As the years of the twenty first century draw on, a new political divide seems to be emerging. Gone are the days of Left versus Right or liberal against conservative. Interdependence across borders both economically and technologically has grown significantly since the end of the Second World War. ‘Globalisation’ means that goods, people, and capital move freely across the world. In opposition to that, we see the rediscovery of nationalist ideologies. Whilst Brexit startled the European Union, the election of Donald Trump in the US offered the chance of a new protectionism that appealed to those that felt left behind.
A boost to the cause of globalisation has been the recent victory of Emmanuel Macron as the next President of France. In the final televised debate of the election campaign, Mr Macron’s rival, Marine Le Pen, condemned the eventual winner. “Mr. Macron is the candidate of savage globalisation” said Le Pen, whose keystone policies included a French exit from the European Union, a return to the franc from the Euro and a strict immigration policy. With her defeat — at least for the moment — many across Europe and the world felt relief that the populist surge of nationalism might be over. They probably celebrate too quickly, however. Those who feel hurt by globalisation will continue to vote accordingly, especially given social and cultural changes that are out of their control.
The reason for caution is obvious. As technology moves at an ever faster pace, a new revolution has begun which is not dissimilar to that of the nineteenth century. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, gave a speech in the city of Liverpool back in December. Carney described how incomes have been falling since the financial crisis of 2008 with unemployment and inequalities increasing across the advanced world. Comparisons could be made with a few substitutions: “Northern Rock for Overend Gurney; Uber and machine learning for the Spinning Jenny and the steam engine; and Twitter for the telegraph; and you have dynamics that echo those of 150 years ago.” With these warnings come the possibility that millions of individuals will be thrown out of work by the rapid advance of automation and artificial intelligence.
This really lies at the heart of the issue. People are right to fear for their jobs and this is why the issue of nationalism is never quite straightforward as it’s often painted. Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal argued in January 2017 that the intense backlash against immigration (and globalism) is cultural, not fundamentally economic. Those who voted for Brexit and for Trump “were bothered less by competition from immigrants than by their perceived effect on the country’s linguistic, religious and cultural norms.”
Unfortunately, the case for globalisation is rarely made in a strong and compelling way. There are, of course, examples from our past that suggest that globalisation can be made to work for a country and a region. Liverpool was described during the nineteenth century as the “Second city of the British Empire” after London. The opening up of new markets in Africa, the Americas, India, the Far East and Australia created the Liverpool we know today. Chinese, South Asian and West African communities have also become part of the diverse and dynamic nature of the city and left their mark on local culture. The buzz phrase ‘world in one city’ was also used as Liverpool became the European Capital of Culture in 2008.
Voters across the world are hungry for change but the hope to make their countries “great again” can be somewhat misleading. Nostalgia is part of human nature but it would be wrong to forget the negatives of our past. At the same time, the case for open borders has to be made and proved by leaders in industry as well as politics. Examples of success needn’t be limited to the nineteenth century. It’s just that globalisation has to be proved to work for all people and improve all lives. If that case isn’t made and made well, the case for nationalism remains as potent as it has been for the past century and more, with results that even the most casual student of history would be able to predict far in advance.