23:47 GMT25 January 2020
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    Is Brexit a Revolt Against Liberalism? Have We Entered a New Political Era?

    Level Talk with John Harrison
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    The Brexit vote could be interpreted as a vote against liberalism. But is this a simplistic way of looking at the new political situation? Dr Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at the Queen Mary University of London and Dr Reinhard Heinisch, Professor of Politics at the University of Salzburg join the programme to discuss this issue.

    When asked if Europe is on the verge of entering a post-liberal world, Dr Jones replied: “I don’t think that we are living in a post-liberal world. I don’t see we are witnessing a major revolt against the major tenants of liberalism. …I think what we are seeing with the Brexit vote, is a political gulf between ordinary people and the political class. …Politicians are retreating to closed circles, and the people are beginning to revolt against that, and that is what is giving rise to populist movements across the world.” Dr Heinisch agreed, however he added that: “…Liberalism has swept across Europe from the UK, and the US but it never became that firmly entrenched in continental Europe, …when liberalism was imposed on them, they were quite successful, and elites were quite liberal, and therefore there was great trust in the model, but that trust has been declining. …The further we go towards Eastern Europe, the less history of liberalism there is, in Hungary and Poland for example. Of course Germany, Austria, and most European countries are firmly committed to liberalism, but it is becoming a harder sell, and people feel that it is not working for us as well as it used to. So I see that there is a crisis of the legitimacy of the elite to a certain extent.”

    Dr Jones did not agree to the suggestion that there is a split in Europe between individualism in North Western Europe and collectivism in Eastern Europe. “If you look at the history of the UK, liberalism was a major force in the 19th century, but it was really broken as the dominant political force in the early 20th century, by the rise of socialism. The liberal party stopped being a ruling party with the First World War. Then there was a battle between conservatism and socialism, both of which have strong collectivist underpinnings. So there is a long history of collectivism in England… we are closer, in terms of our implicit understandings of justice and society, to the continent than we are to for example, the United States, where the idea of individualism has always had  strong foothold from the beginning. …neoliberalism doesn’t penetrate very far into the national [British] psyche.”

    John Harrison cited the example of the Hinkley Point nuclear powers station, as an example of the British State becoming more involved in the economy, in a rather un-liberal way. Dr Jones debated that point: “Nobody knows what exactly Hinkley Point was about, that appeared just a few weeks after the government approved a takeover of the UK’s largest technology firm by a Japanese company, there was not even a discussion by the government about stopping that. …I think the issue was that we may be giving away potentially strategic military technology to a foreign power. …However both Conservative and the Labour parties have indicated that they will reassess the role of the state but it remains to be seen how far they will go.”

    Both guests agreed that state spending in Europe has hardly changed since the end of World War II, despite public perception of a decrease in spending. “Even in Austria, it is hard to find any major changes in the Welfare State,” Dr Heinisch said. “The problem is that the economy is stagnating, incomes for many haven’t changed in 20 years, in the European Union,” he said. Dr Jones suggested that there is something real going on, it’s not just an objective thing. “Most people never signed up to liberalism, the neoliberal assault of the 1990s was always an elite project to crush the organised left, and restore class power for the bourgeoisie, and that worked extremely well. Most people bought into that particular ideology. …But now, most people know that this has failed them, they know this from their own lived experiences …”

    Dr Heinisch said that on the continent: “We had extensions of the welfare state, we had improvements in income after the war, but that has somehow come to an end. I think people blame elites, and the trust in the elite has eroded. …There is tendency now for people to respect a strong leader. People like elections, but they like elections resulting in a strong man who can take decisive action. That number has gone up in the past 4 or 5 years from 30% to 50%”. Dr Jones asked if these tendencies, which can be seen all over the world, “are they symptomatic of a failure of liberalism?, or are they symptomatic of a disconnect between the people and their leaders. I would suggest the latter. People crave for a strong leader because they are sick of an elite which doesn’t really do anything. …if we are moving back to a situation where political parties have to do what they are supposed to do, that is to represent different social groups and different ideologies within society, and work up programmes of government that people can vote for, and these will be competing visions, then I think that is something to be entirely welcomed. I'm not sure that we are seeing that. There are certain phenomena that you can point to, certain popular eruptions such as Corbynism, but I think what is striking is the inability of the political class to recognise what is going on, and to develop a  response to it, to restore the old patterns, practices and processes, to rebuild the grass roots. What  they are doing is recoiling from the masses even further and eroding liberalism themselves."

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    liberalism, revolt, Brexit, Europe
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