To understand what has just happened in Britain, mystified Americans are advised to read the novels of Anthony Trollope. I especially recommend Framley Parsonage. There is a wonderful parody there of a Victorian change of government, which dashes the political ambitions of the unscrupulous Harold Smith, briefly elevated to the Petty Bag Office.
Smith has been brought into the cabinet by Lord Brock, the prime minister, but swiftly falls foul of his jealous friend Mr Supplehouse, who savages him in an article in the Jupiter. Then, with breathtaking suddenness, the Brock government is overthrown.
“Terrible was this breakdown of the ministry, and especially to Smith. ‘I really do not see how the Queen’s government is to be carried on,’ said Harold Smith to Green Walker, standing in a corner of one of the lobbies of the House of Commons on the first of those days of awful interest, in which the Queen was sending for one crack statesman after another ...
“‘By Jove! no,’ and Green Walker opened his eyes and shook his head, as he thought of the perilous condition in which Her Majesty must be placed. ‘I happen to know that Lord — won’t join them unless he has the Foreign Office.’”
Nothing that happened last week would have astonished Trollope: the suddenness of the fall of David Cameron and the ascent of Theresa May, the despondency of the ousted ministers and above all the miraculous resurrection of Boris Johnson, whose appointment as foreign secretary so cruelly dashed the hopes of those BBC executives who thought they had finally found the right frontman for Top Gear.
The fashionable view is that the fall of Cameron, like the rise of Donald Trump, is a symptom of a worldwide populist revolt against the elites — a novel and alarming challenge to the established political order. On closer inspection, this was a political entertainment (think Gilbert and Sullivan) straight out of the Victorian era.
Moreover, I begin to doubt that Brexit is going to trigger a Europe-wide wave of imitations: Nexit, Frexit and all the rest. As I look at the latest polls from the Continent, I discern a kind of reverse domino effect, with pro-EU sentiment actually increasing in the wake of the British vote to leave. Take France. According to polling by the Institut français d’opinion publique, public support for the EU is up 19 points to 67% since the British referendum. No doubt the atrocity in Nice will give the National Front another temporary boost, but I don’t think it makes France more likely to hold a referendum on EU membership, much less to vote to leave.
The political shenanigans at Westminster have been entertaining, but the recession that is now fast approaching looks a lot less appealing. The same goes for the protracted and expensive divorce that the UK is now embarking on. And Nice is a reminder that the fundamental problems facing continental Europe — mass migration and Islamist terrorism, not to mention economic stagnation — will not be solved by undoing six decades of European integration.
Yet what just happened in Britain is not all Trollope. And while Brexit may prove to have a deterrent effect on continental Europeans, the same may not be true of Americans.
As November approaches, US voters are going to find themselves in much the same position as their British counterparts found themselves before June 23. They face an unappetising choice: on one side, the familiar but jaded; on the other, the novel but risky. As I realised last night, I feel much the same about Hillary Clinton as I do about the European Union, and much the same way about Donald Trump as I do about Brexit. I was for keeping the UK in the EU not because I hum the Ode to Joy in the bath, but because I thought the Cameron-Osborne government was the best Britain had had in 26 years and did not deserve to be shipwrecked over Europe. At the same time, I wholly disbelieved the arguments of the Brexit camp that the UK would be economically better off out of the EU.
In the case of America, I feel no enthusiasm about the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. She has already been pushed alarmingly far to the left of Barack Obama by Bernie Sanders’s challenge. Her reputation for honesty and judgment is in . . . well, whatever comes below tatters.
Yet the alternative seems even worse. I do not share the view that a Trump presidency would be tyranny, undermining the US constitution and eroding the liberties it enshrines. The constitution was carefully designed to cope with the tendency of democratic electorates to fall for demagogues. But what it cannot do is protect us from terrible policies. Drastic restrictions on immigration, protectionist tariffs, reckless borrowing — we have seen all these things before in American history, we have seen their unintended costs and yet we could see them all again if Trump is elected.
So I am against Trump because I do not believe the policies he prescribes will address the nation’s real problems, which are chronic fiscal imbalance, excessively cumbersome regulation, casino-like courtrooms and dreadful schools. Indeed, he may well make all of these problems worse. And for that reason I think a Trump presidency would do long-term damage to conservatism itself.
Of course, as a member of the elite, I would say that, wouldn’t I? The status quo has been pretty good to me since I started working in America 14 years ago. So I am risk-averse. If I weren’t so comfortable, I’d probably feel more like my good friend Gerry: ex-Marine Corps, ex-New York police department, Trump supporter. I’d be willing to take a chance on Trump because, as Gerry says: “He’ll shake things up.” That he assuredly would, just as Brexit has shaken things up in Britain.
So the lessons of Brexit for America are as follows. First, in most modern elections, results are close, so do not expect Clinton to trounce Trump. Second, generational politics has taken over from class politics, so a lot depends on the differentials between younger and older voters.
Third, turnout is key. My bet is that young voters will turn out much less enthusiastically for Clinton than old voters do for Trump. Fourth, concerns about immigration and security can dominate economic self-interest: Americans may discount the costs of Trump if they believe he will crack down on illegal immigrants and terrorists. Fifth, populist slogans — “Make America great again” is the US counterpart to “Take back control” — can overpower rational arguments.
But the sixth lesson of Brexit is Trollope’s point: high politics matters. We are not really witnessing a worldwide populist revolt against elites. If we were, elections wouldn’t be at all close, because elites are by definition outnumbered. The deciding factor is how many members of the elite opt to back populist policies.
American Republicans, as they gather (or not) in Cleveland for their convention this week, face the Boris question: do I play it safe, or do I back the risky, populist option? The final lesson of last week may well be that in politics — as in Trollope’s time — who dares wins. And for Boris the prize has turned out to be a great deal better than the Petty Bag.