further or tips into recession. However, if the Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives, as seems likely, it is hard to see how much common ground could be found, especially with memories of a failed impeachment still fresh. Healthcare and immigration reform seem remote prospects.

The incentives would therefore be, as usual, for the president to focus on foreign policy. That is a thought to freeze the blood, for this — as former national security adviser John Bolton recently warned — would be “America first” unbound.

For most of his first term, Trump has been held in check by men with national security experience. Bolton was one; the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is another. The other erstwhile “adults in the room”, Jim Mattis and HR McMaster, are now my colleagues at the Hoover Institution.

If re-elected, Trump would give free rein to his isolationist instincts and — perhaps just as dangerous — his tendency to mix his own private interests with US national security. If you were shocked by Trump’s pressure on the Ukrainian president to dig for dirt on Joe Biden, or if you share Bolton’s suspicion that Trump’s lenient treatment of his Turkish counterpart is connected to the Trump Organisation’s interests in Istanbul, then brace yourself for more and worse.

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and North Korea would certainly rejoice at a Trump victory. Only China and perhaps Iran might have cause to worry, as the president’s animosity towards those countries seems unlikely to diminish in a second term.

To appreciate just why all this should worry Europeans, I recommend you revisit the interview between Vladimir Putin and the Financial Times in June. Asked which world leader he most admired, Putin gave the startling reply: “Peter the Great.”

Among the territories Peter added to the Russian empire during his reign (1682-1725) as a result of victories over Poland and Sweden were Kiev (the Ukrainian capital), Ingria (the area around St Petersburg), Livonia (the northern half of modern Latvia and the southern half of modern Estonia), Estonia (the rest of modern Estonia) and a chunk of Karelia (sometimes called “Old Finland”).

As I write, Trump is preparing to fly eastwards, filling Boris with trepidation. But it is the westward moves of Putin we really need to worry about.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.

Hong Kong’s ‘ant tribe’ rejects a life of slavery

 Both in China and the territory, workers are turning on their masters

Do you ever feel like you’re an ant? I often do. Especially at airports. “A soldier knows that the life of an individual ant doesn’t matter — what matters is the colony,” declares one of the soldier ants in the animated feature film Antz. “I’m supposed to do everything for the colony,” complains the depressed worker ant Z (voiced by Woody Allen, back when we were still allowed to find him funny). “And what about my needs? What about me? The whole system makes me feel insignificant.”

I was thinking a lot about ants last week because I was in China. Now, I used to avoid thinking about ants in China, because in the 20th century comparing east Asians to ants was a common western slur. During the Second World War, General William Slim — the hero of the war in Burma — was surely not the only allied commander who likened Japanese soldiers to ants.

The Chinese, too, were not infrequently referred to in this way during the Cold War. As recently as 1996, the American satirical magazine The Onion could publish the spoof headline “Chinese, ants announce alliance” (“After 8,000 years of strained relations, the people of China and the world ant community signed a treaty Monday that will establish close relations between the two civilisations”).

Imagine my surprise to discover that it has long been perfectly acceptable for the Chinese to call themselves ants. In 2014, when Jack Ma decided to rename the payments wing of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, which he had co-founded, he came up with Ant Financial. The inspiration, Ma explained, was a revolutionary slogan and popular song of 1943, Unity Is Strength. In the propaganda of the Mao Tse-tung era, ants were admirable creatures, precisely because they subordinated the individual to the collective. Back to Antz: “It’s this whole gung ho, superorganism thing.”

Yet ants can also have a negative connotation in China. Ten years ago a postdoctoral researcher at Peking University, Lian Si, coined the term “ant tribe” (yizu in Mandarin) for the large and growing population of recent university graduates eking out a miserable existence on lousy wages in overcrowded accommodation.


“They have every similarity to ants,” he wrote. “They live in colonies in cramped areas. They’re intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid.”

I’ve written before about the oversupply of university-educated young people. Fifty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, almost no one of school-leaving age went to university in China: 0.13% of the relevant age group. In 2009, when Lian coined the term ant tribe, it was 22%. Today it’s 51%. In Hong Kong it’s 74%.

I spent part of last week in Hong Kong, trying to work out what had triggered the student protests that in recent weeks have set its university campuses ablaze. There have been demonstrations for months, ever since the Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would have provided for extradition to the mainland. But only in the past few weeks has the violence dramatically escalated during the protests, with masked students fighting pitched battles with police.

The protesters have repeatedly made five demands:
1) the withdrawal of the extradition bill (which the government has belatedly done)
2) an independent inquiry into police conduct
3) a retraction of the government’s characterisation of the protests as riots
4) the release of arrested protesters
5) the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and the introduction of universal suffrage.

Yet almost no one I spoke to takes these demands at face value. Some blame rising inequality and exorbitant housing costs. Another explanation is the threat of an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing. I heard that there is also an ethnic undercurrent, with some protesters harassing mainlanders for speaking Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese, or telling residents of western heritage: “This is not your fight.”

Conspiracy theories abound, with locals pointing fingers at forces as diverse as the CIA, the Taiwanese governing party, one or other of Hong Kong’s property tycoons and the enemies of China’s president, Xi Jinping, within the Chinese Communist Party.

I thought I had a theory, which was simply underpolicing. In previous waves of protest in south China — for example, the Red Guard riots and bombings in 1967 — the British colonial government was quick to restore order. You might think there were more police in Hong Kong 52 years ago than now. However, that is not so. The ratio of police to population in 1967 was about 1 to 355. Today, counting civilian staff and auxiliaries, it is 1 to 280. (Admittedly, in 1967 the governor also had the Gurkhas and the Royal Navy.)

I was groping for a better explanation when I came across the theory of the ant tribe. In mainland China, where the surveillance state is ubiquitous and unblinking, the ants have no choice but to toil away. But in relatively liberal Hong Kong they were in a position — like Allen’s Z in Antz — to risk open revolt.

Theirs is a revolution of disappointed expectations. In Hong Kong as elsewhere, it turns out, a university education is not a ticket to a secure and respectable job. Many recent graduates have ended up working for one of the territory’s meal-delivery companies — if they can get a job at all. Rents are among the highest in the world. Working hours follow the 996 rule: 9am to 9pm, six days a week. It’s a monotonous, dispiriting grind.

“There is something quite frightening about the Chinese sort of mass politics and the regimentation of the ordinary being,” said Sir Roger Scruton in an interview in April that temporarily lost him a government appointment. “We invent robots, and they are in a sense creating robots out of their own people, by so constraining what can be done that each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one — and that’s a very frightening thing. And the concentration camps have come back, largely there to ‘re-educate’ the Muslims.”

Graffiti on the polytechnic campus last week echoed Scruton’s view, which the New Statesman had — as it later acknowledged — misrepresented as racist. “Dear world, CCP [Chinese Communist Party] will infiltrate your government. Chinese enterprises interferes [sic] your political stance. China will harvest your home like Xinjiang [home of the Muslim Uighurs]. Be aware or be next!”

The revolt of the ant tribe appears to be over in the former colony — at least for now. But the ants of Hong Kong have spoken. It remains to be seen who on the mainland is listening. To judge by last weekend’s leak to The New York Times of 403 pages of top-secret party documents about the Xinjiang internments, at least one highly placed individual feels like an ant, too.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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